Paul Bunyan and the Jolly Green Giant may be the rare mythical characters that call Minnesota home, but don’t be surprised if Sleeping Beauty wakes up someday in Uptown Minneapolis.
If the princess and her pals make the move to the Midwest, it’ll be due to glowing reviews from their bosses at “Once Upon a Time,” which returns Friday for its seventh season.
The show’s Edina-bred co-creator, Edward Kitsis, and his writing partner Adam Horowitz, who married a Roseville native on the University of Minnesota campus, sprinkle Minnesota references throughout their hit drama, in which fairy-tale favorites adjust to a modern-day world.
“I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 24 years, but I still refer to Minneapolis as home,” said Kitsis, who gets back to the Twin Cities two or three times a year, listens to the Replacements while he’s writing and keeps a poster of the state hanging in his office. “I’m still rooting for the Vikings.”
Kitsis and Horowitz, who met as students at the University of Wisconsin, attempted to launch their Hollywood career in 1995 with a script about a New Yorker who relocates to Minnesota. The story didn’t sell, but the pair soon found themselves working for teen dramas such as “Popular,” “Felicity” and “One Tree Hill.” Their reputation led them to the grown-up assignment of writing for “Lost,” where they specialized in dialogue for Sawyer and Hurley and wound up as executive producers for the final two seasons.
Based on their work for the landmark series, including penning the penultimate episode, the two sold ABC on “Once Upon a Time,” a high-concept drama in which Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), the daughter of Prince Charming and Snow White, is charged with breaking a curse that transported storybook favorites from the Enchanted Forest to the not-so-enchanted “real world,” represented by the fictional town of Storybrooke, Maine.
The series has never finished in the top 20, but it has attracted fans tired of predictable procedurals and trash-talking reality shows.
“The fandom has taken on a life of its own,” said Colin O’Donoghue, who plays Captain Hook. “It allows them to escape into something where they can feel safe.”
Viewers eventually learned that Swan grew up in foster homes across Minnesota with flashbacks set in Richfield, Falcon Heights and Mankato.
But those references are less important to the show’s DNA than the state spirit.
“The show is dark, but it’s never bleak,” Horowitz said. “There’s an optimism I feel whenever I get back to Minnesota, and that’s reflected in the show.”
When the new season opens, Swan and other characters are missing. That’s partly an economic decision, as top actors demand higher salaries as time goes on. Six core cast members, including Morrison, Sean Maguire (Robin Hood) and Ginnifer Goodwin (Snow White), have departed.
“Some people’s contracts were up. Some wanted to leave the show,” said Kitsis, who works out of L.A. but often visits the show’s Vancouver set. “That’s the tough thing about this business. It isn’t just professional; it’s personal. We became really close with a lot of these people. There are days when I miss writing Snow White and Prince Charming scenes. ”
Business matters aside, the creators were looking to give the story new energy, especially now that the series has moved from Sundays to a more challenging Friday night slot.
When we pick up the action, Swan’s son Henry (Andrew J. West), whom she gave up for adoption, is now a full-blown adult dealing with a whole new curse, this time in Seattle. His adoptive mother Regina, the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla), has gone from Storybrooke mayor to a denim-wearing bar owner.
Gabrielle Anwar, best known as Al Pacino’s tango partner in “Scent of a Woman,” joins the cast as Cinderella’s evil stepmother.
“It’s an endless story, but they constantly keep it fresh and interesting,” said Parrilla, one of the few original cast members remaining. “That’s why, six years later, I’m still here. It’s fun as an actor to be part of something that’s constantly evolving.”
Swan’s departure may make it harder for Kitsis and Horowitz to reference Minnesota, but don’t expect them to stop trying.
Kitsis’ wish upon a star is to find a way to squeeze Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” or “Take Me With U” into an episode. The pair used the Suburbs’ “Love Is the Law” and the Replacements’ “Within Your Reach” for their short-lived 2016 Freeform series “Dead of Summer.”
No matter the soundtrack, the two swear their Midwest ties will keep them grounded.
“My hometown friends aren’t impressed with me at all,” said Kitsis, who was born in Mankato and grew up in Edina. “They have a very Minnesota attitude in which we don’t take anything too seriously. I feel like I take that into everything I do, as well. There isn’t a moment I don’t kind of think of Minnesota.”