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ABC's "Once Upon a Time" looks to put a smart, contemporary spin on classic fairytales

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ABC's "Once Upon a Time" looks to put a smart, contemporary spin on classic fairytales

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A long time ago (Okay. It was 2002), Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz were just getting started in the television writing business. They had landed jobs on "Felicity." And while these two were genuinely enjoying creating scripts for this Touchstone Television production, Edward & Adam yearned to work on something ... different. Something that would take a familiar thing and then look at it in a whole new way.

The cast of "Felicity." Copyright Touchstone Television / Imagine
Television. All rights reserved

"We kept circling back on the idea of fairytales. The very first stories that you learn when you're a kid. They're full of magic and heroics and really scary characters. But fairytales are also full of all these unanswered questions. Like why is Grumpy grumpy? Why is Geppetto so lonely that he'd actually carve a little boy out of wood? And did the Evil Queen really try to kill Snow White because of vanity? That can't be the only reason. There has to be more to this story than that," Adam explained.

So Kitsis & Horowitz put together a proposal for a primetime television drama that would use fairytales as its storytelling hook. And then sadly put it in a drawer, because ... Well, as Edward put it ...

"We were the new writers on 'Felicity' back then. And we were talking about wanting to do this hugely expensive TV show that had wolves and dwarfs and fairies and witches. You come through the door with a proposal for a television series like that, you're going to get laughed at. Especially when you're new writers just getting started in the business."

Copyright ABC Studios. All rights reserved

Now jump ahead to 2010. And Horowitz & Kitsis are now writing & executive-producing "Lost." Which taught these two everything that they needed to know about telling epic tales in the hour-long television format. That it was in fact possible to build a popular TV program around a storyline that featured alternative realms, dark magic and characters that were not what they seemed.

So as this Emmy Award-winning ABC Studios production is winding down its six year run, Adam & Edward are asked: "What else ya got?" Which is when they reached into that drawer and pulled out "Once Upon a Time." Which is this"Lost" -like saga where the storyline regularly shifts back-and-forth between the real world & the fairytale realm.

"So what's 'Once Upon a Time' about?," you query. Well, if you'd like to get a sneak peek at this new ABC series (which won't bow on the Alphabet Network 'til two months from now. Sunday, October 23rd at 8 p.m., to be precise), you can always go to the D23 EXPO this Saturday. Where the Disney Geek himself, D23's own Jeffrey Epstein, will be hosting an advance screening of the "Once Upon a Time" pilot from 12:45 - 1:45 p.m. What's more, Kitsis & Horowitz will be on hand at Stage 28 to talk about how closely they worked with Disney executives on this particular project.

Pinocchio (Jakob Davies) and Geppetto (Tony Amendola) work on the magical wardrobe
that's meant to save Snow White's daughter. Photo by Jack Rowand. Copyright
American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved

"I mean, we know that characters like Pinocchio & Jiminy Cricket are kind of like the crown jewels of The Walt Disney Company. And we'd never ever want to do anything to damage them. But in the pilot script for 'Once Upon a Time,' we have Snow White pregnant, we have Prince Charming getting stabbed, we have the human world version of Grumpy in jail whistling 'Heigh Ho,' "Adam continued. "But the folks at Brand Management  immediately got what we were trying to do here, the obvious respect & affection that we have for these characters and the classic animated films that Disney Studios has created over the years. We're just trying to do something new here. Make something that references what was done before -- sometimes in a sly, subtle way --  but that still deepens these characters. Show you parts of your favorite fairytales that maybe you haven't seen before. And Disney & ABC have been incredibly supportive of what we're trying to do here."

Because - having already seen the pilot episode myself - I can tell you that "Once Upon a Time" is indeed a departure from Disney's typical way of telling fairytales. But then again, so was "Tangled." Which moviegoers happily embraced last year because that Nathan Greno & Byron Howard film put such a smart contemporary spin on this classic sort of storytelling.

And I'd imagine that - once D23 members get to see the pilot of this new ABC Studios production - they'll then be saying the exact same thing about "Once Upon a Time." Which introduces us to Emma Swan (who's played by Jennifer Morrison from "House"). Who's this tough bail bondsperson working in Boston. But as our story gets underway, it's the night of Emma's 28th birthday. And as she sits in her empty apartment and then blows out the candle on a single cupcake, Emma silently wishes to herself that she didn't have to be alone on her birthday.

(L to R) Jamie Dornan, Lana Parrilla, Ginnifer Goodwin, Josh Dallas, Robert Carlyle,
Jared Gilmore and Jennifer Morrison. Photo by Craig Sjodin. Copyright American
Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved

Then there's a knock on her apartment door. Emma answers it and discovers Henry (played by Jared Gilmore of "Mad Men" fame), the son that she gave for adoption 10 years earlier. Henry walks through the door carrying a large, leather-bound book of fairytales. And he has a pretty big story to tell.

You see, Henry's from the town of Storybrooke, ME. This small, somewhat picturesque seaside village that's now populated by storybook characters who've taken human form and forgotten who they originally were. And Regina (Lana Parrilla), the mayor of this mysterious burg used to be the Evil Queen. She's the one who actually cooked up the curse that then transported everyone from the fairytale realm to the real world . Worse than that, Regina is now Henry's foster mother.

"And why is Henry telling Emma all this?," you ask. Because Henry believes that Emma holds the key to breaking Regina's curse. Through careful study of that giant book of fairytales that he always carries around, Henry has come to believe that Emma is the long-lost daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin from "Big Love") and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas). Who was sent into the real world just moments after she was born on the advice of Rumplestilskin (a great performance by Robert Carlyle from "The Full Monty"). Who foretold that Snow White's daughter would eventually the one who was be able to defeat the Evil Queen's curse.

The gravely-wounded Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) places the infant
Emma in the magical wardrobe, so that Snow White's daughter can
then be safely transported to the human world. Photo by Jack
Rowand. Copyright American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.
All rights reserved

As crazy as this story sounds, this news does give Emma pause. Given that - 28 years earlier - she had been found as a newborn, abandoned by the side of a highway. Emma spent years in the foster care system, wondering why someone would ever give her away. When Henry comes in with the news that she wasn't actually abandoned. That Emma was deliberately sent away to give her her best possible chance. More importantly, so she could someday find her parents and then break the Evil Queen's curse.

Again, I know. This story sounds truly bizarre. But Emma agrees to drive Henry back home to Storybrooke, ME. If only so she can then return this strange-but-seemingly-sincere kid to his foster mother. But then Emma and Henry actually arrive in town and meet ...

To say anymore would really spoil the fun of "Once Upon a Time." Where every character that you meet - in the fairy tale realm as well as the real world - is not exactly what they seem. But if you'd like to be among the first to see this new ABC Studios production ... What's more, be on hand to hear about how thrilled Edward & Adam were to land Robert Carlyle for the role of Rumplestilskin ("We tried for years to get Robbie on 'Lost,' " Kitsis explained. "But the timing just never worked out. So when we were writing the pilot of 'Once Upon a Time,' we just decided that we'd write the characters of Rumplestilskin & Mr. Gold as Robbie Carlyle and then hope that we'd actually be able to land him for this part. And we did!") ... Well, you're just going to have to be inside of Stage 28 at the D23 EXPO this coming Saturday between 12:45 - 1:45 p.m. Where you can then learn more about how this particular fairytale unfolds.

Robert Carlyle at the "Once Upon a Time" session at
the Disney/ABC Television Group 2011 Summer
Press Tour at the Beverly Hills Hilton. Photo by
Rick Rowell. Copyright American Broadcasting
Companies, Inc. All rights reserved

For further information on this three-day-long celebration of The Walt Disney Company, be sure & head on over to the Official Disney Fan Club website. Where you can then check out the EXPO's master schedule.

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  • I saw this! I was asked to watch a pilot online and complete a survey. I remember thinking to myself how original the show was and that it'd probably never get made because of that.

  • Keep in mind this isn't an entirely new idea.  Bill Willingham's Fables has been amongst the top rated comics out there for years.  I believe ABC even was going to develop Fables.  But given the adult nature of the stories it would be better suited for HBO or even something like FX

  • I'm really looking forward to this!  Something different with quality for a change.  My big concern is, will it stick around?  I say this because the last quirky, quality show on ABC - Pushing Daisies - got the shaft big time from ABC and I've never gotten over that!

    By the way, saw you at the D23 Pixar Shorts presentation.  Nice job :)  Was hoping to say hello but it just didn't happen.

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