Fantasy series <i>Once Upon a Time</i>.

Fantasy series Once Upon a Time.

IN THE sensational opening scene of Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom, news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) spells out a convincing case for why the US isn't the greatest nation on earth.

He tells a theatre full of wide-eyed college students that the US leads the world in only three areas: defence spending; the number of incarcerated citizens per capita; and the number of adults who believe angels are real.

The thoughts of this misanthropic curmudgeon come to mind watching this popular, family-friendly fantasy drama, whose return series has been one of the unqualified hits of the American autumn TV season. Created by Lost writers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, it rests on the fanciful premise that Snow White, Prince Charming and a clutch of other fairytale characters escaped the Enchanted Forest for a quaint town in Maine called Storybrooke.

There they remain frozen in time, with only piecemeal and fleeting recollections of their magical pasts and ''true'' identities, their powers and imaginations stymied by the Evil Queen.

The ultimate bogeyman of American conservatives, the Evil Queen in this dimension is a government official, mayor Regina Mills. She rules her minions through spells and by removing their ability to dream.

It's through the story books that 10-year-old tearaway Henry (Jared Gilmore) reads that the mysteries of contemporary Storybrooke and the mediaeval forest - the drama plays out in each parallel setting - are unlocked.

Henry is convinced that his former adoptive mother, ballsy New York bondswoman Emma (Jennifer Morrison), is in fact the lost daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) who dispatched her from the forest to escape the curse of the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla).

Safe to say that Once upon a Time probably isn't the kind of show the fictional McAvoy would watch. Indeed, there's something outright silly and childish about the whole enterprise, with its cheesy romances, cardboard cut-out baddies casting spells, fairies mourning the days when problems could be solved with a sprinkling of fairy dust, vengeful wraiths, and stormy curses raining down on the luckless prisoners of Storybrooke.

Unlike Lost, one of the problems with Once upon a Time is that the storylines are simply not exciting or involving enough. Invariably, just as events in one setting build some kind of momentum, we are whisked away to the alternative world.

It doesn't help that the principal protagonist meant to guide the viewer through this complicated fantasy is one of the most mopish and charmless child characters to have qualified for such a role.

With the notable exception of Robert Carlyle - who plays the menacing yet doleful antique-shop owner Mr Gold in the contemporary world and the filthy, degenerate and dentally challenged Rumpelstiltskin in the other - the actors take their roles with a degree of seriousness that is neither warranted nor needed.

The new series makes a promising start, though, when a mysterious man (played by Michael Raymond-James - True Blood, The Walking Dead) whom we haven't met before, returns to his modest Manhattan apartment, where a carrier pigeon delivers a postcard from Storybrooke with the word ''Broken'' written cryptically on the back. We soon learn that though much of Storybrooke has been destroyed, the curse has indeed been broken. Who is this man, and who sent the card?

But as the mob prepares to destroy Regina for her part in their misery, the cooler and wiser heads of Henry and Charming prevail.

Meanwhile, in the forest, Princess Aurora (Sarah Bolger) is awoken from her sleep by her betrothed Prince Phillip (Julian Morris) and his guide Mulan (Jamie Chung).

The scorched pocket of the fairytale world that these new characters inhabit has escaped the curse and before the episode is out, they are joined by two other characters from the real world.

Well, real to some, anyway.