Reviews: Once Upon A Time
Two Seasons in and I'm None the Wiser
Once Upon a Time is an example of a now commonplace premise - Fairy Tale characters trapped in the real world. Half way through season two of Once Upon a Time I looked at the Netflix episode list, and winced when I saw that I had only finished 35 out of 110 episodes. Well bother this nonsense. I am done. Here is the review. OUAT is quite bad, and I am spoilt for choices for things to point at which don't work. I could blame the 90s videogame standards of CGI, or the obvious budgetary constraints that stand in the way of the ambitious scope of the show. Or the tonal gulf between actor's pantomime scene chewing vs the po faced drama. But as usual, the biggest faults come with the writing. The show follows the wrong characters for a start. We are given Emma, Prince Charming and Snow White as the three central characters and you couldn't ask for a more boring, insipid bunch. Throw in the generic, precocious boy as a moral centre, and the drama comes to a complete stand still. All the fun and interesting character development is had by the two duelling antagonists, Rumplestiltskin and Regina. A smarter writer on the team might have sooner realised that the story should be just about these two, but the series doesn't seem to start coming around to that fact until part way through season two, by which time it is too late as we've got the baggage of these three established assholes to deal with. The show inserts the actual fairy stories in a really peculiar way. There are constant flash backs to the fairy tale world, but these vignettes are shown in chronological order only within each specific episode. This becomes a problem as you soon lose track of the time line. "So is this after the time that Regina cursed so and so, but before Rumplestiltskin cured the curse for that other so and so? Or is it the other way around?" Who knows, it becomes bothersome to follow. Then there is the other weird stylistic choice in that the Fairy Tale characters are obviously taking inspiration from the Disney cartoons. Non-fairy story characters, like Pongo and Mulan, even show up without explanation. If Disney was explicitly mentioned it might make some sense, but as they aren't, OUAT ends up looking like a derivative, lazy attempt to ride Disney's coattails. And it probably is.
Should Have Been A Miniseries
The first season gets an A from me. Watching these fantastical characters in our mundane, real world with their “happy endings” just out of reach was gripping (Mary Margaret returning to her empty apartment was heart wrenching) and virtually every character was likeable or engaging (imho). But then the premise conflict was solved and from then on it feels like the writers are pretty much throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks, "Let’s redeem Regina! Let’s give Emma magic! Let’s make Henry the other chosen one!" The later seasons do have some good moments, "The Doctor" is one of my favourite episodes, but you have to pick them out amongst this cluttered mess.
With the exception Mr. Gold (who is sympathetic, cruel, cowardly, brilliant and, frankly, stealing the show) the real life counterparts of this series are really bland and irritating. Regina is utterly ineffective as a villain (until she actually kills someone I suppose and the thing with Belle was rather cruel). While I'm sure Henry has some legitimate grievances there's no... sense of urgency to break the curse. The good guys are... insipid. With the exception of Emma they don't do anything about their situations. It's annoying. I just want them to find out about the bloody curse already so something will actually happen other than Snow White and Prince Charming mopping over each other. The reinterpretations of the fairy tales are clever, though. And I am rather curious about how it will play out. I just want them all to GET ON WITH IT.
Will they all live happily ever after?
There's just something about fairy tales. Because we're all pretty much universally exposed to them in our childhood (at least in the Western world), they can be used as shorthand around which to construct stories with more modern meaning. Once Upon a Time is a great example of this. I'd never heard of this series when my sister-in-law exposed me to it on a family visit, but immediately after seeing the first episode I signed up for Netflix to see more. It's great escapism. The idea of ordinary people being amnesiac fairy tale heroes, and a tough, streetwise woman needing to get back in touch with her inner innocence to save them? Yes, there's plenty of cliché here, but clichés are only clichés because they're used so often, and they're only used so often because they always work. Some of the acting is a little wooden from time to time (especially in the case of Henry, but you have to forgive child actors their inexperience), but most of it is excellent. An added bonus is that, since the fairy tale and "real world" personas of the characters are usually so different, it means the actors can really sink their teeth into their roles, playing their characters in dramatically different ways. Especially worthy of note are Robert Carlyle, whose Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold has had an arc that allowed Carlyle to explore an incredible emotional range, and Ginnifer Goodson's Snow White/Mary Margaret Blanchard, who is an action-adventure heroine in the fairy-tale world and a meek, mild-mannered schoolteacher in the "real" one. It's not all wine and roses, however. Some of the soap opera plot developments over the first season, especially Mary Margaret and David's will-they-or-won't-they romance, felt a little protracted, like they had to draw things out to fill episode count. This was especially noticeable on watching all the episodes together to catch up. However, things do seem to pick up in the second season. Also, some of the CGI and greenscreen effects are rather blatant, though it's about an order of magnitude better than The Tenth Kingdom's effects and really rather impressive for a TV series budget. And the constant use of Disney names and interpretations sometimes seems a little cheesy. But on the whole, unless it takes a considerable turn for the worse, I'll be staying with this show until it ends.
A interesting idea.
I have finally managed to watch the damn thing. The concept of the show (while used before) is truly fascinating. Now let's go in bullet-points: Stuff I liked:
- As mentioned above, I loved how they try to reinvent and reshape the classic fairy tales in modern ways, but without losing their charm [one of my favorites was Cinderella's thing, switching "Yer baby is mine!" for "You legally sold your baby to me" was quite clever]
- The acting is excellent, everyone fits their roles like a shoe (Jimmy Cricket, Rumplestilskin, Regina)
- Some characters are very well-written, such as the elusive Mr.Gold, who has just enough wit and charm to be a brillant villain, but just enough heart to be conceivable as a hero.
- I squee when they go all Massive Multiplayer Crossover on the fairy tales. Gepetto, Red Riding Hood, Prince Charming and Snow White, Jimmy Cricket and The Fairy Godmother on a round table like The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen? DAMN RIGHT!.
- Sometimes the love storylines redefine the term Cliche Storm, it's unavoidable when you're dealing with fairy tales, but it can get very annoying, specially when there's so much more to explore ("Yeah yeah your life's sad, now cut back to Mr.Gold).
- It gets really annoying how they forcefully try to "dramafy" some characters. Seriously? Mad Hatter was a run-of-the-mill father looking out for his daughter (and who actually wasn't mad) with a magic hat? What was the point of that? Couldn't they at least make him mad? [stalker was also ridiculous] It felt like they just wanted to pointlessly "humanize" a character who wasn't meant to be [same goes for Rumple being human once, what. but I give a break to that because I liked the "Give up your powers daddy" thing). Also, can one goddamn fairy tale character look ugly in this 'verse? Come on! Even Disney had the Hunchback and Beast.
- Not a point on its own, but Rumplestilskin as the beast? WHAT? Again, what's the point? I'm mostly saying this because I like Beast from the disney version, but still. What?
Cliche. Hackneyed. Hopelessly sentimental. Completely overwrought. These are all words people love to sling at the series, and to a certain extent, they honesty do fit like a finely tailored suit. This show is a fairy tale — and a celebration of all the fairy tales that came before it. If you don't like stories about evil queens, gorgeous maidens pure of heart, magic and whimsy and the power of true love, all played straight with total sincerity, then no, of course you're not going to like this show. But if the tale of a humble shepherd who becomes a prince and saves a kingdom by slaying a dragon with a golden sword sounds like something you want to see, then by God, this is the show for you. The actors are fantastic, the characters are fleshed-out and poignant, the stories are compelling, the writing is clever, and even the effects are usually surprisingly good for a TV budget (though there have been a few clunkers). If the show has one flaw, it might just be sheer repetitiveness: Regina, the villain, seems to spit out the same basic lines every episode, to the point where it seems even she's aware of it by now. Fortunately, our other villain, Mr. Gold, makes up for it by being one of the single most fascinating, captivating, manipulative, and gloriously hammy rogues on all of TV. If you have any love in your heart for old fairy tales, Disney movies, or anything along those lines, the show is nothing short of addictive. In the span of two days, I've plowed through almost a dozen episodes, and I'm still chomping at the bit for more. I love it all so much.
After two episodes...it's bad.
The writing is generically awful ("I will destroy you if it is the last thing I do!"), and the acting is worse. Henry especially could not be more coached. What kid talks like that? The special effects are pretty lousy, with Conspicuous CGI trees taking the cake. The setting is a small town in Maine. Of course it is. According to Hollywood, New England consists of metro Boston and picturesque seaside Maine vacation spots with dark secrets (I blame Stephen King). What strikes me is how Disney everything is. I don't mean Disneyfication, but straight up using Disney names like Maleficent and Jiminy Crickett. Perhaps because of who owns ABC? And Snow White actually claims that fairy tales are meant to give hope and serve as escapism. Most folklorists would say that this is 100% wrong, that in their original(ish) forms, they were meant as warnings and morality tales, with real world applicability underneath the fantastic external forms. This kind of disrespect to the source material really undercuts the impression of making fairy tales Darker And Edgier again.
Really, Really Weird
But wow, the weird makes it fun. This is almost like firing up a King's Quest game - to the point where it wouldn't be out of place to see a fellow with a red shirt and blue feathered cap on the fringes of town! Sure, you know those old fairy tales, but like Williams's take on them, your Grimm-Fu only gets you so far...and sometimes bites you in the can. Gray and Gray Morality clouds up the stories you think you know, the writers mine their Disney privledges for everything they're worth (and they had practice in turning Disney into something nightmarish with serious moral ambiguity; they're the guys responsible for TronLegacy). Power always has a steep price tag. Absolutely no one and no thing is what it seems on the first pass, and the Myth Arc is fueled by even more crack than Kingdom Hearts. My biggest annoyance with the show is that it started with many different people and many different stories - all interconnected, all influencing one another. The last season, however, has become the tale of one Big Screwed-Up Family, with anyone not related to the central family all but ignored. The fact the last two BigBads were long-lost family members didn't help. Enough family drama; let's see more of the greater town and world! The Reveal at the Season 3 ending bodes well for Season 4, but I really hope you-know-who has no ties by blood or marriage to the central cast.