This article contains mild spoilers for season 1 of Once Upon A Time.
What if every fairy tale character you know was trapped in our world – the land of ruthless landlords, unhappy marriages, manipulative mayors, and Mummy issues?
Then that would make for a very bad Disney movie. And since this is an ABC production, those happy endings have got to come back, because when Disney subsidiaries start deflowering fairy tales it’s a sure sign that the death of all hopes and dreams is nigh.
The result is a fresh, intriguing, sometimes silly and sometimes downright illogical story that hops the boundary between fantasy and reality. Luckily, this ambitious project rests in the capable hands of former Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who keep it from crumbling beneath the inherent paradoxes in its premise and dream-is-a-wish roots. It’s a little off-balance in places, but the strength of the characters and imagination in their tales is enough to make all but the worst cynics forgive a few faults in translation and enjoy it for what it is: a magical, innately hopeful human story.
The saga begins when ten-year-old Henry Mills arrives at the apartment of lonely bail bonds collector Emma Swan declaring that he is her son and she, along with everyone in his hometown of Storybrooke, Maine, is a character in a fairy tale book. Emma in fact does have a son, who she gave up in a closed adoption when she was 18, and apparently he’s grown into a complete kook over the past ten years.
So Emma brings Henry back to his adoptive mother in Storybrooke, who is really the Evil Queen of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs fame but now lords over the town as its bitchy dictatorial mayor. Through a series of flashbacks we learn about the Evil Queen’s quest for revenge against Snow White for “taking away what she loved” (the show is too feminist to give much credence to the fairest-of-them-all conflict). The Queen has cast a curse on all the denizens of the Enchanted Forest which traps them in our world, ageless and unaware of their former selves, with everything they love ripped away from them. Shortly before the curse is cast, Rumpelstiltskin tells Snow and Prince Charming that their daughter Emma is the only hope for breaking it, so they send the newborn off to our world ahead of the rest in a magic wardrobe.
Nobody knows about this except the Evil Queen Regina and Henry (and perhaps a few others, but that is a mystery for later in the series). Of course, everyone thinks the kid is out to lunch. Emma, seeing that her son is emotionally disturbed and has an evil witch for a mother, decides she was just kidding about the closed-adoption thing and camps out in Storybrooke so she can hang out with Henry. She goes along with Henry’s fairy tale story on the recommendation of his psychologist Dr. Hopper (aka Jiminy Cricket), but it’s going to take a little magic to get her to believe for real so she can fulfill her destiny as the saviour of Storybrooke.
Each episode in the series features parallel storylines, one taking place in Storybrooke in the present day, and one a Lost-style flashback to the involved characters’ lives in the Enchanted Forest. OUaT’s greatest strength is that it is character-driven, giving each individual not only a backstory but also a set of personal struggles which add a human element often missing from the original fairytale that inspired them. Some episodes temporarily shift the show’s focus to side characters, such as Ruby/Little Red in the episode Red-Handed or Jefferson/the Mad Hatter in Hat Trick. Others weave together a continuing story, mostly revolving around Snow White and Prince Charming and their long, turbulent journey to the altar. The Evil Queen Regina is a staple in almost every flashback sequence, equally spiteful and unsympathetic in all but her own backstory episode.
Unlike the tantalizing but eventually frustrating never-ending series of WTFs that was Lost, season 1 of OUaT tells a nice complete story that progresses steadily throughout. The game-changing final episode promises that season 2 won’t be a lot of the same old same old, either.
Though the Storybrooke reality and the Enchanted Forest reality each have plots in their own right, it’s the space between the two where the real magic happens. Regina’s love for the father she murdered becomes love for her adopted son Henry. Rumpelstiltskin’s dark deal-making magic becomes the wiles of Mr. Gold, a shrewd self-interested capitalist and finagler. The Huntsman’s bondage to Regina because of his stolen heart becomes Sheriff Graham’s lapdog obedience and an emotionless sexual relationship.
These fantasy-to-reality translations are what keep the viewer guessing, preventing OUaT from turning into just another set of fairytale adaptations. But the changeover mechanic is not without it problems. Take the story of David/Prince Charming, for example. In Storybrooke he is married to Kathryn/Princess Abigail, but he has feelings for Mary Margaret/Snow White fueled by his forgotten former life. The show seems to be saying that it’s okay for him to cheat on his wife because he and Snow White are bound by true love and are meant to be together. Wait, whaa?
There’s a story in there somewhere about the harsh complexities of real life versus the comforting simplicity of fantasy, but OUaT frankly doesn’t have the gravitas to pull it off, and seems only vaguely interested in the issue, anyway. Sure, Mary Margaret and David have plenty of emotional talks about how what they’re doing is wrong, but are viewers really supposed to root for them to do ‘the right thing’? No, we are hoping that Kathryn somehow winds up conveniently out of the way so Mary Margaret and David can be together, because Twoo Wuv must prevail in the end. The show has a way of creating uncomfortable justifications for itself.
That’s why Once Upon a Time, like anything with Disney (sans Pixar) behind it, is best served with a romantic attitude and a willingness to dismiss the real-world problems that send storybook logic up in a puff of fairy dust. The need to dismiss reality may in fact be part of the show’s appeal. We are like Henry as Dr. Hopper describes him: we retreat into fairy tales because they make more sense than real life. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, when it comes to Sunday night television.
OUaT features a Lost-esque ginormous cast of characters, and like Lost it dexterously juggles them all, making sure no one is unimportant or unengaging. Emma (Jennifer Morrison, of House fame) perhaps suffers for not having much of a fairytale backstory, but she’s a refreshing female lead for her determination, her tough-but-caring attitude, and for being a bamf at all the right moments. Mary Margaret/Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and David/Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) are solid in the present day but really shine in their many flashback episodes, a version of the Snow White story in which Charming actually has a personality and Snow takes control of her own life for a change. Regina/the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) is the most fun to watch among the leads. Her Queen is unrealistically yet fascinatingly irredeemable, while her Storybrooke mayor by contrast has some enticing moments of sympathy.
The real standouts, though, are among the many other Storybrooke citizens who give life to both the fairytale and real-world plotlines. Mr. Gold/Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) is brilliant, mysterious and self-serving and sympathetic all at once, traits which come together to create a powerful and thoroughly unpredictable player. Carlyle is obviously having a blast with his off-kilter character, tight pants and maniacal little laughs.
Dr. Hopper/Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge), Sheriff Graham/the Huntsman (Jamie Dornan), and Sidney Glass/the Genie (Giancarlo Esposito, of Breaking Bad) all bring their characters to life with both magic and pathos. Jared S. Gilmore of Mad Men plays a precocious and adorable Henry, and Eion Bailey takes August Boothe seamlessly from smug stranger to desperate believer running out of time.
The show also features a grown-up Red Riding Hood with a supernatural secret (Meghan Ory), a unique take on Beauty and the Beast’s Belle (Lost’s Emilie de Ravin), a thoroughly creepy Mad Hatter (Sebastian Stan), and a slew of dwarves led by a Grumpy with a surprising past (Lee Arenberg of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies).
In the end, Once Upon a Time has a lot going for it. It’s sometimes silly but it’s got a big heart, big ambition, and a unique idea behind it. The major players in the show are mostly female, and every one avoids the three deadly tropes of poorly-written female characters (damsel-in-distress, male-gaze magnet, and butch anti-femme) and proves herself a self-sufficient woman with a strong and engaging personality. The Disney references are so shameless it’s funny, and there are plenty of nods to geek culture in there, too. The show has wide appeal, with last season drawing sizable chunks of the market both above and under age 18. The occasional cheese-fests and careless tossing around of the power of True Love are tame enough to be bearable, and really, what is a fairy tale without those things?
OUaT promises to keep its steam with an entirely new breed of problem in the second season (if you haven’t seen the trailer yet, check it out here). The OUaT team has also announced new characters including Mulan, Captain Hook, Sleeping Beauty, and Sir Lancelot.
Season 2 of Once Upon a Time premieres this Sunday, September the 30th at 8/7c on ABC. It will air in the U.K. on Channel 5 at an unconfirmed later date.
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