***This post has minor spoilers for a show you’re probably never going to watch.***
My wife and I were both tired and a bit hungover, and our daughter was off with her grandparents. So it was the perfect time to start watching “Once Upon A Time” on Netflix.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve watched the whole first season and four episodes of the current season. I’m not going to try to tell you it’s a great show, but it’s entertaining enough. And it’s really interesting how they try to bring genre fiction to a mass audience.
First, the background: The show starts as the Evil Queen busts up the wedding of Snow White and Prince Charming, promising a curse that will destroy fairyland and take away everyone’s happily-ever-afters. Rumpelstiltskin tells Snow White & Prince Charming their only hope is to send their infant daughter through a portal in a wardrobe, and when she’s 28 she’ll return to break the Curse.
So far, so good.
The curse hits, and all the storybook characters are sent to a small town called Storybrooke, Maine. They have no memory of their past lives, and the Evil Queen is now Mayor Regina Mills. The daughter (Emma) is working as a bail bonds-person in Boston, but she’s found by *her* son Henry, who she gave up for adoption 10 years ago. Her son has somehow been adopted by Mayor Regina.
So what happens is you have small-town, low-stakes drama intercut with scenes of high adventure from the fairy land. In the real world, Emma and the Mayor butt heads over their son and municipal politics. Snow White and Prince Charming try to find each other, but the Curse made sure Charming was married to someone else.
The show sets itself some structural problems from the beginning.
1. It’s never sure how evil the villains are. Mayor Regina switches from scheming small-town politician to Evil Queen to decent (if overbearing) mother several times during the season, depending on what the writers need that week. Mayor Mills is more of a soap-opera villain, who lives in the community and has shifting alliances, rather than a sci-fi-style Big Bad who must be defeated.
2. The “real world” drama doesn’t quite stand on its own. Prince Charming is basically deciding whether to cheat on his wife with Snow White. Mayor Regina has a point about being Henry’s mother. The drama gets its deeper meaning in the fairytale flashbacks, but on its own it seems unearned.
3. The whole first season is basically “the heroes figure out the problem.” In a standalone piece of fiction, that’s the boring part in Act IV.
The show has a couple of things going for it.
1. Like I say, it’s interesting to see a mass-audience take on the fantasy genre. The fairy tale characters use normal vernacular, except on special occasions. If you’re used to the full Tolkein, it probably feels watered down.
2. But they do play it more-or-less straight. The Evil Queen sure is evil, and True Love’s Kiss really is the greatest magic of all. The show attempts to update fairy tales (Snow White becomes a bandit queen), but it isn’t interested in deconstructing them. You know how I hate that.
3. At the same time, the villains aren’t totally evil. Both the Evil Queen and Rumpelstiltskin get origin stories that show how they turned bad, and they both have paths to redemption they can choose to take. They’re trying to update the fairy tale, rather than subvert it.
4. I’m not going to say you have to be a better actor to pull off genre work, but it’s definitely a specialized skill set.
The performances are pretty good. Lana Parilla is great as the Evil Queen (I’ve been a fan of hers since Swingtown) although she struggles as the writers whip her character around. Jennifer Morrison is probably the weak link as Emma, although her character has to tread water for a long time. Josh Dallas plays Prince Charming as a noble, romantic hero that you could still have a beer with. And Ginnifer Goodwin? What else can I say about Ginnifer Goodwin?
The standout here is Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin. He plays Rumpelstiltskin with three parts Big Bad, two parts trickster god, one part Jim Carrey and one part leprechaun. His dark imp is grounded by his intense performance as Mr. Gold, his “real world” alter ego. If you see only one episode, make it a Rumpelstiltskin showcase like “The Price of Gold” or “Skin Deep.”
We’re four episodes into Season 2, and so far it’s been on an upswing. The curse is broken, the fairytale characters remember who they are, and the plot is moving. Prince Charming is now a hero, rather than a guy who’s cheating on his wife, and Emma and Snow White are swashbuckling across the fairy land. They’ve brought in Captain Hook and the Evil Queen’s mother as bigger Big Bads.
I think they’re moving more into fantasy territory, rather than a genre piece lashed to a small-town drama. As a genre fan, I think it’s a good move.
I’m not going to tell you it’s a great show, but if you have a hole in your Netflix queue (and you’re tired and hungover), you could do worse.