A Reader Suggests – Once Upon a Time

The title of this should probably be multiple readers suggest, since Once Upon a Time was among the most suggested shows. When I was fairly lukewarm about Grimm, people encouraged me to check out the other fairy tale inspired show of last year. They suspected that I would like Once Upon a Time more.

I’ll admit that I was skeptical. Once Upon a Time seemed a little too romantic and fantastical for my taste. While I didn’t love Grimm, I do tend toward the darker version of fairy tales than the princess Disney-fied interpretation. And from the commercials I had seen, I figured that Once Upon a Time would fall into this latter category. But I’m willing to give things a try and am occasionally surprised, so I gave Once Upon a Time a whirl toward the end of the summer.

The top credited person on the show gave me some hope that I may like the show more than expected. I have had a total girl-crush on Ginnfer Goodwin since her days on Big Love; it was actually my enjoyment of her that kept me with that show much longer than the quality dictated (though even her adorableness couldn’t get me to tune in for that final season. Woof!). So a show based around her was a step in the right direction. I was, however, much less enthused about the second billed actress. I am much less bullish on Jennifer Morrison. She was tolerable on House, which I only watched briefly, but I haven’t liked her in anything else that I have seen her in. I partially blame her for my rapid disinterest in How I Met Your Mother as her character Zoey was dreadful. I just don’t think she is a very good actress. So her prominence in Once Upon a Time gave me pause. It’s probably good that I didn’t know that Morrison was in the show until I sat down to watch it; that might have prevented me giving the show a chance.

And that would have been a shame, because I absolutely love Once Upon a Time. Once again, my friends know me better than I know myself. It’s a really fantastic show.

The basic premise of the show is straight out of the pages of a book: The evil Queen Regina (Lana Parrilla), in her quest to destroy Snow White (Goodwin), casts a spell that sends the characters from fairy tales to our world, where they have no idea of their fairy tale past or real identity. Snow White is now an elementary school teacher named Mary Margaret, Red Riding Hood is now a waitress named Ruby and her grandmother runs the local inn. All the characters reside in the same town, Storybrooke, Maine, and are ruled over by their mayor, the evil queen. Regina’s adopted son Henry is the only one who senses that something is amiss and guesses people’s true identities. He searches out his birth mother Emma (Morrison), who he believes is the key to unlocking the mysterious past of all the residents of the town.

What I really like about Once Upon a Time is that it shares a lot of characteristics with Lost, which should come as no surprise as it was created by two of Lost’s writers and producers. Both shows are structured in a similar fashion, at least in the first season; though there are many characters in the cast and there is an ongoing narrative that runs throughout the season, each episode tends to focus on one character and developing who they are and their back story. They achieve this the same way that Lost did with flashbacks to that character’s life as a fairy tale character paralleling with current events. In my mind it is a very effective tool and since I tend to be more interested in character development than mythology (which is why I didn’t hate the Lost finale as much as everyone else – though I did still hate it), I am especially drawn to this storytelling technique. The overarching story lines keep the show moving forward, but the character development is what keeps me interested.

And what a cast of characters they have assembled. I really enjoyed figuring out just who everyone was and their fairy tale alter ego. Some of the characters were pretty obvious – naming Little Red Riding Hood Ruby isn’t exactly a difficult nut to crack – but others were not as clear and it took several episodes before you discovered who they really were. It drove me nuts trying to figure out who the mysterious August was; I kept looking for clues and was coming up empty. It was a slow burn, but when his back story was finally revealed, I was delighted. It was unexpected and well executed and I was glad that they took their time with that particular discovery.

A show about fairy tale characters that don’t know they are fairy tale characters could be incredibly hokey. While Once Upon a Time does have its moments, the acting is generally top notch. This isn’t to say that it isn’t occasionally campy and over the top, but it is done skillfully and with just the right level of seriousness. Even Morrison became less annoying to me as the show progressed, which it the true testament to the other actors and the writing. Parrilla is wonderfully evil as the Queen and Goodwin is very solid, as expected, as the sweet Snow White. The only true week point on the cast is little Henry; though the child actor has some top notch experience (he was Bobby Draper #2 on Mad Men and mad some waves when he didn’t have the nicest things to say about TV mom January Jones), I just don’t think he is very good. He doesn’t have much of a range and is a little whiny.

My favorite character, hands down, is Mr. Gold. Being evil is just way more fun than being the good guy and Robert Carlyle just seems to have a great time playing the many facets of this character. He’s a great foil for Regina, but he isn’t totally evil. Over the course of the first season you see that there is more to this character than meets the eye. Carlyle deftly handles humor and evil plotting with the same ease and is just a lot of fun to watch.

Because Once Upon a Time has such a large supporting cast, it has also been enjoyable to see a lot of actors that I know from other things turn up for an episode or two. The show really has a pretty impressive roster; every episode I wind up thinking to myself “Hey! There’s ______ from ______!”  No recurring character made me happier than seeing Giancarlo Esposito turn up as Sidney Glass. It’s a role that has absolutely nothing in common with his portrayal of Gus on Breaking Bad and it was a little jarring to see him do something that was a lot more lighthearted. It was also exciting to see Kristin Bauer van Straten (Pam on True Blood) pop in for a few episodes. Most episodes send me to IMDB to figure out why an actor looks so familiar. Because the commitment for most of these roles is pretty minimal, the show is able to get some really outstanding people to participate.

Once Upon a Time isn’t flawless. As much as I enjoy the show, I was a little fatigued from a murder storyline that dragged on far too long toward the middle of the first season. I’m not the biggest fan of the character of Prince Charming; he’s not terrible, but at times I find him a little selfish and wishy-washy (though he is charming; I’ll give him that). Sometimes the show is just a little on the nose for my personal preferences; I’m a bigger fan of subtlety, which does not always jibe with the show. These issues didn’t detract much from my overall enjoyment of the show, but were noticeable.

Once I got a few episodes into Once Upon a Time, I was all in. In fact, I was mainlining episodes like they were heroin; I’d come home from work and watch as many episodes as I could before it was time to go to bed. And I actually had to force myself to go to bed rather than keep watching episodes all night. I was totally immersed in fairy tales and loved every minute of it. I watched all 22 episodes in a fairly short amount of time and I’m sure I annoyed one of my friends with my constant texting of my thoughts about episodes (sorry L).

I was a bit nervous about the second season, which debuted last night. Would I still like the show when watching it weekly, rather than consuming an entire season all at once? Would the premise still be interesting for a second season? The finale of the first season was good, but I wasn’t quite sure where they were going to go from there. Had they painted themselves into a corner?

Turns out I shouldn’t have been concerned; I watched the premiere episode last night and was just as invested as I had been with the first season. They kept the premise fresh and took the show in what I think will be an interesting new direction. I’m looking forward to meeting new characters, though they are going a little deeper into fairy tale lore than I am familiar with. One character introduced in the premiere episode I am not all that knowledgeable about – knew the name, but not much else. This is one of the few returning series where the new episodes actually excited me. I’ve been fairly meh on the season premieres of some of my shows this year, but Once Upon a Time made me really energized for the episode next week. It’s a great way to kick off my Sunday night block of television.

Some other quick thoughts:

  • I’d love to know the budget for hair extensions on this show; it’s got to be more than I make in a year.
  • The special effects are better than I expected for network television, but could still use some work.
  • It was nice to see a Lost alumni appear in some episodes, but I am very excited that another alum is signed up for season 2.
  • If they are going to raid the Lost cast for guest appearances, can’t we find a role for Josh Holloway? Pretty pretty please?

This is really just an excuse to post a picture of Josh Holloway.

  • Another similarity to Lost? Once Upon a Time also has an actor that appears to be wearing eyeliner. Jefferson (OUAT) and Richard (Lost) could swap make-up tips.
  • Since ABC is owned by Disney, I’m just waiting for the inevitable marketing crossover. Maybe the show will become a ride at Disneyland.
  • Grimm’s grasp on my TV viewing schedule is tenuous at best. A woman in her mid-thirties should probably only be watching one show about fairy tales and Grimm isn’t going to be that show. Sorry Monroe – I think your days are numbered.
  • I’m really dying to know who Dr. Whale’s fairy tale alter-ego is. I’d actually forgotten that we never found that out in the first season, until they reminded us in the season premiere. The names that they have assumed in this world tend to be a clue, but I’m coming up empty. Any ideas?
  • I was waiting for some on-line verification that the man in the opening shot of the premiere was Michael Raymond-James, who I am always glad to see. He was the co-lead in Terriers (R.I.P), but it probably known to more people from his role in season one of True Blood (as Rene) or from his guest appearance on Walking Dead. He always brings something interesting to the table and I am intrigued what that opening scene meant and what his role will be in the show in the future.

So a tremendous thanks to everyone who encouraged me to watch Once Upon a Time. You all were absolutely right in your estimation that I would enjoy the show; sometimes other people have a better idea what is up your alley than you do. If you haven’t watched the show, I would strongly encourage you to check it out, though it’s probably best to start at the beginning. It’s worth your while, dearies.

Once Upon a Time airs on Sundays at 8 pm ET on ABC.

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