Lana Parrilla, Jennifer Morrison
Once is not enough. Sometimes a second look, or a second episode, is necessary to convince a skeptic that a show is worth taking a risk on. So it is with ABC's dazzling but dauntingly precious Once Upon a Time (Sunday, 8/7c), which back when I was considering it for Fall Preview left me wondering: "Is this ambitiously whimsical fantasia the next Pushing Daisies cult fave or the next Eastwick insta-flop? (Either way, it will likely be an uphill climb to happily ever after.) It would be easier to love if it weren't so convoluted and campy."
But then ABC made another episode (the third, airing Nov. 6) available for review, and I started to find myself enchanted and beguiled, ready to curl up with more chapters of this fractured fairy tale. First, though, you have to digest the premise, and the overstuffed and often overripe pilot is a lot to swallow. We begin in a lavishly rendered fairy-tale land where Snow White (Big Love's Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming wrangle with an Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla), who interrupts their wedding with the promise of a curse. Said curse arrives just as Snow manages to send her newborn daughter Emma through a magical portal into our world. Years pass, and the grown Emma (House's arch Jennifer Morrison), now a loner of a bounty hunter, is enlisted by a little boy to hasten to the isolated burg of Storybrooke, Maine, where time is frozen and all our favorite characters of legend live in ignorance of their fabled origins. The boy believes Emma can reverse the curse, but first she has to face the town mayor (Parrilla again), who's given to saying things like, "I will destroy you if it is the last thing I do." (Has she been watching Revenge? Do they even have TVs in Storybrooke?)
"Seriously?" Emma remarks with some frequency, which is understandable. I was initially underwhelmed by all the heavy-handed whimsy, but I began to take Once a bit more seriously upon sampling the upcoming third episode. It cleverly weaves Lost-like flashbacks — the show's creators are Lost vets, and it shows — taking us back to Snow's colorful past as a frisky bandit, played off against her modern-day search for the John Doe she doesn't know is her Prince Charming (and their meet-cute back in the enchanted woods truly is charming). There's gorgeous fun to be had here, and I'm cautiously optimistic that ABC's patience in delaying the premiere until a month into the season, coupled with heavy and smart promotion, will pay off, at least initially. It would be a shame for this book to be closed too soon.
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The weekend's other big premiere, Starz's dark and dreary Boss (Friday, 10/9c), is one of those shows I kept hoping would get better or more interesting the more I watched. No such luck. This series is most notable for giving Kelsey Grammer (Frasier who?) a wonderfully meaty dramatic workout. A world removed from the sitcom debacle of Hank, his new TV venture is no laughing matter — which becomes painfully obvious from the opening moments as we watch Chicago mayor Tom Kane brought to earth, though hardly humbled, by the bad news that he's suffering from an irreversible degenerative brain disease. Ain't we got fun.
Grammer clearly relishes the tragic dimensions of this juicy role. He's part cagey and ruthless Godfather as he wields power from his literal bully pulpit, at one point taking an alderman by the ear and humiliating him like a naughty child. He's also part Shakespearean Lear, raging against fate, his personal and professional misfortunes and the cynical tides of political chicanery. "In my kingdom, we're all whores," he declares to two actual ladies of the night who are doing things you only see on pay cable. (The sexual content often feels gratuitously applied, perhaps out of some acknowledgment that otherwise Boss would be a pretty drab affair.)
Grammer brings an impressive ferocity and morally queasy gravity to the role, as he grooms a handsome but randy idealist (Jeff Hephner) for the governor's race while hiding the extent of his physical woes from his cronies, his co-workers (Kathleen Robertson and Martin Donovan, both excellent) and his steely Lady MacBoss of an estranged wife (the terrific Connie Nielsen).
As a character study, Boss is intriguing, well-acted and beautifully crafted (Gus Van Sant directed the pilot), with all the hallmarks of high-end premium cable. But ultimately, this is an easier show to admire than it is to recommend. Preachy and self-important (including a by-the-numbers journalistic subplot), it's also glum, plodding and chilly to the bone. In the first four hours of its initial eight-hour run, I can't say I was ever truly surprised by the familiar political and sordid personal intrigues, or terribly compelled to see what happens next. But Starz has already renewed the show for a second season — talk about hubris — so there's plenty of time for it to earn our vote.
More highlights from the TV weekend:
Pick of the night: Pearl Jam Twenty (PBS, 9/8c, check local schedules), a celebration of the influential rock band on its 20th anniversary by filmmaker Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous), an American Masters presentation airing as part of the PBS Arts Fall Festival.
Guest-star alert: It's a Buffy reunion on the CW's Supernatural (9/8c) as Charisma Carpenter, the former Cordelia, plays a witch who takes out her anger on her philandering husband (James Marsters, forever Spike) by wreaking havoc on inhabitants of their small town. ... CBS' A Gifted Man (8/7c) gets an ER vibe when Eriq La Salle guests as Evan Morris, an empathetic neuro-shrink Michael woos to join his practice. Evan's nickname is "E-Mo," as in "emo," which makes him the flip side of the gruff Dr. Peter Benton. (This is also a reunion of sorts, as Gifted Man's executive producer Neal Baer handled similar duties for many years on ER.) Sadly, the stunt casting is the most interesting thing about this routine episode, which suggests the show still hasn't figured out a balance between the medical and the mystical (embodied by a too-coy Jennifer Ehle as Michael's nagging ghost ex-wife).
So what else is on? ... Oprah's Lifeclass (OWN, 8/7c) expands to two hours on Fridays effective this week, with the second hour a live online/on-air discussion with the Queen of Talk herself. Almost makes up for there being no more episodes of Oprah Behind the Scenes. ... On ABC's 20/20 (10/9c), Chris Cuomo interviews Stephanie Madoff Mack, widow of the notorious Bernie Madoff's son Mark, who committed suicide in the wake of the financial scandal. ... Did this week's tragic story of wild animals roaming an Ohio town give you nightmares? Maybe you're the audience for Animal Planet's My Extreme Animal Phobia (10/9c), a new series in which psychologist Dr. Robin Zasio subjects people to five days of intensive "exposure therapy" to tackle their fears — of spiders and bugs, pit bulls and snakes, and that's just this week's episode.
Pick of the night: The baseball action in the World Series moves to Texas as the Rangers host the Cardinals, each with one win under their belt. Saturday's game begins on Fox at 7:30/ET, and Sunday's (following football) at 8/ET.
Seeing ghosts is becoming awfully trendy — on American Horror Story, The Vampire Diaries and almost non-stop on BBC America's haunted-asylum series Bedlam (9/8c). This week's episode involves a very bad and very creepy doll that takes possession of an innocent little girl. Jed to the rescue! ... For a more family-friendly haunting, Hallmark Channel presents a new movie, Oliver's Ghost (9/8c), in which an 11-year-old boy discovers he can communicate with the cranky ghost (Martin Mull) who once owned his family's new home in the suburbs.
Where's The Worst Place to Be Gay? Logo launches its beCAUSE Docs series of documentaries with a film (8/7c) asking that question in its title, and answering it by following openly gay entertainer Scott Mills to Uganda, where homosexuality is criminalized and where he encounters virulent bigotry in every facet of society.
Pick of the night: Episode two of AMC's blockbuster zombie thriller The Walking Dead (9/8c). Even by this show's unsparing standards, last week's episode ended on a shocking note, with the accidental shooting in the woods of little Carl Grimes. The frantic aftermath introduces new characters into the fold as the action moves to the long-awaited farmhouse of Hershel (the great character actor Scott Wilson). Events build to another harrowing cliffhanger. This series just doesn't let up.
So many class acts to choose from on Sunday: Showtime's breakout freshman hit Homeland (10/9c), in which Brody's erratic behavior begins to tarnish his returning-hero image; HBO's Boardwalk Empire (9/8c), where there's no brotherly love between a combative Nucky and Eli, and Richard Harrow's solitary excursion into the woods takes an unexpected turn; CBS' The Good Wife (9/8c), with Dylan Baker reprising his delicious guest turn as the smarmy murderer Colin Sweeney, whom Alicia reluctantly enlists to testify after her key witness commits suicide. ... The second of three delightful Case Histories movies on Masterpiece Mystery! (PBS, 9/8c, check local schedules), based on the novel One Good Turn, finds Jason Isaacs' private eye Jackson Brodie getting in over his head when he tries to retrieve a drowning victim from the sea and then starts tracking her identity. Webs don't get much more tangled than in these stories.
The theme of faith, perverted or otherwise, in this season of Dexter (Showtime, 9/8c) is being hammered home relentlessly, to the point of monotony. But Dexter has good reason to pray this week, when adorable little Harrison becomes ill. Meanwhile, the Miami cops turn to the book of Revelation to decipher the latest horrific four-horsemen tableau, the work of a fiend they dub the "Doomsday Killer."
Maybe a little star power will give ABC's fading freshman series Pan Am (10:01/9:01c) some lift in the ratings. ER's Goran Visnjic begins a guest arc as a dashing passenger en route to Monte Carlo who catches the eye of both Kate and Maggie. But his involvement in Kate's latest CIA mission muddies the Riviera waters.
So what else is on? ... ABC launches a new game show, Million Dollar Mind Game, in daytime (4/3c). The premise: a team of six — in the premiere, middle-school teachers — has 60 seconds to answer questions requiring logic in hopes of a $1 million payday. After each right answer, they have to decide unanimously whether to fold or continue. ... Who better than Dirty Jobs' Mike Rowe to host an episode of Discovery's Curiosity (9/8c) titled "World's Dirtiest Man," revealing the seemingly countless microscopic organisms that live on the human body. ... Nick News With Linda Ellerbee explores the disturbing trend of youngsters getting cosmetic surgery in a special titled Minor Adjustments (Nickelodeon, 9/8c). Kids, don't try this at home.
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