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'Once Upon a Time': What the Critics Are Saying

Once Upon a Time ABC Cinderella TV Still - P 2011
ABC

The fairy tale drama debuted Sunday to ABC's strongest ratings in the 18-49 demographic in nearly three years of regular programming.

ABC’s Once Upon a Time opened to strong ratings Sunday, lifting ABC to its best performance in the time period with regular programming in nearly three years in the 18-49 demographic. The program stars Big Love's Ginnifer Goodwin and former House doctor Jennifer Morrison in storylines taking place in the fantasy world of Snow White and the "reality" setting of Storybrooke, Maine.

The show, from Lost exec producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, earned mostly positive reviews out of the gate but as The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman points out, its fate is up in the air.

REVIEW: Once Upon a Time

Goodman writes: "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. 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.

"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."

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The Los Angeles Times' Mary McNamara singles out Goodwin and Morrison's performances: "Goodwin is as good a Snow White as you're going to get this side of animation, but the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) seems to think she's Maleficent (different fairy tale if anyone's keeping track, which clearly no one is). Once the action leaves the overly Maxfield Parrish-ized world of magic trees and drooping pregnant princesses, things pick up considerably. There's a book; there an enlightened boy, Henry (Jared Gilmore); and best of all, there's Morrison. Her Emma is predictably cynical and prickly — fairy-tale princess, my Aunt Fanny — but she's sharp and lively enough to keep audiences begging for 'just a few more pages' before they go to bed."

New York Times critic Mike Hale also praises the lead actresses: "Once Upon a Time seemed to have the richer premise and more interesting characters, and having Ms. Goodwin (Big Love) in the cast automatically made it one of the more promising new shows. She’s excellent, and Ms. Morrison, known for playing uptight snobs on House and How I Met Your Mother, uses her whiskey-and-cigarettes voice (close your eyes, and it sounds like Angie Harmon) to good effect as the reluctant savior. Watching the pilot again, though, it became harder to ignore the soap opera underpinnings and the twee sentimentality."

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Chicago Sun Times critic Lori Rackl does not foresee the drama lasting: "The sparkly new drama flips back and forth between two worlds, the one we live in and the “imaginary” one inhabited by Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin of Big Love), Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle, The Full Monty) and all of those fairy-tale characters we read about in bedtime stories.

Wear your neckbrace, because Once Upon a Time has lots of flashbacks. It also has lots of Disney touches in the form of a CGI Jiminy Cricket, Tinker Bell and other special effects. Again, no surprise, since Disney owns ABC. Once Upon a Time gets points for being creative and different, and I’ve certainly watched worse shows this season but I don’t see this fairy-tale fantasy having broad enough appeal to conjure up the kind of viewer numbers it will need to stick around."

San Francisco Chronicle's David Wiegand points out that the show's Sunday night timeslot has traditionally done well for Disney fare: "The show is not only great, fluffy fun, but note that it occupies a traditional family time slot on Sunday nights. For years, Sunday evenings were dominated by the Walt Disney anthology series under a variety of names for, at one time or another, three broadcast networks. ABC is clearly looking to revive that tradition. Family fare is tricky these days - shows that are too G-rated aren't usually sophisticated enough for older members of the family. But Once Upon a Time is both family-friendly and smart enough to win viewers of any age and level of sophistication."

Hank Stuever of The Washington Post was won over by the "charming" and "elegant" show: Suffused with as many fairy-tale cliches as it can cram in, ABC’s new drama Once Upon a Time may seem like a poisoned apple to us blackhearted cynics. But happily this series turns out to be the fall TV season’s most charming and elegant surprise. The first episode is perfectly imagined, written and performed — which is saying something when you consider that the lead character is Snow White. When was the last time anyone over the age of 5 admitted to wanting to know more about Snow White?"

Dave Walker of The Times-Picayune mentions another acting standout, former Mad Men son Jared Gilmore: An incredibly cute kid played by Jared Gilmore (Bobby Draper in Mad Men) has figured out the connections between the two worlds, thanks to a big book of fairy tales. Somehow it works, even – especially – when a CGI Jiminy Cricket shows up."

Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker muses that the show may be too dark for mass consumption: "Everyone — from Morrison’s hard-boiled bounty hunter to Parrilla’s permanently enraged Queen — seems so miserable. This is a problem for the series, because viewers coming to the show for the light, good-will-prevail tone of fairy tales may be brought up short, and perhaps dismayed, by its dark fantasy. And dark-fantasy fans will probably find the series not dark enough.

"And to those of you who say, well, the Grimm brothers fairy tales from which Once takes off were more grim than we recall, I’ll say that I’ve re-read a bunch of the ones pertinent to this TV show, and they’re more brief, more varied in tone, and, at their conclusions, more positive in their outcomes. It takes but a few pages for Rumpelstiltskin to receive justice for his meanness; it’s going to take a long time for that to occur on Once Upon a Time, if only because the deft Robert Carlyle has been clearly cast as a long-term bad-guy."