I began watching Once Upon A Time last fall, at my sister’s insistence. The premise sounded interesting, as far as I could understand it (something about fairy tales, the modern world, and “Storybrooke”), and at any rate, I was promised Frozen characters.
As I watched the first few episodes, I had many questions, most of them along the lines of, “Who’s that? What’s going on? Wait – they’re related?” And again (this was a big one), “Who is that?”
My point is that while some TV series are easy to jump into, Once Upon A Time is not. No doubt my experience of the show is colored by what I missed – and evidently I missed a lot. But the half season I watched left me thinking, and I saw in it two principal flaws, and two principal virtues. The first flaw is …
A propensity toward soapy drama. It is not that Once Upon A Time is a soap opera, but you can feel it listing, at times, toward cheap emotional drama. The Snow Queen’s tragic backstory, for example, had two great pivots, both of which were chiefly marked by ludicrously implausible behavior. It was illogical and overwrought, and I felt sure that no real person would ever act the way those characters did. (They brought in the Duke of Weaselton for the story. He was less cartoonish as a cartoon.)
In Robin and Regina’s little side story, the drama was worse than unearned. It had some value, at least initially, but it quickly declined as the writers got away from any serious question of honor or happiness to indulge in the cheapest of all romantic tensions: that of a love triangle, particularly a tawdry love triangle. And as with the Snow Queen’s backstory, the drama did not bear too much scrutiny. One begins with sympathy for Regina, who started the relationship quite innocently. But one can only listen to her bemoan her wrecked happy ending so many times before one begins to wonder why this formidable woman believes that unless she keeps her boyfriend, she will be forever miserable.
The second flaw is …
Philosophical glibness. There is some profundity in the show, but it also lapses into glibness. Take the dilemma of whether people ought to get rid of their magical gifts, when they can’t control them and just may inadvertently kill people. The show resolved this question thusly: “It’s a part of you! Love yourself! Throw a party! Yay!”
You don’t need the doctrine of Original Sin to know that things may well be “part” of a human being without being at all good. We just need to observe ourselves or – where it is even plainer – the world. But you don’t need to do even that to realize how glib it is to dismiss the genuine danger of killing an innocent person with magic because it’s a part of you.
Another bit of glibness was spouted by Robin Hood, who justified breaking up his family on the grounds that that was “living truthfully”. I think this is the same essential concept as “being true to yourself”, only wrapped up more elegantly, and again reminds us that at times, it’s better to be true to somebody else. It is the morality of a narcisstic age to be true to oneself rather than being true to God, or even other people. (Like, you know, your wife.)
All this being said, Once Upon A Time has its virtues, too. It has …
An imaginative premise. Once Upon A Time is the ultimate fairytale mash-up. The idea of bringing all the fairytales together, both in our world and in an enchanted one, is bounding with potential. There is real creativity in the series, and genuine moments of suspense and humor. And the best of the series is embodied in …
Rumpelstiltskin. Rumpelstiltskin is the best kind of villain, even the best kind of character. He’s the rare character who can show an impressive mix of badness and goodness, and even act in diametrical ways, while still retaining an inner consistency. Robert Carlyle plays his part magnificently, and owns much of the credit for the unified complexity of Rumpelstiltskin. But the character shows the writers at their best, too.
Once Upon A Time needs to be stiffened up with some good, hard logic; it would kill some of the melodrama, and even some of the glibness. Despite that, it shows enough imagination and skill to be worth attention. When it comes back after the winter hiatus, I’ll be watching.
If for no other reason than to find out what happens to Rumpelstiltskin.