Once Upon a Time: At Its Best When Breaking the Mold, at Its Worst When Following It

The face of a woman off to the side, with an apple in front of her, half black and half red. The words "Once Upon a Time" fill the other side of the image.

Image: ABC

Genre: Fantasy/Fairy tale retelling

Synopsis: Emma is living on her own and working as a bail bondsman, when the boy she’d given up for adoption at birth appears on her doorstep. There’s nothing for it but for her to bring the kid back to his adoptive mother–who he insists is the Evil Queen. The Evil Queen, who cast a curse on fairy tale characters, trapping them in our world with no memories of who they are. While Emma is supposed to be the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, capable of breaking the curse.

Emma doesn’t believe any of this, of course, but bringing Henry home makes her concerned enough to stick around. And in doing so, she launches a sweeping tale of second chances and redemption, with the fate of every story we knew as children in the balance.

Series: Six seasons, with an upcoming seventh–however, the sixth seasons brings this story to a natural conclusion, while the seventh includes a time skip and new characters.

I’ve Watched: All six seasons.

Verdict: Has its ups and downs, but I really do enjoy it when it’s at it’s best.

It’s been a long time since I last watched this show–I dropped off somewhere around season three. And I’m not entirely sure why. It’s imperfect, but also contains plenty of unusual elements that make up for its flaws. I do wish it was consistently less typical–but even so, it’s still far more atypical than most stories I’d find on TV.

For whatever reason, I stopped watching this show somewhere around the third season. It’s in its sixth season now, with a seventh season on the way, and I’ve finally caught up. (In case anyone was wondering which feel-good show I binged on to get my mind off The Handmaid’s Tale, this was it.)

Once Upon a Time shines when it breaks from the script, shaking up the narratives we’re familiar with. We have a menacing Peter Pan who throws his family under the bus for his own selfish needs. A Beast who’s more of a deal-making wizard than a bruiser. A Snow White who survives on her own in the woods, while being hunted down by the Evil Queen. The show also embraces an unusual family structure, with both an adoptive and birth mother being part of a child’s life, developing a friendship along the way.

It doesn’t always tell a story in a way that’s transformative, but it’s worth it for the times that it does.

Despite being an optimistic, happy ending-style show, Once Upon a Time has a strong focus on second chances and redemption. Even the purest heroes hurt people and have to make up for it. Granted, the conflict between Snow White and the Evil Queen is ridiculous. But plenty of other selfish choices and their consequences are on display.

It also has a plethora of female characters with their own character journeys–not all of them are great, but some are, especially the protagonists. And I do appreciate the friendships between women, and getting to see groups of women adventuring together. I also just found out that one of the actresses portraying a main protagonist is LatinaAdditionally,  two central characters–Captain Hook and Rumpelstiltskin–have disabilities. I get the impression that there’s pros and cons with their portrayals, but at the least, there’s one heroic disabled protagonist.

On the other hand, the show does have a problem with repetitive elements. For instance:

  • The sheer amount of time these people have their memories taken away is ridiculous.
  • Snow White and Prince Charming have flirted with darkness so many times, making similar mistakes all over again. I feel like I’ve watched the same scene multiple times, with Snow monologuing about where they went wrong.
  • Two particular characters have gotten together and torn apart so many times, it gets old.
  • Rumpelstiltskin not only has a character arc set on repeat, but also is connected to every character ever (and has manipulated pretty much all of them).

Other negative elements include:

  • Sometimes it gets formulaic or even problematic.
  • With every episode having flashbacks to a past event, each episode needs to juggle two intertwining plots, while continually adding backstory. While some episodes have made great use of this, others have been brought down by it–not every flashback is engaging or necessary. (And if I have to watch another scene of the two-dimensional Evil Queen, I’ll scream. After 6 seasons, I think we get the point.)
  • The pacing is uneven–some plot points move at an interesting pace, others drag, while still others replay themselves to the point of exhaustion.
  • Overemphasizes romantic love, though it does still put work into its platonic relationships.
  • Aside from the actress playing Regina, the show has made a token effort to include people of color, but the speed with which they’re written out of the story has to be seen to be believed.
  • There are only four LGBT characters on the show (three of which are peripheral, one of which used to be more prominent, long before she was revealed as bisexual), surrounded by dozens of straight people.
  • Several moments of problematic consent, which the show deals with strangely if at all, crop up.
  • You’d think all of the women would have invested in sensible shoes at some point, but no. Still running in heels.

I’m also against the Charmings taking what is essentially an untested drug without any regard for safety, just because they have faith it’ll work. Fortunately, the show demonstrates the dangers of that mentality.

I’d say Once Upon a Time is worth the watch for me. Plenty of negatives are mixed in with its positives, but there’s always a good story coming around the corner. Over six seasons, even as some characters’ stories grow stale, others continue to evolve in interesting ways.

So as not to have to talk about all six seasons right away, I’ll take a closer look at those character journeys in later posts.

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