The success of Lost‘s sixth season hinged on its risky “flash-sideways” storytelling, and while the series finale disappointed many of the show’s fans, in the thick of all its gimmicky, nonlinear structuring was some truly inventive, entertaining television. Once Upon a Time employs a similar timeline-juggling format (albeit with a much more fantastical jumping-off point), which isn’t surprising since it comes from some of the same creative minds behind Lost, and from the barrage of wide-angled establishing shots and crane swoop-downs (hallmarks of Lost‘s big-budget, cinematic style) to Mark Isham’s Michael Giacchino-esque score, that show’s aesthetic influence can be seen and heard in nearly every frame of Once Upon a Time. The series isn’t very original (at one point, it even steals Lost‘s now-iconic eye-opening shot), but that doesn’t stop it from being relatively satisfying on its own terms.
With the majority of Once Upon a Time‘s characters being fairly one-dimensional stock types literally torn from the pages of fairy tales (Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, etc.), the show’s long-term success rests in the hands of at least one anchoring character with which the audience can relate to. Fortunately, Jennifer Morrison gives a thoroughly believable, balanced, and fun-to-watch performance as Emma Swan, a no-nonsense bail bonds collector who’s excellent at dealing with people on a strictly business level, but poor when it comes to handling personal relationships. When the 10-year-old son, Henry (Jared Gilmore), she gave up for adoption materializes at her door with a peculiar picture book and demanding that she return home with him, Emma’s reaction (she processes the gravity of the situation by quelling a possible panic attack in her bathroom) feels natural and not overly dramatic. Early on, it seems apparent that Emma’s inner demons will be a more formidable foe than the wrongdoers that have been transported to the real world from the pages of her son’s book.
As captivating of a main character as Emma is, though, the remainder of Once Upon a Time‘s populace, both in its fantasy setting and its real-world counterpart of Storybrooke, Maine, are lazily written exactly as they were originally imagined hundreds of years ago: Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Joshua Dallas), the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla), Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle), and their Storybrooke equivalents (a kindhearted school teacher, a comatose John Doe in a hospital, the manipulative mayor, and the town’s greedy owner, respectively), aren’t necessarily outright boring (the actors do occasionally ham it up, but not to the point of being over the top), but because the viewer most likely knows what kind of people they are at their cores, their every move is predictable. Once Upon a Time‘s deuteragonist, Henry, is a necessary yet often distracting presence: His true origins are scarcely hinted at, and the fact that he acts as a sort of omnipotent force, introducing the titular storybook that seemingly contains the possible outcomes of Emma’s actions or lack thereof, causes the stakes to feel borderline trivial. There’s potential that Henry’s mysteriousness may later evolve into something more substantial, but so far his motives are nearly inexplicable.
Like Lost, Once Upon a Time is at once obviously flawed and strangely alluring, and its many questions and overarching plot uncertainties, however frustrating they may be, leave the viewer craving the satisfactory solutions they deserve, which—let’s face it—could very well be enough to keep people coming back.