Thursday, June 21, 2012

Once Upon a Time

Sorry about the recent lack of content round here.  I'm trying to change, I promise!

Anyway, after months of pestering me, my girlfriend finally got me to watch the new ABC drama Once Upon a Time.  And, guess what?  I liked it.  A lot.

For the uninitiated, the show is basically LOST with fairy tale characters.  The set-up is that the Snow White's Evil Queen cast a curse to take away all the happy endings, throwing all the various fairy-tale characters into our world with no memory of their previous lives.  The main character is Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), who is the only one who can break the curse but does not believe.

The show is not perfect, and I will get to that in a minute.  But first I want to explain what I love about this show, before I start picking it apart.  First, it is a successful serialized drama on a major network, which is a good sign for television as a medium.  Second, it has a really heavy emphasis on characterization (though this is occasionally flawed: more on this later).  And third, it takes the flashback story structure from LOST, combined with the familiar stories of fairy-tales, and creates compelling stories filled with unexpected twists and turns of character.

It is this theme of telling old stories in new ways that feels so refreshing to me.  The show asks the question of why we need these kinds of stories.  What is it about fantasy and specifically the "happily-ever-after" tales that make us need to keep telling them?  The show explores this idea through frankly brilliant re-imaginings of  classic fairy-tales that simultaneously nod to previous tellings while maintaining a feel that is all its own.  Once Upon a Time gives us a Magic Mirror that was once the Genie of the Lamp of Agrabah, before wishing himself to be by the Queen's side forever.  We get Grumpy the Dwarf, who was once called Dreamy before losing his chance at true love.  Each of these characters get flashbacks of their real life in fairy land as we get to know who they are in our world.  The Queen is the Mayor of the town, while the Mirror is the local reporter who does her bidding.  Jiminy Cricket is the town therapist who goes by Dr. Hopper.

One of the most important stories of the first season is the troubled romance between Mary Margaret (Snow White) and David (Prince Charming).  I never thought anything would make me love Snow White as a character, but this show does it.  In fairyland, Snow is not the helpless damsel of the classic tale.  She is 3-dimensional badass outlaw, and it is awesome.  They also do not make the all-too-common fallacy that a love story makes a female character weak.  To the contrary: Snow's ability to love Prince Charming and her willingness to fight for that love is one of her strongest traits.  Their romance is one of the most important compelling parts of the show, and it makes their struggle to be together in the real world so heartbreaking.

The highlight character for me is Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold.  Robert Carlyle's performance is simply amazing, and the character is one of the most effective and sinister antagonists I've seen in a long time.  Carlyle is a fantastic actor and brings an incredible amount of depth to the character.

Of course, the show does have flaws.  I feel like it takes itself much too seriously.  A little humor is almost never a bad thing, and a bit of tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of the silliness of its premise would go a long way to making the whole thing easier to swallow.  Maybe I am spoiled coming from the Whedon fandom, but I think the writers could do to understand that a bit of humor doesn't have to hinder drama, and in fact can enhance it.  I would suggest that more episodes be written by Jane Espenson...

The Evil Queen/Mayor Regina is the main antagonist in the first season, yet her development as a character is simply not strong enough to support this major role.  A very important aspect of her character and the plot of the season is Regina's hatred of Snow/Mary Margaret.  Unfortunately, the writers decided to not reveal the reason for this animosity until one of the last episodes, leaving the main antagonists' motivation vague and unclear for most of the season.  Most of the time, Regina rarely rises above the level of caricature.  She is like a cartoon villain, which does not do any favors for a show that is already difficult to take seriously at times.

The show had a distinct tendency to stagnate, with many episodes flying past without anything major happening.  While I think a lot this was sacrificing plot for character and world building, I think it was too much.  LOST was a similar show with a large ensemble cast and a focus on character development that also had a very slow first season.  However, that was a deliberate kind of slow.  The first season of LOST ratcheted up the tension from the very first episode, so that by the time the season finale happened, every episode that came before felt integral in crafting the tone.  In Once Upon a Time, the character development was there, but the plot build-up was not, making the finale feel very sudden.  It can be very difficult to have a passive protagonist, that is a protagonist that does nothing or very little to affect the main arc of the story.  Dollhouse tried and failed.  Awake tried and kind of succeeded.  Once Upon a Time has Emma who, by nature of her non-belief, does almost nothing to effect the main story, instead letting herself be caught up in other character's subplots or in Regina's machinations.  While this makes sense from a character perspective, I think it has a lot to do with the stagnation of much of the season. 

Of course, I critique because I love.  The finale was pretty dang game changing, and I think its quite possible that many of the show's problems will disappear with next season.  I'm really looking forward to seeing where it goes next.


  1. which does not due...?

    love the show too.

    1. Wow. That was a strange typo. Thanks for the tip!