Thursday, March 01, 2012

Once Upon a Time: Thin at Best

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while now, probably stalling out of denial. It’s been nearly a month since I stopped watching Once Upon a Time, a show conceived by Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis. As two writers who worked on the epic and historic, LOST, we were hopeful that the same magic would carryover. After all, the premise of Once Upon a Time, is pretty good (Watch out, there are spoilers to come, although I don’t really care if I spoil it for you) — the evil witch from the Snow White story has put a curse on all the fairy characters from all the other stories, essentially transporting them out of their world and into ours and trapping them here. It’s a little more complicated than that, but not much, which is part of the problem. While the premise makes for a potentially deep plot by integrating all the fairytale stories together, it just isn’t panning out.

Whatever story world is created and whatever plot surmised, you go on the journey with the characters and these characters are, at best, thin. The main source of tension that drives the story is between Emma Swan and Regina Mills (the Mayor and the Evil Queen). A little boy named Henry, who is the Mayors adopted son, has brought Emma to the town. Somehow Henry knows the truth and is trying to save everyone. He believes Emma can help because she is the long lost daughter of Snow White who was sent to the real world just as the Evil Queen was imposing her curse on the fairytale land. Emma is bitter and jaded at being abandoned, but has somehow found a heart for her own son, Henry, who she abandoned when she was a teenager. The Mayor is bitter and jaded because Emma is trying to thwart her curse. It’s like watching socially awkward junior high kids confront one another on the playground.

Whatever complexity and tension these relationships are supposed to create never comes to fruition. The Mayor is always telling Emma to stay away, which she never does. Emma goes back forth from believing Henry that there is a curse that must be broken. And somehow the fairytale world, always told as a back-story, is supposed to relate to what those characters are now facing in the real world, but it’s just boring and uneventful and, really, thinly connected at best. I was in denial each week because I really wanted to like it, but I kept asking myself why should I care about anything that’s happening here? It’s like they keep trying to prove to me that I should care about these characters but they never give me anything more than just the simple premise. It almost feels like they are still trying to figure out who the characters are. Shouldn’t they have done that before production? In any case, there is no mystery here. Each week they show me the same thing. It works fine for Law and Order, but Once Upon a Time is not supposed to be a series of independent episodes. We never feel the depth and tension of the metanarrative. There’s no mystery or suspense that really matters because the characters are thin.

There are bright spots. Every now and then some major move towards creating a really cool long-term story arch is introduced, which typically always had to do with the bad guys – the evil queen, Rumpelstiltskin, and other evil witches from other stories (we’ve met the evil witch from Sleeping Beauty, I believe), and the mirror. The bad guys are the best part of the show, and Rumpelstiltskin, in particular, is by far the best part about this show. Still, they wait too long to develop the depth and complexity of these characters. For example, you forget for weeks that the mirror on the wall is one of the characters! Or what about the back-story between the evil queen and the witch from sleeping beauty? Give me something?!

Unless I hear about some major changes, I won’t keep watching. I’d be surprised if it’s picked up for a second season. And if it is, I bet they cancel it half way through.

I hope to say a little more about this in another post, particular how story relates to Christianity in terms of how we talk about God as well as what it means to be found in God’s story. I also hope to write a little bit about a new show I am watching – Downton Abbey – and how beautifully they have set up a complex plot with deep characters.

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