Monday, July 8, 2013

TV on DVD Review: Once Upon a Time - Season 1

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fun new twist on fairy tales with great characters and acting
Cons: Some of the special effects don't quite work
The Bottom Line:
Classic characters
Brought to life in fresh new way
You can't stop watching

"I'm Not Your Mother."  "No, but According to Henry I'm Yours."

Between Alias, 24, and Lost, for me the last decade was the decade of the highly serialized TV show.  All three of those were shows where you couldn't miss a second because something important would happen.  After starting a couple shows like that that fizzled, I was growing weary of that style of storytelling, instead looking for shows that were more episodic with just a hint of a thread that wove things together.

But some premises are too interesting to dismiss out of hand, so I gave Once Upon a Time a try.  I was hooked after the pilot, and the pull only got stronger as the season went along.  I couldn't wait for Sunday nights to find out just what would happen next to these great characters.

Our story opens in Boston as Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) is celebrating her 28th birthday alone.  That all changes when Henry (Jared Gilmore) shows up on her doorstep and announces that he is the son she gave up for adoption.  He also spins a wild tale about Emma being the only one who can break a curse in his hometown of Storybrooke, Maine.  Emma's not buying it and takes him home.

But something happens when she meets Henry's adopted mother, cold, calculating mayor Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla).  Emma decides to stick around for a little while and see just what happens.  Along the way, she meets school teacher Mary Margaret Blanchard (Ginnifer Goodwin), amnesiac David Nolan (Josh Dallas), and pawn shop owner Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle).  Is Henry right?  Is Emma really the daughter of Snow White (aka Mary Margaret) returned to save the day?  If so, will she believe the truth in time to stop the curse?

The show is from creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis.  I have heard from several people that they ripped off a series of comic books for the premise.  Since I haven't read them, I don't know for sure.  To me, they are two of the writers of Lost, and that pedigree shows in how they tell their story.  Each episode features the latest developments in Storybrooke as well as flashbacks to the world of the Enchanted Forest where the lives of our characters before the curse unfolds before our eyes.

Of course, these flashbacks include some interesting twists to the familiar fairy tales we all know and love.  I'm not going to spoil any of them, but just be prepared for things to be much more complicated than you ever know.  This is especially true for Snow White and Prince Charming who overcome lots of obstacles before getting married, only to meet up with this curse.  But they aren't the only characters who show up since Henry is right - Storybrooke is filled with every fairy tale character you know, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Belle to name a few.

And in Storybrooke?  Well, the plot there unravels each week as Regina tries to drive Emma out of town, and Emma tries to figure out a way to outwit the mayor.  You might think they are fighting over Henry, and to some extent they are.  But since Regina is the Evil Queen, and the curse is because of her, Regina has another motive to get Emma out of town.

Now don't worry, I haven't spoiled anything for you.  Thanks to the flashbacks, I haven't revealed anything you won't find out without the first few episodes.  And the tapestry they weave their story through is so rich, you'll be drawn in yourself in no time flat.

The actors do a great job with the characters, which really helps make the story that much more exciting.  You care about the outcome because you care about the characters.  I have absolutely no complaints in the acting department, although I do think the character of Emma is rather stupid at times, but Jennifer Morrison makes her stupid actions almost believable.

But I must single out two of the actors for special praise.  Lana Parrilla absolutely shines as Regina.  She plays two faced so well when the situation calls for it.  And she seems to relish her role as pure evil when she gets to play that.  Likewise, Robert Carlyle is brilliant as Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin.  These are easily the two richest characters on the show, and the actors play them brilliantly.

The show does have one flaw, however.  Any time they try to use CG for the special effects, it is obvious.  Fortunately, that usually happens in Enchanted Forest, so the Storybrooke scenes are all believable.  And the effects never last for too long, so it's not a major issue.  As the season went along, the effects budget must have gotten bigger because they did seem to improve, although they still are not blockbuster movie quality.  Still, with a show this good driven by characters and story more than effects, it's worth noting mainly in passing.

Since the show airs on ABC, it is part of the Disney family.  The Disnerd in me loves the references, subtle and not so subtle, to the Disney versions of the tales here.  It's often small moments or a costume a character wears, but it is fun looking for these hidden Easter Egg moments.

Season one had 22 episodes, and they are all collected in this set in widescreen and full surround.  Extras on the set include behind the scenes featurettes that include interviews with cast and crew on why they love fairy tales, creating the character of Belle, and how they create the town of Storybrooke.  You also get several audio commentaries, and the standard bloopers and deleted scenes.  It is available in both DVD and Blu-Ray editions, and there is an exclusive extra on on the Blu-Ray on the historical origins of fairy tales.

If you've missed this wonderful show, now is the perfect time to catch it and catch up.  You'll be done with the first season of Once Upon a Time before you know it and ready for season two.

Season 1 Episodes:
1. Pilot
2. The Things you Love Most
4. The Price of Gold
5. That Still Small Voice
6. The Shepherd
7. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
8. Desperate Souls
9. True North
10. 7:15 A.M.
11. Fruit of the Poisonous Tree
12. Skin Deep
13. What Happened to Frederick
14. Dreamy
15. Red-Handed
16. Heart of Darkness
17. Hat Trick
18. The Stable Boy
19. The Return
20. The Stranger
21. An Apple Red as Blood
22. A Land Without Magic

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