Ginnifer Goodwin

There's definitely a chill in the air on the Once Upon a Time set. It's hard to keep warm as a cold winter rain falls on a picturesque town square an hour from Vancouver that's doubling for Storybrooke, Maine. But no weather, even in Canada, can match the cold contempt with which Storybrooke's mayor, Regina (Lana Parrilla), treats constituent Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin) in today's scene at a town fair.

The sweet-faced young woman is only trying to be charitable, selling candles to help the local nuns, when Regina and her son, Henry (Jared Gilmore), stop at her booth. The mayor plays compassionate until the 10-year-old walks off, and then she turns to Mary Margaret and hisses, "No amount of helping nuns is going to save your soul." Brrr!

If words were daggers, Mary Margaret would have been cut to shreds. But this is Storybrooke, the "real" world, not the ABC hit's alternate realm, the magical Fairy Tale Land, where Regina is known as the Evil Queen, adept at malevolent spells and potions. And meek grade-school teacher Mary Margaret? She's feisty Snow White. One thing both worlds share: The conflict between the Evil Queen/Regina and Snow/Mary Margaret "is ground zero," says Adam Horowitz, who created Once with Edward Kitsis. "Everything spirals out from there."  

Both producers are Lost alums, and they've incorporated some tropes from that iconic show into their latest fantasy series, including flashbacks — using new takes on old tales to reveal backstories for the characters. But Once Upon a Time is fundamentally a more warmhearted, family-friendly project than Lost. "From the start, we wanted to write a show about hope," says Horowitz, "And that quest for wish fulfillment is at the core of every fairy tale we do." Kitsis seconds the thought. "If Lost was about fathers and sons and redemption, this show is about mothers and daughters and hope."

That recipe, which mixes in plenty of romantic turmoil, is a winner. Once is the most successful new drama this season, averaging just under 10 million — mostly female — weekly viewers (12.3 million when seven days of DVR use are added), and has the youngest demos on Sunday night. Renewal is all but certain.

Here's a primer for those not yet in the Once family: Fueled by hatred of Snow White and her new husband, Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), the Evil Queen conjured a curse that planted false memories in the residents of Fairy Tale Land. She then exiled them "to a place where there are no happy endings": Storybrooke, where time stood still. No one — with a few mysterious exceptions — can enter or leave, and the likes of the Royal Couple, Little Red Riding Hood, Jiminy Cricket and Cinderella live humdrum lives with no knowledge of their fantastic pasts.

Enter Sheriff Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), who was smuggled out of Fairy Tale Land as an infant by her parents, Snow and Charming. She's followed Henry, the son she gave up at birth, to Storybrooke, where he's been adopted by the tyrannical Regina. With Emma's arrival, the clocks started moving again. Got it?

Playing two sides of the same character in different worlds is a welcome challenge for the actors. "The parts are so complex and layered," says Dallas. "My Storybrooke character, David, is the opposite of the confident Charming, who knows what his values are. Married to a woman he feels disconnected from, David is lost and confused and unable to explain his huge love for Mary Margaret."

While both Goodwin and Parrilla also enjoy their double roles, Morrison insists she's just fine being Storybrooke-bound: "Everyone wants me to say I'm bummed that I'm not in both worlds, but there's so much going on with Emma. I can't imagine wishing that away."

The March 18 episode, "Heart of Darkness," tunnels deep into the animosity between the Queen and Snow White while exploring another recurring theme: Evil is made, not born. "The Evil Queen didn't start out dark," says Kitsis. "The question is, what took away the light in her?" But this time, Snow's at the crossroads of good and evil. "The potion she drank in an earlier episode took away her love for Charming, and now there's a void in her heart," Kitsis says. Since she's plotting revenge against the Queen, it seems darkness has the upper hand.

Meanwhile, back in Storybrooke, David's estranged wife, Kathryn (Anastasia Griffith), is still missing, and Mary Margaret, David's proclaimed true love and sometime mistress, is the prime suspect. She's troubled enough to ask the town's shady fixer, Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle), the former Rumplestiltskin, to represent her.

David and Mary Margaret are not the only ones who have reason to harm Kathryn, Horowitz teases. "We're going to look at a lot of characters in relation to Kathryn and start to wonder what the curse did to them," he says. "That mystery will play out through the season." How about looking at the woman who brought the curse in the first place? Not so fast, Parrilla says. "The curse could be more powerful than the Queen," she hints. "Rumplestiltskin warned that she was taking on something that had repercussions beyond her knowing." Someone darker than the black widow herself? Who?

Well, there's the new guy, a self-proclaimed writer named August W. Booth (Eion Bailey), who somehow made his way into the spellbound town. His first act was to get his hands on Henry's totemic book of fairy tales. Is he a magical force? Or maybe the book's author? Bailey is enigmatic: "What I can share is that August is central to the story from its origin. He has an awareness that helps him know things that other people in the story do not. And he helps Emma see beyond the tangible."

For more on Once Upon a Time, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, March 8!