Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Once Upon A Time, There Was A Show

     There are three great things about fairy tales nowadays: in the first place, many of them were made with decent moral lessons that were simple enough for kids to understand.

     Secondly, nearly everybody is at least vaguely familiar with those stories — at least, with the more famous ones. Not everyone knows the full original story of Snow White and Rose Red, for example, unless they were fortunate enough to have a 50-year-old volume of children’s myths in their grandmother’s house like I did. But now that The Snow Queen has been changed into Frozen, other legends are coming to life thanks to modern films - particularly thanks to Disney.

     And third, because fairy tales originated so long ago, there’s no copyright to bind them. That’s why songs and stories even written as recently as Sherlock Holmes are allowed to be remade or re-envisioned over and over again without any battles over the rights. So if you enjoy seeing redesigns of your favorite legends, and if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to watch them interact, you can find them all in one place — a place invented by Disney, nonetheless.

     That place is called Storybrooke, Maine, and it’s on a show called Once Upon A Time. Not sure what you’re getting into? Try perusing this brief, spoiler-free introduction to the series and find out.

Hogwarts Show Title, A History

     In October of 2011, ABC launched their latest creation for Sunday evening adventures: a show that promised to unite multiple fairytale heroes and heroines not only in their own eras, but also in the modern world. It was originally thought up by Lost creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis before Lost aired... but they set it aside for a few years until that island getaway was complete. Then the announcement was heard across the land: "fairy-tale lovers, unite!"

     I actually hadn’t planned to watch it myself, but my college roommate asked if I was interested in joining her for the pilot, and who am I to turn down a little time in front of the telly?

     Of course, I know better now; television shows are nearly impossible to stop watching once you start, because of one thing: unanswered questions.

     “What happened to River Tam?”
     “When will the people in the Dollhouse go free?”
     “Where did the Titans come from”  *
     "How did all the power turn out?"
     “Doctor Who?”

     Once Upon A Time drew its audience in immediately in the same fashion, and four seasons later, the rest is history… or should I say legend? They managed to snag many reputable or popular actors and actresses, from Jennifer Morrison (mother of Jim Kirk in the 2009 Star Trek movie. You remember, the woman  who sent viewers bawling in the first ten minutes of the film with her tragic childbirth scene, which also happened to include pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth, I might add); to Giancarlo Esposito who spent a few years juggling this role with his appearances on NBC's Revolutionto Sebastian Stan a la Bucky Barnes...

     ...to aussie actress Emilie de Ravin of Lost; to the seasoned legend Robert Carlyle who broke off a piece of my soul in the true-story POW film, To End All Wars.

     * For the record, I haven’t seen all of Attack on Titan but I’ve seen enough to be pretty certain that Jeager’s father is at least partially responsible for the creation of Titans, and they were made in an attempt to unite all humans under one banner to keep them from fighting each other. Of course, I’m not fully informed on the matter, and if so then shame on me: you may ignore my babbling and continue reading this article, as it is about a show of which I have seen every episode.
     As you were.

The Plot

     In a very Enchanted-esque style of plot, an evil queen’s curse exiles not just one person, but an entire kingdom to the modern world because “there are no happy endings” here.

     It’s an irritatingly repetitive idea, really, but Once manages to maintain its its viewers by putting new twists on old classics.

     The story follows Emma, a young woman in New York who grew up in the foster system and lives a life without family or even friends

     But then an adorable young boy named Henry turns up on her doorstep. He claims that he’s the child she gave birth to and gave up for adoption years ago… but that’s not what’s shaking her. He also claims that she’s the daughter of two storybook heroes, and that she’s the only person who can break the curse over the modern town where all of fairy-land has been transported. Oh, and did I mention that his adopted mother is the Evil Queen?

     It’s a lot to swallow, of course — for us, and for Emma. But on her way to drop Henry off home, she starts to grow more and more uneasy with the town where he’s been growing up...

     As each new episode airs, we see not only ‘present day’ events, but also flashbacks to what fairytale life was like before the Curse came down. In time we come to see that many of the villains have humble or even tragic origins, and that ‘good guys’ aren’t always what they originally seem to be.

     Not to mention that the writers enjoy poking fun at their employers, and even at themselves. Stick around long enough and you’ll spot the episode where Disney first gained the rights to Star Wars… wait a little longer, and you’ll see a very familiar frosty queen of Arendelle and her sister joining the ensemble!

The Appeal

     While arguably not the most incredible piece of cinematography to hit television, Once Upon A Time is largely followed because, as mentioned, it simply provides a new twist on old familiar characters and storiesThe audience can think hard if they want to try and stay two steps ahead of the plot, but they can also relax and let themselves get pulled along as well because so many of the elements being used are classic myth archetypes found in other stories. This is good, old-fashioned adventure-time, mixing the thrills of modern dramas with the excitement of Friday-night fantasy movies.

     Sure, half of the sets are cheap green-screens with artificial plants.

     And sure, most of the costumes are completely impractical by historic and athletic reasoning, so many of us just can’t get over the stupidity of some wardrobe choices (including yours truly).

     But… well, it’s just plain fun wondering who’s going to get stabbed in the back next, and with what enchanted object.

The Rating

     PG, with the very rare occasional PG-13.

     Violence: Swords fly and a few guns are fired, too. Enchanted hearts are removed from living bodies (no blood, though: the hearts glow with magic and look like squishy light-up toys). Murders occur, of course, but they’re very mildly displayed: little blood is used except to show us where someone’s wounded, really. There are some themes of dark magic that also make regular appearances.

     Sex: There’s not much, and early into the show’s first and second season, it’s actually more hinted at than shown at all. The later seasons are getting bolder with what they display… and they’re starting to get beyond strange with their hook-ups, thanks to contorted family trees and anti-aging enchantments, not to mention the usual convoluted scandals that occur between television couples, married and single alike.

Don't zoom in unless you want spoilers...

     Let’s just say you shouldn’t go to this show for marriage counseling. Or relationship counseling. Or any counseling at all, really.

     Language: Almost always PG; these are fairy tale characters, after all. They may be grown up, sure, but many of them were still raised in an enchanted forest where fairies exist. They’re generally well-mannered.

The Genre

     The show is called Once Upon A Time. Therefore, it in fact takes place, once upon a time. Upon a time of medieval castles and peasant serfdom…

     A time of roguish outlaws and powerful sorcerers…

     A time where nobody bothers to think things through and make the right choice, even if it’s hard, which leads to half of the show’s problems…

     Also a time with no historic weight, judging by the women in leather trousers and the highly impractical cleavage-bearing corsets…

     But still: if you want classic heroes redesigned, here you have your classic heroes redesigned. Besides, it’s the plot twists and witty banter that really float this boat.

     So is it worth it?

The Decision

     That depends on you. This show is four seasons long, and still going. And, unlike Doctor Who, there’s really no decent place to start except the beginning. I think Netflix has garnered at least the first season or two… Once may not be a quick weekend sort of hobby, but it’s a good Friday night popcorn-stuffer and can last you for a good while if you’re not the impatient type who wants to find out whether "that one couple" (or in this show's case, "those five couples") finally got together.

     And if you’re still on the fence, just give it time. There are plenty of official trailers on Youtube that might interest you if you’re more of a visual person (like myself). And there are a few fan-made trailers that aren’t half-bad, either. Actually, to be frank, many of them like this one tend to give me more chills than the actual show.


     In the end, I wouldn’t blame you if you passed Once by, to avoid entangling yourself in four seasons of adventure and irritating costumes… but this series is not afraid to poke a little fun at itself and its archetypes, and in the fourth season it’s started to do that even more than before. For anyone who’s tired of fairytale cliches, this may be a good place to start… because Once Upon A Time is the fairy-tale that’s gradually becoming self-aware.

1 comment:

  1. I just started watching this show and I started on the 4th season because Hulu didn't have the first threeXD I think that may have spoiled a lot of stuff for watching the first three, but I still want to see them. Like, how did Emma and Hook get together in the first place?... This is a great review, and I'll definitely recommend it to friends who haven't seen the show yet and want to know what it's about, as my ability to explain things comprehensively is non-existent!