I'll admit, I went into the New York Comic Con premiere of Once Upon a Time's seventh season hoping for little and expecting even less. But much to my surprise, the new story is good. It's dynamic and interesting, with actors who are giving their all to a different twist on a familiar tale. The only problem is that the new Once Upon a Time has three painful reminders of what the show used to be, and they don't fit in this new story any more.
The episode opens on younger Henry Mills saying goodbye to Regina (Lana Parrilla) as he heads off on his own adventure. He's tired of writing other people's stories and wants to find his own. Several years later, an adult Henry (now played by Andrew J. West) is riding his motorcycle through an Enchanted Forest looking for adventure (during the panel, the showrunners were asked where the hell he's getting petrol in a magical land, and the answer basically amounted to "we didn't bother coming up with a reason").
Silly petrol tank aside, they could not have picked a better actor to take on the new lead role of Henry Mills. I mean it. Sure, he's an Uber driver who's struggling with writer's block, but those add to his charm instead of detract. West has managed to create a character that's both familiar and brand new, taking on some of Henry's childhood mannerisms without making the character seem immature. After all, he is a husband and father now, even if his daughter Lucy (Alison Fernandez) remembers and he doesn't.
Enter Cinderella (Dania Ramirez). She and Henry meet after her carriage nearly plows into his motorcycle, and some light flirtation ensues, along with a nasty right hook. At first, I had some trepidation at about this actress; she seemed wooden. But the more I saw her onscreen the more I liked her. I feel like some of the episode's early scenes were shot first, and it was taking her a while to get used to the character. By the time Cinderella was at the ball, wanting not to marry but rather kill the prince for how he'd destroyed her family, I was invested in her story. Then, she didn't go through with it... only for her stepmother to do the job and frame Cinderella for the crime. It was riveting. The action scene that followed was some of the best stunt work Once Upon a Time has done in years.
So, who is Cinderella in the real cursed world of Hyperion Heights, Seattle? She's Jacinda, single mother to Lucy, who's struggling to keep a job and her integrity at the same time -- at first quitting her job at the chicken shack because the owner was a jerk, only to ultimately cave because she doesn't want to lose custody of her daughter. Jacinda is roommates with Sabine, who you might also know as Tiana (Mekia Cox). She's there, and not much else, at least not yet. There's also Alice (Rose Reynolds), a mysterious figure who tries to warn Henry against meddling in other people's stories, clearly setting up the conflict for the future.
Jacinda is struggling to keep custody of Lucy against Victoria Belfrey, known as Lady Tremaine (or Cinderella's stepmother). In the fairy tale world, Lady Tremaine is clearly anti-magic, horrifically killing Cinderella's fairy godmother after declaring magic means nothing when faced with fear. It's an interesting development for this new villain, having someone who hates magic instead of worships it... even if the actress (Gabrielle Anwar) isn't always my favourite. Victoria is basically a real estate agent version of The Devil Wears Prada's Miranda Priestly, who's buying out a bunch of older businesses in Hyperion Heights so she can gentrify the fairy tale characters out of the neighbourhood.
This is where Regina comes in, now called Roni. Parrilla confirmed at the panel that this is actually Regina under a new curse, and not an alternate-storybook version of the character, which had been previously speculated. Roni is a bar owner who, when Henry first meets her, is planning on selling her establishment to Victoria. She's sick of how much the neighbourhood is losing its community vibe in favour of juice bars, but doesn't think she can actually make a difference. Of course, Henry inspires her to turn down Victoria's offer, and it looks like we're going to see her become a major community activist over the course of the season. She's joined in this world by Captain Hook, who's taken on the role of police detective Rogers, and his morally questionable partner, who we know as Rumplestiltskin.
And here's where we encounter the biggest problem with the show: These three older characters have no place in this new world. They all feel like tacked-on additions that distract from the promising storyline, adding little except brand recognition. Colin O'Donoghue seems unsure of what his character is supposed to be doing as a non-pirate, and Robert Carlyle looks disinterested as hell to be reprising the part of Rumple. The one who's most at ease is Parrilla, but even she fails to feel like a natural part of this new story. I know they're trying to adjust fans to the new direction the show is taking, but they feel like baggage that Once Upon a Time would have been better off leaving behind.
The New York Comic Con panel ended with a sneak peek at a scene in episode two, a flashback where we see Hook teaching younger Henry how to sword fight before he heads off on his adventure. Here we see Jennifer Morrison, who agreed to return to the role of Emma Swan for one episode in season seven. But, again, her presence was awkward and unwelcome. It felt like she was going through the motions more than reprising the role of our beloved Saviour one final time.
I expected little when the new Once Upon a Time began, but by the end I was happier than I'd felt in a long time watching this show. It was a return to what Once Upon a Time used to be, before the script grew lazy and the actors became complacent. I'm actually excited to see where this book goes, way more than I thought I would be. I just wish the leftovers from a series long-gone felt like they belonged in this brave new world.