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'Once Upon a Time': TV Review

Once Upon a Time
Jack Rowand/ABC

ABC tackles fairy-tale fare with results that look and feel hokey.

If there can be five -- or is it seven or more? -- comedies about how modern males are too weak to be called men, then how far-fetched can it be that two new series focus on fairy tales?

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ABC's Once Upon a Time feels confident tapping into a slew of well-known fairy tales, while NBC's Grimm mines the darker tales of the Brothers Grimm. It's a high-concept hootenanny with varied results.

Perhaps the harder sell is Once Upon a Time, which opens as a period piece where the Seven Dwarfs are huddled around an entombed Snow White -- and before you can blurt out what's about to happen, you might end up laughing instead. Why? Because it looks and feels hokey.

Hokey is a problem.

Snow White is played by Ginnifer Goodwin and Prince Charming by Josh Dallas. There is an Evil Queen, of course, played by Lana Parrilla, whose attempt to play evil falls well short of convincing. She's not alone because even Robert Carlyle, who is capable of pulling off both evil and costumed, is eyebrow-raisingly cheesy as Rumpelstiltskin. Put them all together in an overly long introduction to the series, and someone you love will need the powers of Merlin to pry the remote out of your hand as you lunge to change the channel.

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And then something interesting happens -- certainly more interesting than not pulling off a period piece in primetime. The action switches to the present, and we meet Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), a bail bondswoman, loner and all-around tough girl. Into her life pops Henry (Jared Gilmore), a precocious 10-year-old boy from Storybrooke (wink, wink), Maine. He tracks down Emma and proclaims he's her son, the one she gave up for adoption at birth. He carries a book of fairy tales and says that Emma needs to come back to Storybrooke to put things right.

What things? Well, Henry believes the Evil Witch has cast a spell, and now all the fairy-tale characters from lore are trapped in Storybrooke, not knowing who they are or what went on in the past. His adoptive mother is Regina (also played by Parrilla), the single-mother mayor of Storybrooke and, says Henry, most likely the Evil Witch. Henry also believes Emma is the daughter of Prince Charming and Snow White and that only she can unlock the mysteries of Storybrooke and give everyone a happy ending by freeing them.

Got that?

And yes, in Storybrooke, pretty much every fairy-tale character you can come up with -- you know, like Geppetto -- is hanging out as their modern self. This part of the series holds at least minimal fascination as Henry tries to unveil the truth. But when Once Upon a Time flashes back to fairy-tale days, Uncle Hokey goes with them. And with him, there are no happy endings.

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In those moments -- especially when modern vocabulary sneaks in and Goodwin seems embarrassed to read her lines -- Once Upon a Time completely stops time. You can't tell if this is supposed to be farce; it's the opt-out moment. The show is a bold idea, and there's hope for the modern-world portions, but it doesn't quite know what it is (or maybe it does, but the audience won't). ABC made episode three available to critics as well, and -- tragic ending alert! -- the series appears to be getting worse, not better.

Airdate Once Upon a Time 8 p.m. Sundays (ABC)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

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