It's official, fairy tales are in and that led to a funny situation where last fall the US had two new, original property, fairy-tale based shows airing (and the US doesn't air nearly as many shows at once compared to anime), the other being Grimm. And of course this led to two things, people discussing how one show would probably end up killing the other (since you can't have two shows with the same concept airing at once!) and then people endlessly debating which show was "better." The shows ended up being rather different, and as far as I know haven't killed each other (I believe both even got renewed for a second season), and from the start I preferred Once Upon A Time over Grimm (which I believe I was in the minority for). Why was that? Well it's time for the review to elaborate!
Once Upon A Time
Summary: Once upon a time all the (western) fairy tales you can think of were real and lived in their own land. But the Evil Queen, feeling jealous and revengeful, cursed the kingdom and dragged them all to Storybrooke Maine where there was no magic and no happy endings. Or so she thinks, before the curse took hold the child of the King and Queen ("Prince Charming" and Snow White), one Emma Swan, was whisked away following a prophecy that she would be able to break the curse once she turned 28. Now 28 she's been contacted by her son Henry who she put up for adoption and ended up in the care of the Evil Queen (now called Regina and the Mayor of Storybrooke) and while she doesn't believe in magic or curses she does seem drawn to this small town and decides to stick around a bit longer.
The Good: Part of the reason I'm so skeptical about a lot of the fairy tale re-imaginings is because fairy tales are short, there's not a lot of material to start with. Here however the show melds quite a few western fairy tales (wish a dash of Greek mythology as well, basically the Disney canon) and while the timeline gets a bit confusing the stories work surprisingly well together and my hat is off to the writers for pulling that off. Obviously the more central characters get more backstory than the supporting cast but over a dozen characters were fleshed out and for just 22 episodes, which also had to deal with what was going on in the present day, that's quite impressive. I was worried that the ending of the season might be weak since it got picked up for a second season (ie, they didn't have to wrap everything up since they had more time) but, although rushed, it was surprisingly satisfying and left room for the second season. I do hope the show is completely wrapped up after the second season, simply because I get worried about American shows getting canceled or ending before the show can be completed, but I am really looking forward to the second season.
The Bad: For me the first few episodes felt rather rough and many of the Storybrooke versions of the characters were rather dull before the story got moving. It makes sense why they were so flat, they've literally been living false, unchanging lives for 28 years before Emma came, but it still took a few episodes before the fairy tale and Storybrooke halves of the story felt like they were balancing each other out instead of one being much stronger than the ever. I do feel like the eventual "reveal" for August was a bit underwhelming*, the ending was a bit rushed, especially concerning Emma (although the writers had written themselves into a bit of a corner there), and it was just enough to make me wonder if they had to re-write it for a second season in a bit of a hurry, but overall I thought this was a pretty strong fantasy show by the end of it.
The Audio: These days I'm used to the music that accompanies the beginning and end of a show, whether it's a full sequence or just a 15 second clip, to sound wildly different from each other but here the pieces both sound like they actually came from the same series. Other than those two bits however I can't recall much of the music from this series and itunes only has four pieces for sale that I could find. I'm sure if I was to hear the pieces again I'd remember them but for this show I was more interested in what I was seeing on screen, not what I was hearing.
The Visuals: I had the pleasure of watching the early parts of this show while I was taking an intensive photoshop class so I found a lot of the early CGI, especially when it was used for backgrounds, a bit painful to watch. Either I got used to it or the CGI got better as the show went along, I suspect the later, and the show was good at knowing it's limits and rarely needed the tons and tons of CGI the early episodes (which had to quickly establish a lot of background information involving the fairy tale land). In retrospect it's impressive that the show never looked completely terrible, considering that just about every episode involved the fairy tale land in someway so that meant probably some CGI, more settings, more costume and make-up changes, this can't have been a terribly cheap show but it did well and never made it seem like the budget was strained.
All in all this show ended up being much stronger than I expected, honestly I was thinking that I would be dropping this and Grimm within their first seven or so episodes, and now I guess I need to figure out where to go for news so I know when to start tuning back into Hulu. Hulu has the whole show streaming, the problem is that only the last five episodes are avaliable for free users, all the others can only be seen if you have Hulu plus, and I do not believe the show is up on Netflix yet.
*partially this is because I had a rather fun fan-theory of my own and also after it was built up with twists and turns the reveal just seemed a bit, boring and seemed to go against some of the rules of magic that the series had already established.