When Fairy Tales Go Wrong

It was bound to happen eventually. I was hoping that I was wrong when I called it about nine months ago, but, unfortunately, I was not. The guilty pleasure that was the surprise treat of television in 2011, Once Upon a Time, has fallen victim to its own success and the past successes of the people running the show. Now, that’s not to say that I have given up on the show, far from it actually. But what started out as a beautifully simple premise has now become so convoluted that it takes multiple viewings and teams of people picking apart and analyzing every muscle twitch of every character, every street sign, and every bird flying by in the background to keep up with what’s happening.

For those that are actually unfamiliar with the show, let me give a quick primer. OUAT is based (originally) on children’s fairy tales as reality. The versions of the fairy tales were the Disney versions (which makes sense as ABC is a Disney entity and the Disney versions, good or bad, are easily the most well-known). The premise is that the Evil Queen from Snow White obtains and unleashes a terrible curse upon all of Fairy Tale Land, depriving all the characters of the happily ever afters, and banishing them to real-world Maine. But wait! The intrepid adventurers of FTL, knowing the curse is coming, prepare for her and send the baby child of Snow and Prince Charming through a portal before the curse hits. That child grows up to become Emma Swan, a jaded orphan with a penchant for sniffing out the truth and finding things (mainly people) in this, the real world. In addition to being an orphan, she too has given up a child. So needless to say, she was a bit surprised when a 10-year-old boy named Henry shows up on her doorstep claiming to be her son. He drags her off to Storybrooke, home of the people cursed in FTL. In this town, the Mayor is a woman named Regina – and she has all the power. She also just so happens to be the Evil Queen, and, unlike everyone else in town, she remembers the time before Storybrooke. Oh, she also happens to be Henry’s adopted mother. You see, Henry has figured out Regina is the Evil Queen from fairy tales and he wants/expects Emma to break the curse. From there each episode plays out in a somewhat formulaic manner. Emma is presented with someone in need of help. The episode then splits between the current story of Emma helping and that person’s FTL story. As each episode is added to the chain, more and more background is provided until, as we reach the end, we have a full picture and Emma finally realizes that, yes, the fairy tales were indeed real and yes, she is to be the saviour.

The pacing and original takes on the various stories were spot-on for the most part in season one. With the show turning out to be a big hit, I feared that the writers and executives were going to find ways to artificially draw out many of the aspects and just keep the story perpetually developing, but not really going anywhere. The story was almost perfectly designed to fit inside of 22 episodes, and you know what? The writers stuck to that. The only thing that kept the first season from being perfect was that the show was coming back for a second season and so, it needed to end on a bit of a cliffhanger. But the writers even respected the audience and did an admirable job with the final episode of the season. If the show had not been picked up for a second season, only a few minor alterations to the season finale would have been necessary in order to bring the entire series to a satisfying conclusion.

Then we come to season two. Now, what started out as a beautifully simple concept has to be resuscitated. A new ultimate goal needs to be created, and, for the most part, the story no longer could support the villains the way it did in season one because of how season one played out. Now, not only do we have FTL and a new version of Storybrooke, but we also have FTL 2.0, the post apocalypse/curse FTL. We also have 2 new villains (though one was at least introduced as a character in season one), and two new heroes. We have the original crew being split up across alternate realities, seeking ways to reunite with each other and to right various wrongs. Previous villains, including Rumplestiltskin (played deliciously by Robert Carlyle) still exist and continue to do their own scheming as well

The show is brought to us by the minds behind another ABC hit show, Lost. That has, unfortunately, turned out to be both a blessing and a curse for the show. These are gifted, talented writers, capable of weaving wonderful tales using many threads. But they are also capable of having so much fun weaving complex plots within plots that the story loses its way. Two things really stood out about the first season of OUAT. First, the concept was simple without being dumbed down. The story was fully fleshed out and the world building was rich and exciting. The second thing that really made season one stand out was part of that world building and fleshing out of the story. It was the characters. Each week the audience learned more about each character and was given a chance to become invested in various characters and actually develop reasons to root for or against various outcomes. The first season was almost entirely about character.

The second season has moved away from that focus. Sure, we still learn about characters, but they are no longer the true focus. The backstory, plotting, and scheming is now the focus of the show. The story is no longer simple. Now, missing an episode can be a dangerous thing if a viewer wants to have any clue as to what is going on later. What’s more is, we have four more characters now added to an already large ensemble cast. Unfortunately, already a quarter of the way into the season, we are given essentially zero reason to care about any of these characters. Our two new heroines, have been so inconsequential as to make one wonder why they are even there, they have provided nothing to the story that could not have been achieved through some ingenuity on the part of the writers. But instead of exercising that ingenuity, we are given window dressing that pretty much just hangs out in the background doing nothing of substance. Even the character’s stories seem to lack any of the thoughtfulness applied to the various fairy tale characters in the first season. On one hand, we have Mulan, who apparently was never a Chinese warrior “princess’, but instead a warrior from some remote, unexplained, never given much thought part of FTL. She’s apparently an awesome fighter, but we know little else despite the fact that she travels constantly with our heroine Snow White. Then there is Princess Aurora. But this is not the Sleeping Beauty of the fairy tales. No, that Sleeping Beauty has already been discussed as having defeated Maleficent. This is (apparently) her daughter, who, for some reason that the writers have chosen to not bother going into begins the season under the same curse, under the same circumstances, as her mother.

I am all over the place with this post. This post started out with a simple idea and was railroaded into getting far more complex than it needed to be. I guess that should, in some ways, be a warning how easily that can happen. Once Upon a Time was once beautifully simple. Now, it gets more and more convoluted with each passing episode, providing very little hope that the story can ever again become fully contained. I know there are plenty of people out there that appreciate a complex story, filled with all sorts of puzzles to figure out. However, OUAT started off as a show that entire families could sit and enjoy. Sure, there were some dark elements, but, for the most part, they were deftly handled in a fairy tale manner. The show started out being equally approachable by both the eight-to-ten-year-old group and the coveted 28-40 demographic. The new, wide-open and now-complex story and the substantial increase in situational darkness has made the show a much harder sell for young audiences. I appreciate a gritty story as much as the next person. I just wonder how many shows really exist that have the potential to remain fun for the whole family. OUAT could have continued in that vein. Adult audiences really wouldn’t have minded.

This post has rambled on enough. I should probably bring it to an end before I spin off on some other tangentially related rant.

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