The newly premiered American fantasy drama Once Upon a Time is only seven episodes in on ABC, yet it is already a huge hit with viewers and critics. But, assuming that a UK channel with pick it up, would a British audience enjoy the shiny, Disneyfied family fairytale?
I have been lucky enough to have been able to watch the new series in the US, and am already a big fan. And while so far there have been no news about a British TV channel picking up the series, considering Once Upon a Time's impressive ratings, a strong cast which includes Jennifer Morrison, Robert Carlyle and Ginnifer Goodwin, and the fact that the series is helmed by former Lost writers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis and counts Buffy and Battlestar Galactica writer Jane Espenson among its executive producers, the drama definitely has export potential.
Once Upon a Time premiered in October 2011. The fantasy drama is centered on traditional fairytale characters like Snow White, Prince Charming, Rumpelstiltskin and the Evil Queen, who have been snatched from their fairytale world and trapped in a small American town, with no memory of their former lives. In style, the series mimics Lost: each episode focuses on one character, with flashbacks showing their fairytale character counterpart and exploring how their personality developed to the person we meet in Storybrooke.
Main character Emma Swan, a young woman who is mysteriously tied to the fairytale characters' curse, is dragged into the mystery by the son she gave up for adoption when he was a baby. Emma is a very complex character; abandoned at birth herself, she visibly struggles with the return of her own son Henry. Meanwhile, in the fairytale world, Snow White is quickly revealed to have unexpected layers and depth that builds and expands on previous versions of the story.
Actress Jennifer Morrison, who plays Emma, has told TV Overmind that, "The center of the show is the idea of hope." Meanwhile, Snow White actress Ginnifer Goodwin has speculated in a Zap2It interview how important she believes the concept of True Love is to the show, saying:
"I think [this] must be one of the messages of our show: that true love trumps all, even dark magic. There is so much exploration of characters in this drama, and the characters are truly what is captivating about the series. The fact that audiences believe in their stories and relationships, as improbable as they are is Once Upon a Time's true strength."
Yet despire this positive message (or maybe because of it), this series may suffer the curse of being misunderstood, of being judged too quickly. Perhaps UK viewers will be more critical of its form and presentation, and not feel as connected to the fairytale world. The show most of all feels like an American version of Merlin, which already balances on the cheese-line for most people, and there is no doubt that the family drama may seem a bit camp in comparison to some of the more gritty, adult series out there.
While it fits in perfectly with the general tone of American primetime network dramas, it is not certain that Once will have as big of an impact globally. Rather than going back to the Grimm and Andersen roots of the fairytales as its more edgy (and also recently premiered) genre sibling Grimm, Once Upon a Time is so far presenting the stories as they are best known in pop culture; both Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast's Belle have so far been almost exact replicas of the Disney versions.
In truth, Once Upon a Time walks a fine line between too much and just right with its glossy, cliche treatment of characters that could be taken out of the Disney versions of the fairytales, and the more subtle, layered exploration of human nature. The question remains whether the series will prove to have universal appeal, but I definitely hope it will! It is one of those rare shows that show the same promise of depth and longevity as Lost and Buffy!
Watch a trailer for the drama here on YouTube.