Though its ratings have faltered somewhat in recent weeks, the biggest success story of the fall television schedule is arguably ABC's Once Upon a Time, airing on Sundays at 7 p.m.
It's hardly surprising, given its subject matter, that few industry insiders had high expectations for the hour-long drama. The show starts out with the characters and stories we all know and love from fairy tales, then repackages and relocates them to the real world. Ever wondered how Prince Charming and Snow White met? Ever wanted to know how Jiminy Cricket learned to always let his conscience be his guide? Once Upon a Time endeavors to show us. It also shows us how Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood, and the rest of the Grimm gang might operate in a land where death is permanent and the IRS more frightening than any giant.
If you'd have bet with the experts that this kind of fantasy programming didn't have a chance against gritty crime dramas like Prime Suspect or soapy fare like The Playboy Club and Revenge, you'd have been out some money. At the time of its winter hiatus, Once Upon a Time can boast not only that it's the season's highest-rated new drama but also ABC's biggest debut in five years.
So what's drawing so many eyes? Parsing the numbers suggests it's not only the quality of the show but also the opportunity it offers for family togetherness. According to Nielsen measurements of co-viewing-that is, adults watching with a child or teen-Once Upon a Time is one of the most popular family shows of the last decade.
While the half of the story that takes place in the magical realm will leave most adults and teens rolling their eyes, younger kids will eat it up with a spoon. It would have been hard for the set and costume designers to cover their castles, princesses, and knights in more fairy dust. And when Prince Charming battles trolls and defends fair maidens, grown-ups may get the feeling they're watching an especially well-financed grade-school play.
However, if they're able to let the corny bits slide for the first few episodes, older viewers are likely to find themselves drawn into the drama of the small town where everyone winds up after the wicked queen banishes them to a place where "there are no happy endings." Namely, Maine.
Much like Lost, from which the producers of Once Upon a Time hail, life in Storybrooke, Maine, presents an alternate reality wherein character's actions in one dimension affect the lives of their counterparts in the other. Snow White becomes sweet grade-school teacher and hospital volunteer Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin), Rumplestiltskin becomes devious moneylender Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle), and the wicked queen transforms into hard-as-nails town mayor Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla). Half the fun of the show is trying to guess which fairy tale the characters belong to when they first appear on screen.
When the son that Snow White's daughter Emma (Jennifer Morrison) placed for adoption finds Emma and drags her into town, the two worlds begin to collide. It seems Emma alone can break the spell the queen cast and return the inhabitants of fairyland to their rightful kingdoms. The storylines surrounding Emma's showdowns with the mayor, and the clues she uncovers to everyone's real identities, contain far less hokum and far more human interest.
One warning: The kind of minor obscenities that have become standard on anything not broadcast on Disney or Nick Jr. pop up often, and one non-explicit scene shows unmarried characters in bed. Still, Once Upon a Time is much milder than most scripted primetime shows. Its success proves there's an audience hungry enough for this type of all-ages programming-and they'll be satisfied even if the meal is occasionally served with too much cheese.