Once Upon a Time, Season 1, Lookback

I was almost able to stay away...

You know the Grumpy Cat meme? I love that cat. That cat could be my spirit animal. When that cat shows up on my computer screen I feel like someone out there understands my exasperation. It’s not like I’m a terrible pessimist, I just prefe cynicism. Basically Grumpy Cat is a perfect manifestation of the face I make on the inside when confronted by people’s shenanigans. It was also the face I made when I first caught wind of the ABC series, Once Upon a Time (OUaT). An entire twenty-two episodes per season devoted to what I was sure would be the most gratuitous rehashing of classic fairy tales to date? Even worse, one of the stars, saccharine sweet Ginnifer Goodwin (Snow White), had actually begun dating her romantic lead, Josh Dallas (Prince Charming). It was all too cloying. I made up my mind that I would never watch it.Never.

After all, I had to put my foot down somewhere. Mainstream pop culture wasn’t going to get one over on me again; not since I made the mistake of reading the Twilight series (albeit in a misguided attempt to get current on book trends). There’s a week of my life I won’t be getting back. Never again would I be so horribly suckered by romantic dreck masquerading under the guise of a genre I love and admire.

And then it happened. You see I make my living by herding cats (not an occupation for the faint of heart) and at the end of a typical eight hour day I often become full of … steam. My lunch hour is therefore vital; if I don’t get to let off some steam related pressure by midday I might burst (read: go from grumpy to psycho). No one wants a burst cat wrangler; it’s bad for business. The best way to release built up steam, since I am way too lazy to go to the gym (or god forbid take up jogging), is to watch television. Something escapist. Something funny. But one particularly frustrating day, I found that I had nothing to watch. The Daily Show was on a break, I’d completely given up on Supernatural and I was otherwise caught up on the rest of my shows. What to do? Read? Naturally, that was the same day I had left my Kindle Fire at home. I began desperately surfing Netflix and discovered that the entire first season of OUaT was available for streaming. With a giant head full of steam, I decided that while OUaT might look unappealing on paper, I had to admit that I didn’t hate Goodwin as an actress; she had been pretty good on Big Love. Plus Lana Parrilla (the Evil Queen) and Robert Carlyle (Rumplestiltskin) are ridiculously talented, even on their worst day. I figured I’d watch the pilot episode and have a nice, relaxing laugh at the show’s expense.

By the end of the week, I wasn’t laughing anymore. And speaking of expense, I’d blown through all twenty-two episodes of Season 1 and then subscribed to Hulu Plus just to catch up on the first half of Season 2. Even though paying $7 a month for content which came with multiple commercial breaks during each and every freaking episode unleashed my inner Grumpy Cat all over again.

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I found the series to be inescapably addictive and I got hooked (I know a lot of you OUaT fangirls would like to get “Hooked,” but get real, the man wears too much eyeliner and lace on his cuffs, you can’t tell me you’d date a goth pirate in real life, yeesh). I started to exhibit all manner of embarrassing behavior. I caught myself calling friends just to rave about the show. I watched obscure Robert Carlyle movies. Heck, if it weren’t for the fact that I’m still dealing with the pain and trauma of premature cancellation, I would have revisited Stargate Universe (you Firefly fans will feel me there).

What can I say? Grumpy Cat was wrong about OUaT. The writing is clever, the ladies frequently wear pants and kick butt and the bad guys have actual motive. Plus the show is being shot in Vancouver and holy heck is it lovely there (reminds me of Seattle and would make me want to take up hiking if I didn’t live in Jersey). It is in no way the fatuous drivel I thought it would be.

Of course the series is not perfect; it does suffer from a bad case of bloat and Parrilla needs to throw a bucket of cold water on her overly excitable hair/makeup/costume people. C’mon guys, half the time she looks like a drag queen who has a thing for goth glam rock.

So what are we watching? Fairy tales are trending right now in TV, film and comics. Was this merely a cheap rip off of Bill Willingham’s Fables? Would a sexy, bikini clad Cinderella come charging through a snowy Russian forest to take out enemy operatives?

In her bikini. In the snow.

Thankfully no; although ABC did acquire the rights to Fables in 2008. Now that sounds awfully suspect, doesn’t it? For whatever reason, Willingham and the network could not pull together and create a series everyone agreed upon (the same thing happened in 2005 when NBC attempted to make the adaptation work). You may rest assured, hardcore Fables fans, OUaT is a different animal altogether. Personally, I think Willignham’s work would be best suited for HBO or Showtime, where the sex and violence could be fully realized. Perhaps it could replace the monumental embarrassment that True Blood has become. Hit me up, HBO, I have ideas.

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Since OUaT is not relegated to a nudity-friendly channel, everyone keeps their clothes on and sexy time is largely implied. Actual violence is used sparingly; which makes it all the more effective when it does occur. The plot follows the same fairy tale characters you grew up with (and which weren’t fraught with licensing entanglements for ABC’s legal team) who have, in the context of the show, been cursed.

The characters are trapped in our world, the real world, where they live boring little lives in the picturesque town of Storybrooke Maine. They don’t realize that anything is wrong or that they’ve been trapped in one area of Maine for almost thirty years. They have no memory of who they were or where they come from. The curse’s infinite loop only starts to unravel when Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) comes to town to help her son Henry, who she gave up for adoption eleven years earlier. As Emma and Henry try to undo the curse, they interact with specific characters and each episode cuts back and forth between Storybrooke and a parallel plot point that occurred pre-curse in the Enchanted Forest. The storyline in the Enchanted Forest centers on those specific characters, allowing them to develop and giving the viewer an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of just what the hell everyone is doing in Maine in the first place.

Yes, from the outset there appear to be plot holes big enough to drive a VW Beetle through. How did Henry continue to get older while everyone around him stayed the same age? Didn’t anyone notice? This can all be explained away (and it frequently is) as “magic.” Why should we put up with such a convenient excuse? Consider the people behind the series and have a little faith that those plot holes are merely openings for future story development.

Fans of Lost will recognize this technique as part and parcel of the storytelling style that OUaT show runners Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis have long since used to great effect. And yes, the series is loaded to the friggin’ gills with Easter eggs (even Lost Easter eggs!). The plot is layered, character backgrounds overlap and everything is much more deeply entwined than you could imagine at first glance. See? This is how they get you! They draw you in and you have to accept the fact that you really won’t know what’s going on until the last episode. Even by the end of Season 1 I figured that the individuals who I thought held all the power would probably end up being puppets, manipulated by an unseen master (remember Locke?). The first season is seeded with clues to this effect and it doesn’t help that the so called good characters can be just as manipulative as the bad ones.

Keep an eye on that Blue Fairy. I have a feeling she’s full of crap.

That the inhabitants of Storybrooke are not the Disney-perfect iterations of their fairy tale characters is the highest compliment I can give them. We often forget that fairy tales trace their origins back hundreds of years, before literacy, to the oral storytelling tradition. People living in the Dark Ages needed entertainment too. They didn’t just dig around in the mud all day (“How do you know he’s the King?” “He hasn’t got shit all over him.” Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail). They told stories and watched morality plays that contemplated conveniently church sanctioned themes about the battle between good and evil. While fairy tales and morality plays are two distinctly separate entities, with the former being rooted in folk tales traditional to a specific culture, both forms of entertainment were frequently used to reinforce certain social or moral messages relevant to the time.

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We find moral (although definitely not biblical) themes wound up tightly in OUaT. The wily antagonists are forever warning the heroes that, “Magic always comes with a price.” Simply put; everything you do is going to have a consequence. There are no shortcuts in life; you reap what you sow. You’d think the characters would take their own advice. Like every great story, the villains turn out to be fully realized people with complicated motivations of their own. The Beast is not just an empty shell to be painted with broad strokes inherent in his bad behavior; he learned to be a Beast through his life experiences. Coincidently, the Beast is also Rumplestiltskin, who has reaped a boatload of his own consequences. Rumple, who was subject to a life of abuse, humiliation and the eventual loss of his son is unfortunately a great example of the bloat problem I mentioned earlier. The writers get a little wound up writing for Carlyle and tend to neglect some of the other characters. For example, next to Rumple, the Evil Queen becomes tedious as she goes to ridiculous lengths in pursuit of vengeance over the death of her beloved stable boy. Rumple’s romantic interest, Belle, also falls flat. At first I was inclined to blame the actress, Emilie de Ravin, but I am happy to report that she finally comes into her own by the second half of the second season (really writers, really?).

Still, the upshot to Parilla’s Evil Queen flogging the revenge theme in the Enchanted Forest is that it balances nicely with her complicated mother/son relationship with Henry (whom she adopted) in Storybrooke. What happens (and what you wear) in the Enchanted Forest becomes an over the top rendition of what goes on in the real world. The two storylines complement each other nicely and the characters make decisions within the parameters of both their background and their environment; meaning that their decisions and reactions can vary accordingly.

For example, in the Enchanted Forest, Snow White is a plucky princess who falls in love with Prince Charming, but only after belting him in the face with a rock. Not so in Storybrooke, where Snow is a lonely teacher who has one night stands with the local alcoholic doctor. Meanwhile, Charming is stuck in a coma (dear TV writers, please stop using the coma plot device) and when he awakes he is not a steadfast, bridge troll killing prince, but a conflicted suburban husband who can’t choose between his pretty blonde wife and the aforementioned cute teacher.

Personally I’d have gone for Ruby, the ridiculously hot waitress/big bad wolf, but that’s just me. Really. She’s ridiculously hot.

I will freely admit that I shrieked “sack up” at the screen every time Charming dithered between his wife and Snow, all the while letting a single tear fall down his cheek. I love me some man tears but good lord, make a commitment!

At least I’m not screaming at the ladies. They sack up nicely in this series and tend to dominate the action. There is romance and wonder, conflicted parent/child dynamics and extraordinary moral dilemmas that weigh our deepest personal desires with what we are willing to do to get them. Not in the context of personal gain, but in relation to the bonds of friends and family. I would not call OUaT the best show on television, but for all its flaws and questionable wardrobe choices, I am deeply invested and excited for what future seasons bring.

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Side note: if it turns out that everyone is dead and Storybrooke is some kind of weird purgatory I will hire a hobo to follow Horowitz and Kitsis around, shouting abuse at them.