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Perhaps one of the biggest swings this fall among the broadcast networks is ABC’s big bet on veteran Disney drama Once Upon a Time.
The fairy tale drama lost six core castmembers at the end of season six and closed, in show terms, volume one in what’s (hopefully) going to be a multiple-volume Once Upon a Time series. On Oct. 6, showrunners Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis will open a new book with a largely fresh cast (and a handful of returning favorites) as the show jumps forward to follow the adventures of an adult Henry (now played by Andrew J. West). That also includes a new version of Cinderella, a new character for leading lady Lana Parrilla and returning favorite Colin O’Donoghue.
And while the ratings for Once — like many other aging broadcast shows — have seen better days, the series boasts a loyal (and vocal) fan base and massive international audience as the show remains a key brand extension for the Disney-owned network.
So while reinventing the wheel is a big risk after losing fan favorites Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison and Josh Dallas, among others, in success, the rejiggered drama could pave the way for another multiple-season run as Once looks to take a page from the Indiana Jones playbook and follow its new hero on multiple adventures.
What’s more, the optimistic show about finding goodness in everyone also provides a key piece of counterprogramming to heavier dramas with political undertones (see Scandal, Designated Survivor, among others). “There has to be one place where people can go that it’s unabashedly hopeful,” Kitsis tells THR of Once. And with a move to family-friendly Friday nights, ABC hopes to have found a way to keep its beloved franchise going strong for years to come.
Below, Kitsis and Horowitz talk with THR about the future of the franchise and inspiration behind its reboot.
Rebooting a show in its seventh season is a big risk, perhaps one of the biggest swings of the fall TV season. Why do this now? Was this always your plan?
Kitsis: We were coming from Lost and Lost was six years and that just felt really perfect. It felt like that was the plan because six felt like what a show ran.
Horowitz: It’s not like we ever put a number on it.
And season six is when initial contracts and licensing fees are renegotiated …
Kitsis: We always planned for six years. You look at Marvel and these reboots we were like, “Why can’t fairy tales be rebooted? Why can’t we be the new Wonderful World of Disney?” Because I love these stories. If we do one version of Cinderella, why can’t we do another one seven years later? So for us, it’s an experiment but it’s one ABC is allowing us to do and that is more exciting than losing half your cast and trying to pretend like we didn’t and then saying, “Hey, it’s still Laverne & Shirley, it’s just we’re in L.A. …”
Horowitz: Because the show deals with magic, it allows so many avenues to reinvent things but also to not abandon what we have done. It has allowed us this great freedom of taking characters that we have loved for years, to keep some of them and then to bring in new ones and mix it up and keep the essence and the spirit of the show alive but go in a new direction. It has been creatively invigorating for us, the writers, the cast and the crew. Everybody is excited; it’s a fun, new adventure.
Kitsis: The reason we kept going was because it was still fun and we still enjoyed the world. We were happy to put the other story to bed and write to a finale but then it was still fun to think of, “What if they were in Seattle? And what if this character was this? And what if Henry met a new Cinderella?” We have children now that we actually watch the show with and it feels like there has to be one place where people can go that it’s unabashedly hopeful. We’re not trying to be cable; we’re not trying to be anything other than a show you should watch with your kid. The message at the end is we may go dark but we are never bleak and there is always light at the end of the tunnel. It’s just it may take four episodes whereas our audience wants it to be one act.
Horowitz: The show always started with this idea about being hopeful and optimistic. And that oddly felt like the one area in television that wasn’t being serviced. That was the genesis of what Once would be. With Lost, in that third season when things were really bleak for all the characters, writing that episode where they found hope made us really realize how powerful a thing that was to make hope a central idea and concept.
As we cover more and more dramas that have an underlying political message in the Trump era — like Scandal ditching a story about Russians hacking the election because that actually happened and the overall concept of Designated Survivor, as well as just the daily news cycle, hope isn’t something you see a lot of right now. Your show is very much an alternative to that.
Kitsis: Yes! The show is about the thing we love best about the world: there is unity if we find it and you have to work at it. Once is a show for everyone. And you’re right, I am so bombarded by a day-to-day news cycle that is changing and the polarization of the country. You just want a place where everyone says at the end of the day, ‘Don’t we all want the same things?’ And that is to be happy and maybe there’s a better way to get to it.
Horowitz: On a very basic level, the show says if the Evil Queen — the worst person in all of literature and storytelling — can find hope and happiness and goodness in her, and heal her heart, maybe everyone can. It’s political without being political. We just want to find that in the world.
Kitsis: We never try to do black and white because the world isn’t black and white. A villain can be a hero and a hero can be a villain. To us, the happy endings are the things you always have to fight for. We still love doing this but it was time to move forward. We don’t ever want to repeat ourselves because it gets boring. It’s a huge roll of the dice but I’d rather do that than just sit comfortably and not be excited about what I do.
Horowitz: We’d rather put a bow on the stories for some of these characters and try something new than just try to drag out their stories. And it felt like we had reached that point where we couldn’t drag it out more; we wanted to put the bow on it, send them off in a hopefully beautiful way for the audience and then do something new.
As anthologies continue to become a small-screen staple, you guys have said that there are different multiple books in the Once universe. Is there an opportunity to do a different story each year?
Horowitz: The business has changed in a way in how people are consuming television and how they’re consuming stories. Stranger Things, which is brilliant, is a show that when it drops, you’re watching a multi-episode movie. You wait the whole year wondering what they’re going to do in season two.
Kitsis: What’s the sequel?
Horowitz: I love that in their marketing — where it’s like Stranger Things II — they’re doing it like a movie sequel from the 1980s. Now when we’re doing 22 episodes a season, it’s a different approach because we are still on every week. We have to walk the line of letting the audience live with these characters who are coming into their homes each week and being part of a bigger story but then also the individual episode stories. With this show each season is about a new adventure and this new world — and finding a way to balance that with what’s happening to these characters on an emotional level — that’s how we hopefully can keep our audience invested and hopefully they’ll come with us to any kind of crazy place. But it is unusual seeing how TV has changed over the course of our career. And one [formula] isn’t better than the other.
So what’s a potential season eight? Do Andrew J. West and Dania Ramirez come back or is it a new location again?
Horowitz: Should we be lucky enough to continue on to season eight and beyond, yes, Andrew and Dania, their story — if they survive the season! [laughing] — it would continue on as well. And as would any of our legacy characters.
Kitsis: We grew up Star Wars, Indiana Jones and James Bond geeks and the thing that people love most about our show are these characters. We’re going to go to Neverland, Wonderland and then you can take them [somewhere else], which is much more of a movie thing. But then we have to combine that with the 22 episodes.
Horowitz: The Indiana Jones model is very apt. In the first movie he’s with Marian, going after the ark. And then you drop him in with Short Round and then he’s with his dad. If you think of those as seasons of television, you can see multiple stories with the same character. And then wonder where the next adventure is going to take you. That’s the fun for us as writers is each season: seeing where the adventure going to take us.
And you did it in reverse, where you started with Young Indy — as in Henry as a kid.
Kitsis: Yes! We just need to find the temple!
The show is exploring different versions of Cinderella as the character exists in, as you’ve mentioned, multiple locations. That’s a big gamble. How did Disney respond to the idea?
Horowitz: When we pitched the show initially seven or eight years ago, we had to meet with the brand management people at Walt Disney. We have created a Disney cul-de-sac and a place where you can take these characters, bring them in, do different things with them — not mess with the canon of the larger corporate Disney and what these characters are — but it can play in concert with that and have some fun and do different things that feel a little different. There’s always been this great license to experiment and they have given us great freedom to do that and to take risks. Is this going to work? We don’t know if it will work. We didn’t know if it would work when we put a sword in Snow White’s hands in the first season, which had never been done before. You don’t know.
Kitsis: You can’t know if you play it safe. Around season three we started talking to ABC, saying if this show is going on, we feel like after season six, it’s a reboot. We said this shouldn’t be a 10-year show we’re dragging out where Jared Gilmore is 40 years old. We’d been talking to ABC about this idea for three years. And they know this is a risk.
Horowitz: When we actually got down to it last season and sat down with [ABC Entertainment president] Channing Dungey and ABC Studios’ Patrick Moran and talked about what we wanted to do and they were right there saying let’s take the risk and let’s be bold with what the show is. Because if you roll the dice, you can lose — but you can also win if you allow the show to continue and grow and become something new.
Kitsis: And what we meant with the line was that there are different versions of all fairy tales, be it in Germany and Italy and France. But one of the things that I find interesting about this show is how international it is.
So six more seasons?
Horowitz: Right! Exactly!
Is that the plan for this Once 2.0?
Kitsis: I will be honest with you — right now it’s just getting the plane up in the air.
How much does it feel like season one right now?
Kitsis: A hundred percent. We had to really change our thinking because once you get to season six there is an unspoken rhythm between everybody. Now we’re back to like, “What does this character wear? What is this set? What does this story do?”
Horowitz: Six years into a show you’re encumbered, for better or for worse, by everything that has come before — from wardrobe choices to story choices. Finding this way to rejigger the show has freed everyone from wardrobe to the actors to the writers to do the same show but do it a little differently.
You’re moving to Fridays at 8 p.m. this season. Have you thought about leaning into the whole Wonderful World of Disney brand as you look at telling these new chapters?
Kitsis: We have always approached the show with the respect of Wonderful World of Disney. We knew we had their Sunday at 8 p.m. slot so we always carried that on. We are excited about Friday because that’s the new Sunday in the sense that a lot of our audience watches the show as a family and they are home Friday. And Sunday now is a different world than it was six years ago. Now, you can watch with your kids before their bed time. And a lot of great genre shows do well there.
Horowitz: What we hope we can do is make Once Upon a Time its own brand that fits in the Disney culture that says when you see Once Upon a Time, you’re going to get this kind of feeling. And whether it’s with some of the characters you know or new characters, this is the vibe of the show and hopefully it’ll continue on as long as people like it.
Once Upon a Time returns Friday, Oct. 6 at 8 p.m. on ABC. Will you be watching?
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