Last fall, one of the new shows to premiere on ABC was "Once upon a Time." The show was centered on the following plot: a young woman Emma Swan (played by Jennifer Morrison, "House M.D.") is contacted by her son Henry, whom she gave up for adoption long ago. As Emma is drawn into Henry's town Storybrooke, her son tries to convince her that the entire town is made up of characters from fairy tales who were banished there long ago by an evil queen, whom he believes is his adopted mother Regina Mills. Each episode is formatted in a way that is similar to "Lost" (which, ironically, shares some of the same writers as "Once upon a Time"): half of the episode focuses on something that is going on in Storybrooke while the other half is a kind of flash-back to fairy-tale land and what happened to the central character(s) there. I watched the entire first season, but unfortunately I found the show to be quite a let-down from its interesting concept.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
One of the main issues I have with the show is the entire plot, not just overlying arcs but also individual stories that pop up occasionally when a main arc is not being told. Concerning the overlying arcs, the pacing was not very good. The writers dragged certain arcs out (for example, David and Mary Margaret's affair and also Mary Margaret being accused of murdering David's wife Kathryn. Both of them, I thought, took way too long to tell their respective story). One of the plot arcs that took way too long to resolve and still has not been fully resolved is the whole Prince Charming and Snow White trying to be together; the season spent way too many episodes focusing on them and their pasts, and it could have been compressed into something shorter yet better instead of being drawn out into ridiculous episodes like "Heart of Darkness," or the writers could have explained more about some of the other situations like Rumplestiltskin and Baelfire's story, which was largely ignored most of the season. The pacing also showed its flaws in certain episodes like "Fruit of the Forbidden Tree," where it is revealed that Sidney is in an alliance with Regina to bring Emma down; this alliance is largely ignored for the rest of the season and only shows up one other time towards the end of the season when Emma realizes Sidney's true motives. Other story lines like Sidney's double-agent status are also introduced, forgotten most of the time, and then suddenly re-introduced for no good reason at all, such as Belle hiding underneath the hospital for most of the season, and other story lines are ended too suddenly with little resolution, such as Kathryn being found alive (even though Emma suspects Regina is behind it and believes Sidney is covering for her, we never got an explanation for what actually happened because the story line was abruptly dropped). Most of the stories in individual episodes also suffered from problems. Episodes like "Dreamy," "That Still Small Voice," and "Hat Trick" were boring and felt more like filler episodes than anything else. Especially as the season wore on, the episodes became more lackluster and less interesting than earlier ones. A final issue with the plot was certain story lines that had dumb resolutions, such as Snow White losing her memory and then getting her "good" self back after kissing Prince Charming or even Emma's kiss breaking the curse in Storybrooke; the resolutions could have been much better, but I think the writers took the easy way out.
The issues with the plot are not helped by the characters. Good, well-written, intriguing characters can make a convoluted story more bearable (like how I felt with "Lost"), but unfortunately this is not the case in "Once upon a Time." The overwhelming majority of the characters (both real world and fairy world) are flat and one-dimensional, having little personality and very few redeeming qualities. Regina Mills/ Evil Queen is meant to be evil, but she comes across as being more ridiculous, not creepy or overly memorable; even the episode "The Stable Boy," which was meant to portray her in a brighter light and to explain how she became evil, did nothing to change her flat character or redeem her. The only interesting character is Mr. Gold/ Rumplestiltskin, but I am not sure what the writers have in mind for him because they change him from villain to possible good guy so frequently.
Another major part of the show that could have been so much better was the whole re-telling of fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Beauty and the Beast, and Red Riding Hood. While some of them had interesting twists, like Rumplestiltskin being "the Beast," or tried to offer background for stories like "Pinocchio," most of the re-tellings were not ultimately very memorable or well-done; the only one I really liked was The Red Riding Hood one. While it was an interesting concept to combine fairy tales or to make them intermingle in some way, like the Evil Queen sending Hansel and Gretel to steal the poisonous apple, most of the time the attempts were shoddily put together with little explanation for them, like why Jiminy Cricket was somehow involved with Snow White and the dwarfs or why Belle was involved with the dwarfs. Another thing that did not make sense was including stories that were not directly connected to fairy tales, like the Mad Hatter and Wonderland or even the use of King Midas; the writers sort of explained this in an episode where one of the characters (I've forgotten which one) said that all stories are based on reality, on events that happen in multiple worlds, but I thought it was a poor explanation and didn't fit with the show's billing of being based on fairy tales.
"Once upon a Time" had good potential to be something new and fun, but unfortunately it fell flat. The plots were uninteresting and badly paced, the characters were flat and boring, and the re-tellings were sometimes confusing or just not memorable at all.
In Memoriam Pádraig Duggan
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