The premise of the show is genius. Imagine if every storybook character you can think of, from Snow White to Captain Hook to some major surprises in between lived in the same enchanted forest and basically knew each other. Now imagine if all those characters were suddenly transported to our world, to live in a town named Storybrooke in Maine. Only, none of these characters has any memory of who they really are. The one exception is the evil Queen who cast the curse which brought them all to Storybrooke. She's made herself the mayor.
The story is largely presented through the eyes of Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), who is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. She was sent to our world to avoid the curse and save the rest of them. She, however, has no idea about any of this, nor does she believe it when she is told. Her only concern is Henry. Henry is the son she abandoned when she was young, and he lives in Storybrooke. He tells Emma about her destiny and shows her a book of fairy tales as proof that everyone in Storybrooke is from a fairy tale. Incidentally, he has been adopted by the evil Queen, who is raising him as her adopted son.
All told, each episode is entertaining, though some are better than others. Several of the characters are really quite excellent as well. In particular, the evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) is excellent. She’s complex and interesting and you never quite know when she will be evil or when she will try to be good. Parrilla does a great job too of portraying a woman who is simultaneously wildly out of control and incapable of taking NO for an answer, and yet a woman who desperately seeks affirmation from other people. Even better, noted actor Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting) plays Rumpelstiltskin, who is the heart of this show. Rumpelstiltskin is the evil force behind everything that has happened. He is a joy to watch as he manipulates everyone and demonstrates an utter lack of conscience. Minor characters like Grumpy the Dwarf and Hook are excellent as well, as is young Henry (Jared Gilmore).
If you compare this to the better network productions, like those made by HBO or AMC, you will be struck immediately by the higher production values on cable. The film quality on those shows is that of film stock rather than the made-for-TV video like Once uses. This makes a huge difference in the “real” feel of the productions. Further, the cable networks rarely let commercial breaks dictate the pace of the story, and they will simply stop for a break rather than forcing in an unnatural cliffhanger. The result is that the cable shows feel more realistic, like they involve real people rather than actors. Moreover, the other networks aren’t afraid to interject more complexity. People die every episode on HBO. Lovers have sex and betray each other. Evil people do evil things which hurt people. And good characters are routinely presented with complex and difficult moral choices that rarely offer easy solutions.
So ultimately, I would say that Once is an entertaining show that leaves a ton of potential on the table. It’s still worth watching, but it could have been awesome if it had been freed from the restrictions that still seem to haunt network broadcast television.