ABC’S Once Upon a Time is a fairy tale soap opera with a melodramatic storyline that revolves around murder cover-ups, frame jobs, ill-fated lovers, and a no-nonsense female sheriff who curls her hair ever-so-slightly. Everything about the series, from the writing to the music box soundtrack to the art direction, is hokey and I know this to be true with every fiber of my being. But I can’t stop watching it. I mean, I seriously watch the hell out of this show. Sometimes I watch an episode on Sunday night when it first airs and then I’ll watch that same episode the next day On Demand. Later in the week, I may even watch that episode again. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I’m watching last Sunday’s episode as I’m writing this. So what is it about this super corny series that makes it so appealing?
Created by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, Once Upon a Time’s premise is…convoluted (but what else would you expect from a couple of erstwhile Lost staff writers?). On the day that Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) marries her Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), Snow’s stepmonster, the Evil Queen Regina (Lana Parrilla) curses the lovers and everyone else in Fairy Tale Land, threatening to destroy their happiness.
Months later, when Snow is pregnant with her first child, the Evil Queen finally exacts her revenge, sending every fairy tale character to a place where the only happy ending will be hers (muhahaha!). Like a champ, Snow pushes that baby out of her nethers just before the Evil Queen’s spell is cast and puts the newborn, whom she names Emma, in an enchanted tree (yeah, an “enchanted tree”) to protect her from sharing everyone else’s fate.
Fast-forward 28-years and Emma (Jennifer Morrison) is living a perfectly normal, albeit lonely, non-fairy tale life as a bail bondswoman when a little boy named Henry (Jared Gilmore) tracks her down and tells her that he’s the son she gave up for adoption (I told you this shit was convoluted) and that he lives in a town called Storybrooke where all the inhabitants are actually fairy tale characters who are trapped in the real world by the Evil Queen’s spell, but totally ignorant of their past lives.
I’m going to let you take a breather while you digest all of that, I know it was a lot of back-story, but for anyone who hasn’t seen a single episode, I felt that it was necessary to illustrate the ridiculousness of the series. Maybe “ridiculousness” isn’t the right word. “High concept” might be more appropriate. Strangely though, that way too complicated and strange premise is one of the reasons why Once Upon a Time is so compelling.
Blame it on Lost or the first two seasons of Heroes, but I think that right now, we as a culture not only appreciate a show with dense mythology but kind of crave that. Sure, we get pissed when there’s no resolution and mythology for the sake of mythology is definitely obnoxious. But it’s fun when a plot twists and turns, when a story builds, not slowly, but deliberately over time, and when some small seemingly insignificant moment in the past informs the present. And this is what Once Upon a Time is all about—that ever unfolding mystery.
Each episode, has two parallel stories: one set in Storybrooke in the present and one set in Fairy Tale Land in the past. The true fairy tale identities of many of the characters in Storybrooke are revealed to the viewer through these intertwining narratives. For example, a Fairy Tale Land story about Rumpelstilskin (Robert Carlyle) shows us that his counterpart in Storybrooke is Mr. Gold, the richest man in town. The series opener about Snow White shows us that her Storybrooke counterpart is school teacher Mary Margaret. But the beauty of the show—and it’s a very simple thing—is that there are tons of people, just walking around Storybrooke and we have no idea who they really are. Part of the fun of Once Upon a Time is that calculated reveal of everyone’s true identity and in the interim speculating about who those characters must be.
I keep using the word “fun” and that’s really the point that I’m trying to make here. Once Upon a Time is hokey as hell and kind of weird (the beginning of the series finds one of the characters suffering from that over-utilized soap opera ailment: the coma – and in one episode we learn that dwarfs are hatched from eggs as full-grown adults) but it’s fun. This is by no means highbrow stuff we’re talking about but it appeals to my basic desire to see a little romance, be outraged by a truly evil villain, and shocked by some unexpected turn.