Sunday, December 25, 2011

Once Upon a Time....

“Once Upon a Time” is an interesting show to watch in a vacuum (what I call watching a TV show or a movie without having read any reviews, reading commentary, or internet message boards). So many questions are popping up that I can’t turn to the convenience of the internet for: Does Regina know that she’s an evil queen? So the bail bondswoman’s stated reason for being in town is to stalk the kid she gave up for adoption ten years ago against her mother’s wishes? Is that the crazy guy from Prison Break as the town sheriff?


Once Upon a Time is a show about the residents of modern-day Storybrooke, Maine, who previously inhabited the world of familiar fairy tales before being banished by the evil queen from the Snow White story.

In the modern-day world, that evil queen goes by the name of Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla) and she is the town's mayor. The narrative is complex and highly confusing which is due to the fact that the plot is dictated almost entirely by Regina's 10-year old adopted son, Henry. The other characters all have amnesia and somehow he is the only one to have figured this all out.

Thus, the story is told from two conflicting perspectives and that's a very interesting scenario that the show delivers on. From the point of view of everyone else, Henry is a troubled child with a big imagination and from the POV of Henry, these are lost fairy tale characters who haven't figured out their true identity.

Because Once Upon a Time jumps back and forth between Storybrooke and the actual fairy tale world (I'd estimate the screentime is split 70-30 between the two universes with Maine getting the 70%), the show is on the side of Henry and we know it's only a matter of time before the rest of the town starts seeing things from his point of view. This is the central conflict and that's reinforced by Henry's belief that the characters will all be happy when they discover their true nature. Thus, it's a show of characters awakening to their true nature and works on that level.

This also makes Henry the guy who's always right. He's also a giant exposition machine. The person who he's doing most of his expositioning to is Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison). Swan is a cynical 30-something bounty hunter who discovers in the pilot episode that she is Henry's birth mother.

Emma's a key figure in the story, but the reasons that she impulsively uproots from Boston to Storybrooke after the pilot episode aren't particularly well hashed out. There's not really a strong case for why she's there. Emma's concerned that Regina doesn't have her son's best interests at heart but, then again Regina doesn't want her to take an active role in the kid's life ten years later and Emma has no rights to do otherwise. It's a good thing the show's fantasy, because if we looked at Emma's rationale from a realistic ethical or legal standpoint, we might not really be on her side at all.

Regina is eventually revealed to be somewhat malignant, but the show starts off with some genuine thematic confusion as we're left wondering why we should be behind a woman who voluntarily gave up her kid in a closed adoption process, and is now upending everyone's life on a hunch that the boy's adopted mother isn't all she seems. This is made iffier by the fact that Emma reconnecting with her son is one of the key conflicts in the story. If you can discount the clunky set-up (the key to enjoying much of this show), it's not such a bad story either).

Besides, the pilot at least establishes Emma's motivation, although somewhat weakly. The "why" of what Emma's doing in Storybrooke, is more of a "Why not?". One of Emma's key characters traits is that she's being rootless and having close to no support system (she's adopted herself).

The show's biggest strength is that it works both as an overarcing storyline, and as a series of entertaining one-off episodes. The fairytale land sequences are having diminishing returns with me for each episode, but it frames the story well.

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