Wednesday, September 23, 2015

My Love/Hate Relationship with Once Upon a Time -- the Love

The series Once Upon a Time in many ways seems like it was created just for me. It's a fun mash-up of fairy tales that juxtaposes these elements with the real, modern world, which is right up the alley of someone who writes contemporary fantasy that plays with fairy tale elements. I actually have a love/hate relationship with this series. Sometimes I love it. Sometimes I hate it. Sometimes I hate to love it. Sometimes I love to hate it. When it's good, it's outstanding. When it's bad, it's so absolutely atrocious that I can't believe people aren't being fired for writing that crap (and the failures are about 95 percent the writing -- the casting and acting are responsible for a lot of what's good about the series).

I was recently rewatching some of the earlier episodes to prepare for this weekend's premiere, and while the series later goes off a cliff, develops one of the worst Mary Sues ever created by supposedly professional writers, and has a moral sensibility that makes A Game of Thrones look like Sunday school, the pilot is one of the most wonderful bits of television ever, and the first season, for the most part, is fun and full of potential.

Spoilers for the whole series may lie ahead

The concept alone is so brilliant and unique that it would be impossible to file the serial numbers off and use it as a jumping-off point for a story that fixes the later faults. The residents of the fairy tale world have been brought to a modern small town in Maine by a curse, where time hasn't moved for 28 years and they have no memory or awareness of their true selves. Enter the one person to escape the curse: the infant daughter of Snow White, who's grown up in our world, entirely unaware of her real heritage. So we have a tough, cynical Disney princess who doesn't know she's a princess and isn't ready to accept her identity, surrounded by fairy tale characters who don't know they're fairy tale characters -- except for the Evil Queen, who's not at all happy that the one person who can break her curse is in town. And then there's the backstory of how all this came to be, told in flashbacks in the fairy tale realm, bringing the old tales to life with some twists, and not necessarily told chronologically, so it's like fitting together pieces of a puzzle.

The concept has so many of my personal "yes, please!" story elements it's not even funny. We have fleshed-out fairy tales, where the archetypes are turned into actual characters and there's a lot more plot. We have fun twists on fairy tales -- the story isn't quite what you thought it was, while it still respects the spirit of the original tales. We have juxtapositions between the magical and the ordinary. We have fairy tale elements moved into the real world. We have secret/hidden identities. And there's non-linear storytelling (something I'd love to try but don't yet have a good idea for).

Not that the season is entirely perfect. There are a few obvious filler episodes. There are some incidents of Idiot Plotting, where the plot only works because some of the characters act like total idiots in a very out-of-character way. We get the first hints of the later moral wonkiness when Regina, the Evil Queen, is shown to be forcing the Huntsman to basically be her sex toy, since she ripped out his heart and can control him through it, and she's ordering him into her bedroom. I can't think of a way that isn't rape, and yet the writers don't see it that way and still don't understand the fuss about it. And when the reason the Evil Queen really hates Snow White is revealed, it's a big case of "Seriously? That's it?" I suppose that the very concept of the curse is mostly plot device because it makes no sense if you think about it. It has to be one of the dumbest revenge schemes ever (until the fourth season, when we see an even dumber one). We didn't know it at the time, but these minor flaws were harbingers of what lay ahead.

Of the good: I absolutely loved the twist about Prince Charming's true identity and the way it was revealed. The show has become dependent on Big!Shocking!Twists! (sometimes in lieu of actual pacing and development), but that was a twist and a shock that worked. In a flashback, we saw our Prince Charming acting like a total jerk. I figured that we were probably going to see him learn A Valuable Lesson that would show how he came to be the good man we know, but then a second later he was killed. And then we met the guy we know of as Prince Charming and learned that the prince was really a poor farmer's son who was adopted by the king. Now his twin, the one the farmer kept, has to step into the role of the prince in order for the kingdom to fulfill a treaty. The death of the prince was a huge shock, but then the revelation that our prince wasn't really a prince was a fun twist on the story.

Another fun bit of fairy tale fleshing out was the way Snow White became a badass bandit after being driven out of the palace by the Evil Queen. She didn't run into the dwarfs until later, so instead of immediately becoming a housekeeper, like in the story, she learned to survive in the woods, became an expert tracker and archer, and robbed the Evil Queen's carriages (is it robbery if all that stuff is rightfully hers?). She was good friends with Red Riding Hood, who turned out to be a werewolf, so she was also the Big, Bad Wolf, and Granny was a tough old broad good with a crossbow (or knitting needles). There were a lot of strong female characters who weren't the usual "strong female characters" (who are usually more like Rambo in drag).

I also enjoyed seeing the parallels between the fairy tale stories and the way these people's lives were going in our world. Hansel and Gretel were homeless kids hiding out in an abandoned house and shoplifting candy from the drugstore. Jiminy Cricket is the town psychiatrist. Cinderella is a hotel maid.

The season finale was another one of those near-perfect hours of television. After a whole season of Emma, our heroine, going toe-to-toe with the Evil Queen, with the deck heavily stacked against her, everything came to a head, and it was all about faith, love, belief, and just desserts.

And then season two happened, but that's another story ...

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