I am so, so late to jump aboard the Once Upon a Time train. Not as late as I was for Doctor Who, I guess. But still, Once Upon a Time has been on the air since 2011, and I only started watching it last month.
I had heard of it. I knew Haley liked it, but . . . even though she's probably the coolest person I almost know, we DID have that thing about Flannery O'Connor. So, I still didn't watch it.
I like BBC shows. All the time BBC. I don't know why, I must have a secret British sensibility. Although I do have to watch them with subtitles, because I can NOT understand those guys when they really get going. So, first thing, I'm just wary of American network TV in general.
But more than that, I have a problem with the genre of the fractured fairy tale. It started way back in 1995 with Wicked, I guess, and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs in 1996. And then there was Oz the Great and Powerful, in case you liked Wicked, but wished it had less singing and more James Franco. (I didn't, really.) Most recently, there was Maleficent. It's kind of a whole thing now. Anyway, you know the drill, they're all the same. There's this evil character from a well-known story, but here's what REALLY happened. Here's the secret backstory about all the people who wronged her and how she had NO CHOICE but to become wicked. She's never going to let THEM hurt her again. It's all everyone else's fault.
It drives me nuts. I dislike the concept for two reasons. First, because the fractured fairy tale misunderstands the POINT of fairy tales themselves. They are stories for children. Children below the Grammar Stage of learning are black and white little creatures. They need to sort characters into good guys and bad guys in order to understand them, and eventually, the world around them.
Fairy tales are stories that were handed down from generation to generation to entertain and instruct. They taught children that you should really STAY OUT of the woods, and that, if you work hard and bear your burdens joyfully (and are kind to animals), you'll probably get to live happily after. Both are important, true lessons. It doesn't help with either lesson for kids to be told that the wolf wants to eat Little Red Riding Hood because his wolf father was mean to him, or that the Wicked Witch murders people because someone broke her heart. It's just confusing. Fairy tales aren't ABOUT the bad guys anyway. Bad guys are just a plot device.
I used to think I was just stuck in the grammar stage myself, and that for my own entertainment, as well as my kids,' I just needed my good guys to be good and my bad guys to be bad and leave it at that.
But, eventually, I ran out of BBC shows I wanted to watch on Netflix. And there it was in my suggested shows. I decided to give it a try. And watching Once Upon a Time made me realize that it wasn't that I needed bad guys to stay bad. What I didn't like was the idea forced on us by all these villain-centered rewrites that we don't have a choice. Bad guys HAVE to be bad, because bad things happened to them.
Bad stuff happens to people all the time. We don't get to choose our mortifications, but we do get to choose how we respond to them. We get to choose whether our mortifications turn us in to villains or into saints.
That's the truth.
And that's the truth at the heart of Once Upon a Time. We get to know the bad guys. All of them. We get to see what happened to them to make them choose evil in the first place. And we get to see them fighting against it. Winning and losing, for better or worse, we see them striving. And we get to remember that our own lives are also a constant struggle against our less noble inclinations. Even if our own less noble inclinations don't include ripping the still beating hearts out of our enemies.
Mine are more like, "Hey, I should stay up all night binge-watching this show on Netflix streaming. The kids won't REALLY need me to do school tomorrow morning." Still bad. Just not as interesting cinematically.
So, here's the breakdown.
The casting works for me. I think the actors do a good job of embodying both their storybook characters and that character's modern counterpart. There is a child actor. He can actually act. The storybook characters wear over the top costumes and deliver delightfully cheesy lines. I love it.
The writing is clever. I watched Malificent on the plane recently, and it was the standard fractured fairy tale trope, but then it didn't even follow The Rules. There was all this, you think you know what happened, but it didn't actually happen like that. Not only was Maleficent a perfectly lovely girl who was the victim of a tragedy and HAD to turn evil, also the prince wasn't ever a dashing hero, he was just a hapless, helpless boy bander who never actually saved anyone.
That's not okay with me. If you're going to fill in the backstory, the rules are, the front story stays put and you work from there. That's what good writers do.
And these guys do it. They've taken every character from every storybook story you can think of, and some that you totally wouldn't have thought of, and woven them together beautifully. I love it every time a new piece of the puzzle is revealed and a new relationship between characters from different storybook worlds comes out. It's just plain clever how it's done. Everything comes back around.
If you only like highbrow entertainment, this might not be the show for you. It's campy. Sherlock it is not. I'd say it's at maybe a Doctor Who-level of cheesiness.
Mostly, the plot lines conform to an old timey storybook ethos, where good comes from good and evil comes from evil. Which is unique and refreshing in this day and age.
However, it's not a Catholic show, so they don't always get everything right. There is a storyline in which a character who has a True Love in the storybook world, is married to someone else in the real world. Someone who isn't his True Love. The way it's handled is problematic.
But, really, mostly, it's a show in which we see the right consequences for choices. As Rumplestiltskin always says, "All magic has a price."
The CG. Argh, the CG. It makes me want to gouge out my eyes, it's so bad. The storybook worlds in which they're walking around look so, so, so fake. I know they can't be expected to create a Middle Earth-caliber set for each of the story lines, but the actors look like a bunch of Renfair meteorologists standing in front of the action news accuweather map. It's pretty bad.
Bottom line is, I think Once Upon a Time is a rare thing in this day and age: a creative, entertaining, and charming show that reflects the truth of the human condition.
It's also pretty unique in being family entertainment that older kids and grownups could enjoy together. There is a same sex attraction storyline (in season 2, I think?) but it is VERY subtle. Like, my kids would definitely not have picked up on it. And even if they had, I think it's handled in a truthful, appropriate way. Out of wedlock pregnancy is another storyline, but again, I think it's handled appropriately. In season 1, the Evil Queen is having a liaison with the Huntsman, but it doesn't work out very well for him.
I watched it on my own, but I think Betty and I might watch it through together next summer. I don't think we'll be able to interest the husband or Jack, and I think it's most appropriate for ten (or even twelve) and up (not until the Logic Stage), so that just leaves me and Betty. There will be some things we'll need to talk about, but I'm okay with that.
Really, my only hesitation in recommending it, is that they're still making them. Which means you can blow through seasons one through three on Netflix, then you can watch the beginning of season four on the Watch ABC app, and then you end up . . . caught up. And if you're caught up you have to wait a week between episodes like some sort of cave person. Really, I cannot deal with non-Netflix streaming TV watching.