My main summer project, in addition to writing books, is rehabbing my wonky knee. At the moment, that means two therapy appointments a week, plus “homework” of exercises I’m supposed to do on my own every day. The homework amounts to just under 45 minutes, which is about the length of an episode of a TV drama, minus commercials. That makes it a good opportunity to rewatch a familiar series I have on DVD. I already know what happens, so it doesn’t hurt if I’m a bit distracted by counting reps or have to turn away from the TV to do a particular exercise, but it’s engrossing enough to divert me from all the work, and there’s enough curiosity about what happens next when I only vaguely remember to encourage me to exercise the next day so I can watch the next episode (or extend my workout to the rest of my body and watch a second episode). So, the official TV series of my knee rehab is Once Upon a Time. It’s thematically appropriate to a book idea I want to play with later this summer, if I ever finish the current book, and with the series going into a new phase in the fall, it’s interesting to revisit the beginning.
Spoilers for the series to-date are possible.
I remember being very skeptical of the concept when it was first announced. I remember the sitcom “The Charmings.” There would definitely be a temptation to go overboard into camp, but on the other hand, there would be the temptation to take a cynical approach. However, I love fairy tales. I love fairy tale retellings and mash-ups, so I was intrigued enough to set my VCR (yes, I was slow to jump on the DVR train) when it premiered, since I had to sing in a concert that night. They pretty much hooked me from the opening shot of Prince Charming riding to Snow White’s rescue. Basically, this was a show made for me, with contemporary fantasy, fairy tales, and portals between worlds. Then they made Snow White a sassy bandit fighting a one-woman rebellion against the Evil Queen instead of spending all her time keeping house for the dwarfs, and I was hooked.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the series ended up living up to the promise of what they set up in that first season. In some ways, it went badly off the rails, and that makes for frustrating rewatching. The continuity is terrible, as they kept contradicting themselves. Worldbuilding was never these writers’ strength, but somehow their world because weaker and less defined over time instead of becoming richer and more detailed. Storybrooke in the first few episodes of season one really seemed like a magical place, a small town that someone how managed to be both an idyllic “typical” American small town and a place right out of a storybook. The residents didn’t know they were fairytale characters while they were under the curse, but there were still little details suggesting their true identities. Somehow, all that was lost when the people remembered who they were later and the town seemed a lot more “normal.” They also apparently lost the budget to hire extras, so that there were other patrons in the shops, people walking up and down the streets, and cars driving by in season one, but by season six, the town felt deserted, like only the main characters lived there, and there were no buildings other than the diner, the library with its clock tower, and the houses where the main characters lived, with no buildings in between. There are a couple of lovely CGI shots of the rooftops of the town, as seen from the windows of some of the characters, that were used in the first couple of episodes, and they seem to have forgotten that there’s a whole town out there.
Meanwhile, the fairytale world seemed a lot stronger in the early going, where it really seemed like a place where all the characters lived together. In later seasons, it felt more like silos, or like the characters only ran into each other for that one event. We saw that most of these other kingdoms were in walking distance of each other, and yet none of the rulers seemed to have heard of each other.
I think there was also some waffling about the premise. The writers mentioned in interviews that they were telling the story of the place where the Evil Queen could get a happy ending. There was also a scene in the second episode of a bunch of villains gathered and learning that the curse that was going to be cast would take them to a world where villains could win. That seemed to be setting up the idea that the fairytale world was black-and-white, where the odds were strangely stacked against villains — you were either a villain or a hero, and if you were a villain, no matter how good your plan was, you just couldn’t win — and our world had more shades of gray, with the possibility that the villains might be able to come out ahead. They didn’t take that route at all. We never saw those gathered villains again and don’t know what became of them when the kingdom was transported to our world. The villains don’t seem to have done too badly in the fairytale world — the Evil Queen managed to rule for some time and probably could have remained in power if she’d been content with where she was instead of unable to be happy if Snow White wasn’t happy. I don’t think the writers every really figured out how their world worked and what they meant by heroes and villains, in spite of devoting an entire story arc to it.
Plus, when you think about it, transporting the entire kingdom to a small town in Maine, where they lived frozen in time with no sense of their true identities, was a pretty lame revenge scheme. The Evil Queen still wasn’t happy because she’s the kind of person who’s never satisfied, and she spent decades just watching her enemy lead a mildly dissatisfying life while still being more or less content and happier than the Evil Queen was. She didn’t use the different rules of our world to really come out ahead, didn’t really do anything to make her enemy suffer all that much until the curse was weakening and people were becoming more like their true selves. I kind of feel like the curse and the rationale for it were mostly just a handwave to get the fairytale characters to modern America rather than something that was given any thought or development.
Still, it’s fun to see which modern people are which fairytale characters, or what the fairytale characters are doing in our world. I love the nonlinear storytelling in the flashbacks in the first season, where we start with the curse being cast and work backwards to find out what was really going on, with other parts of the story being a bit mixed up, so seeing a later part puts a previous part into a different context. It was this kind of stuff that got me hooked, for better or worse. I’m done with disc one of season one, so we’ll see what other thoughts I have as the story continues to unfold.