Once Upon A Time Hates Adoption But Loves A Good Story
By Alex Cranz
Why are fairy tales so enduring? Why can any child tell you a variation of the tale of Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty or Ali Baba? What makes them fairy tales and not simply really good stories?
Why are they fairy tales and not simply old fantasy stories?
Fairy tales are big and bold. The stories are natural and organic and engaging but the emotions are so bright they as at home in the pages of Children’s And Household Tales as they are in the libretto of a musical. These are characters who feel everything and lay it all out on the page for us. They frequently lack subtlety but it’s never a costly sacrifice–if anything it makes them more alluring.
Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz get that. They understand the universal appeal of the fairytale and why they work and the pilot of Once Upon A Time snags bits and pieces of the best stories. There are flashes of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Donkeyskin and even Superman. While they don’t hesitate to wink at the audience they never actually revel in their own cleverness and they focus on the story rather than on their huge cast of familiar characters.
They also introduce some pretty crazy ideas. Earth–completely devoid of magic and CGI castles–is hell. It’s a place so dark and terrible that the entire fairytale world quakes and quells at the idea of eternity there. But for the evil Queen Earth is a place of eternal happiness. And on Earth her happiness is represented, ostensibly, by her social success. She’s got a big house, money, and a great job as the mayor. She’s got the affection of the dreamy sheriff and she has a precocious ten-year old son she adores. It’s the dream many women (and men) aspire to.
The evilness is spun not from her success, but from her person. She’s capricious, has a sharp tongue and is prone to dark clothes. As soon as the heroine, Emma Swan (taking tips from Stephanie Meyers in your naming choices fellas?) arrives in Storybrooke, Maine she’s at odds with the evil Queen turned Mayor. Theirs is the core rivalry of the show.
I’ll admit there’s something worrisome about it. Emma Swan is brought into the story by the son she gave up for adoption ten years earlier. He’s precocious and wise and infinitely trusting where Emma is concerned. He also passionately despises his adoptive mother–going so far as to claim she’s not his “real” mom. It’s an alarming and antiquated portrayal of adoptions made worse by Emma’s own story. She too experienced the adoption and foster care system and despises it. The show puts a major value of birth over adoptive parents that feels like something out of the twenties. Somewhere Edna Gladney is spinning in her grave.
The worst bit is where the Queen reminds Emma that she chose a closed adoption and that she needed to leave. It was played as a cackling Eeeevil moment when it actually felt like a very reasonable request if it were made by any other character in the history of the world.
Less worrisome is Emma Swan herself. She’s brash and colorful, capable and smart. We first meet her at a restaurant waiting with an online date. It’s a moment that immediately made my eyes role and my hackles raise. “Oh great another lonely woman out for love at the center of the show. Bleeech.” Only then she reveals she’s a bounty hunter and he’s the bounty and chases him down the street like a full on Terminator.
Every moment after that with her is a delight. She’s a fun lead character that’s easy to like and Jennifer Morrison is charming as hell as this in vogue rogue.
Snow White is a trickier beast. We’re introduced to her at the end of her story as she’s saved by her true love, Prince Charming, and getting married. The Queen shows up to threaten and cause mayhem because that’s what evil Queens do and Snow White busts out a giant sword.
Again my eyes tried to crawl back into my head. In an effort to “empower” Snow White and wash away a few centuries of entrenched sexism the show felt like it was trying way too damn hard.
The same can be said of her love affair with Prince Charming. They spend a lot of time telling us the two love each other without ever showing it. It’s up to Ginnifer Goodwin (in a hilarious wig) and Josh Dallas to sell us on their love. The two try and even, at some points succeed.
Their Storybrooke counterparts are less engaging–largely because they’re barely in the pilot. Snow White is a picture perfect elementary school teacher named Mary Margaret. She oozes a youthful maternal nature that’s cloyingly sweet and just a touch unbelievable. It remains to be seen if her otherworldly kindness is a purposeful holdover from the fairytale world or just an odd direction to take a character. Prince Charming is a non-entity what with being a nameless man in a coma.
The last part of the pilot puzzle is Jared Gilmore as the plot point kid, Henry Mills. He spews out exposition with gusto but he’s also wooden like many children actors. Unless it’s revealed he’s Pinocchio’s long-lost brother it’s a problem and maybe the biggest of the pilot. Gilmore is all right, but his character is sparsely written and just not that interesting as anything but a commodity to be battled over by the three women of the show.
And battle they will. The writers have crafted a whole bevy of epic battles and small squabbles to be played out over the course of the show. In this pilot they’ve given themselves many long seasons of story fodder. The bit where they flashback to the fairy tale world while the story unfolds on Earth will be especially interesting. It gives them a freedom in their storytelling but if they’re not careful it could become a crutch. I’m interested to see how the next few episodes play out and they handle the storytelling system they’ve created. Until then I’ll be reading my fairy tales and waiting with bated breath for Sunday nights.
- I laughed so hard when they intimated that Emma was supposed to be 28 because I though Jennifer Morrison was 38. Then I was pleased because yea for an older woman playing a younger woman! Than I looked up her age and she’s only four years off the mark. She’s just been playing a 28-year-old on House for years and years and years.
- Robert Carlyle is on your tv again! And he’s got his adorable accent! And he’s playing the only character as evil or more evil than the Queen!
- Okay so just so we’re clear. Fairy Tale land is Narnia and Geppeto built the original wardrobe. YOU WERE ALL THINKING IT.
- Who else saw Granny and shouted AMERICAN IMELDA STAUNTON! I know I did.
- And did you see Red Riding Hood? Good genes in that family.
- I like how coming to Earth meant a growth spurt for a lot of characters. In particular Grumpy and Jiminy Cricket are looking taller.
- At one point the evil Queen was gloating over the coming apocalypse of colorful curse clouds and I thought “Man, someone needs to just kill this lady.” And then Prince Charming was all HAARGHAAAH and threw his sword and it went through her while she cackled and I was all “Never mind I guess. Lady is powerful and a wizard.”
- All the dated CGI and hilarious costuming gives this show a very Sunday night miniseries feel. I was getting some mega 10th Kingdom flashbacks.
- Seriously what was up with the CGI. There’s a moment where the Queen is raiding Snow White’s wedding that was truly awful. She floats across the floor because someone in the graphics department was too lazy to draw and time things properly. It was embarrassing to watch.
- I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of Rose Red, Sleeping Beauty, Belle and Cinderella. DON’T FAIL ME Once Upon A Time.
- This show already has more interesting women leads than any other show airing. If they start throwing in more ladies it will be an estrogen explosion the likes of which our televisions have never seen…and always yearned for.
- The Irish Jamie Dornan as Sheriff Graham? Smoking hot. Also I am positive he’ll be another man the Queen and Emma will do battle over–just because dang he’s attractive with his accent and pants and looks.
- But if he turns out to be the fairy tale wolf than Bigby and Bill Willingham had better get ready to sue.
- Speaking of Willingham and Fables how mad do you think he is that this show is on air and he can’t even get a pilot made?
- Also would people be interested in a compare and contrast of Fables and Once Upon A Time? I feel like that needs to happen.
- And now I’ve just realized that when this show was pitched they probably said, “It’s like 10th Kingdom and Fables banged and a baby came out and that baby was into serial stories like Battlestar Galactica and Lost.” And I’m okay with that.