Once Upon a Time: TV’s most optimistic (and ridiculous) show
Nathanael Smith | On 30, May 2018Reading time: 6 mins
Once Upon A Time is the kind of show where the Wicked Witch of the West falls in love with Hades, the Evil Queen from Snow White is trained in magic by Rumplestiltskin and somehow most of these famous fairytale characters end up related to one another. It’s a show where Grumpy the Dwarf emerges from an egg and is initially called Dreamy, but has his feelings crushed and his name changed when he isn’t allowed to fall in love with a fairy – undoubtedly the nadir of the show’s seven seasons.
If such a patently absurd opening paragraph has intrigued you, instead of making you flick onto another browser tab, then welcome to the world of Once Upon A Time. The show ended with a dramatic Season 7 finale, wrapping up years of storytelling with an emotional and effective conclusion. The finale was also, in many ways, utterly ridiculous, which is Once Upon a Time through and through. Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz’s fantasy was almost always silly, but it was held together by storytelling conviction and an utterly winsome sincerity that saw it survive even the most frustrating of plot developments.
The story, as it started out, follows a bunch of characters transported by a curse from their home – the Enchanted Forest – to a town in Maine, named Storybrooke. Here, all but the Evil Queen Regina (Lana Parilla), who cast the curse, and the mysterious magician Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle – amazingly sticking it out for all seven seasons), have had their memories wiped and cannot remember that they once had lives as princes, crickets and fairy-romancers. Enter Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), believed by her son to be the one who can save the town. Why? Because she is the product of True Love (she’s Snow and Charming’s kid).
Over seven seasons, the showrunners spanned out every different ramification of this initial setup. New curses, new Dark Ones, a roster of memorably over-the-top villains. They took the heroes to different realms, the underworld, back in time…
Every episode had the same structure, unfolding an overarching plot, intertwined with a flashback (generally in a magical realm) that revealed a crucial bit of backstory that also impacted the real world. It developed from Season 1’s Fairy-Tale-of-the-Week format to become something more cohesive, powered by a central cast that clearly had a lot of affection for each other and for the material. Each season saw a new threat faced down by a group of heroes that you came to love as it progressed. Over time, they were joined by Captain Hook, Belle, Robin Hood and scene-stealer Zelena, the Wicked Witch. She was played by Rebecca Mader, as if Tahani from The Good Place ended up as a witch in Oz.
This is not the kind of serious, sex-filled, Intelligent-with-a-capital-I television that rakes in critical acclaim and inspires fervent discussion of its genius on social media. For every genuinely dramatic arc with compelling storytelling, there’s an episode so utterly stupid that it makes you want to give up. The narrative is littered with frustrating non-starter subplots and barely developed characters. The Land of Untold Stories promised a refreshing twist on the format, bringing in figures from literature as well as fairy tales, but that petered out with a Brummy Aladdin and a short-lived Mr. Hyde. In the final season, Dr. Facilier looked like he could surpass Rumple as a chaotic evil sub-villain, but his story came to nothing.
The ridiculousness carries on to the timeline. The episode format of main arc-meets-flashback means that we’re forever filling in the backstory of these characters, but in ways that, if it played out chronologically, would probably make no sense at all. The plotting is broad and compelling, so the smaller details are often explained away for the sake of convenience. Audiences who love to snidely pick apart plot holes will have a field day with this slice of emmental cheese. Characters can spend an entire season trying to solve a problem that a season later will be managed easily with a potion or spell. One suspects that the writers would answer many questions levelled at their plot with the solution “because it’s magical”. But that’s because the “how” isn’t important – they’re more interested in the way it affects character dynamics.
Yet many of the show’s flaws, including its nonsensical timeline and terrible CGI, end up becoming some of its most endearing qualities, if you stick with the show long enough. Everything is delivered with such wide-eyed sincerity that you overlook the fact that they clearly only had about four sets and one big green screen for the show’s entire run. It’s all about the high drama of evil schemes and kind-hearted heroes thwarting them. Every season features some revelation about the power of love and how it can defeat just about anything. Love is the greatest magic, etc. etc.
If this all sounds dismissive, it isn’t intended as such. In a TV landscape where even superheroes are dark and gritty, it’s refreshing to have a compulsively watchable show that never bothers to be. There are seriously dark moments, particularly during the show’s strongest arc in the middle of Season 2 involving Regina’s mother, but the tone never stays that way for long. Case in point: as Season 6 barrelled towards its dramatic climax, it paused before the two-part finale to have a musical episode featuring some of the show’s cheesiest moments – an impressive achievement. The fact that every dark storyline is resolved with relative ease and people stay good buddies, even after atrocities, is part of the light-hearted, escapist appeal.
Again, these aspects of the show aren’t detrimental: they are among its finest qualities. One of the most compelling threads throughout all seven seasons are the redemption arcs (at vastly different paces) for Rumplestiltskin and Regina. Rumple is an agent of chaos, rarely the main villain but always a malevolent presence; Regina is a wounded, vicious woman hellbent on revenge. Thanks to other people believing in them, they each get second, third and fourth chances. Regina’s story is the most satisfying of all, something which the finale thankfully realised by majoring on her. At the heart of Once Upon a Time is the belief that people can change, that love, kindness and affection can turn even the greatest villain into an ally and a friend. It may be simple or naïve, but it’s delivered with absolute conviction (and makes for some really watchable TV).
So, as we try to fill the fairy tale-shaped hole in our lives, here’s to Once Upon A Time, a relentlessly entertaining, resolutely light-hearted and fiercely optimistic show. For seven seasons, it was endearingly ridiculous, frustrating viewers with plots that made little sense, only to turn them around and make you care about them anyway.
Once Upon a Time Season 1 to 7 are available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. Season 1 to 4 are also available on Disney+, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription or a £59.99 yearly subscription.