Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Returning Shows: Once Upon A Time (Still Nuts, Still Fun)

I know you’re all dying to hear more about GeekGirlCon and the fabulous amazingness that happened there, but that’s going to have to wait a little bit, because the interviews aren’t quite done being baked (should be done by Thursday) and I’ve still not quite figured out how to explain all the cool panels I went to without going hardcore nerd and probably getting a little boring.

Which is too bad.

But dry your eyes! Because now, instead, we get to look at another returning show and judge its worthiness to stay in our Hulu favorites. Let’s talk about Once Upon a Time.

Now, we’ve actually been following this show for a couple of years now, and while it remains as deliciously bizarre and cracktastic as ever, I think something else has happened. Something strange. I think OUAT has finally actually found its footing. And since this is the third season, it’s about freaking time.

For those of you who don’t know the basic gist of the show, just check out our OUAT tag and read up there. Because I don’t have time to explain all that massive backstory to you! We’re on a deadline!

(We are not, in fact, on a deadline, unless you count trying to write this article before the timer dings on the chicken I’m baking, in which case we totally are. For the record.)

Anyway, the third season brings us back in right where the second left off. Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) has been kidnapped and taken to Neverland, presumably on the orders of Peter Pan, who is a terrifying bad person. In retaliation, his whole extended family has come after him, including Emma (Jennifer Morrison), his birth mother/maternal step-great grandmother, Regina (Lana Parrilla), his adoptive mother, Snow (Ginnifer Goodwin), his maternal grandmother, Charming (Josh Dallas), his maternal grandfather, and Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle), his paternal grandfather.

Also, Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) – no relation. Yet.

The whole gang is on board the Jolly Rodger as they try desperately to reach Neverland before Henry can be taken by Pan. Tragically, they are too late, and their bickering leads them to almost die in a storm called up by the mermaids. Since Neverland is a land based entirely around belief, they have to work together in order to save Henry, which is what they all want.

As we go along, several character tensions are revealed, which no doubt will become more noticeable as the season progresses. Namely, Regina is willing to go to any ends to get Henry back, which causes tension with Charming and Snow. Charming and Snow, meanwhile, desperately want to parent their already-grown daughter, Emma, who resents getting life advice from people her own age. And Rumplestiltskin thinks they’re all idiots and wanders off at the beginning of the episode to get Henry back on his own.

Of course, this is only part of the whole story. We also see Henry as he runs away from the Lost Boys and, with the help of another outcast and some pixie dust, is able to fly away. Later in the episode, though, the other boy is revealed to actually be Peter Pan himself, and the whole thing was a ruse to see if Henry really is the “true believer” they’ve been waiting for. He is, and that’s probably not a good thing.

In another realm entirely, Baelfire/Neal (Michael Raymond-James) has been returned to the Enchanted Forest where he grew up. He’s less than thrilled to be there, especially when he realizes that Emma and Henry are stuck in Neverland. He’s been there, and he knows exactly how not good that is. So we have another quest by another character trying to get from one realm to another. He’s joined in his effort by Mulan (Jamie Chung), who seems to have elected herself “helper of weird randos who get tossed into our realm and wish to leave”. That’s nice. Everyone needs a hobby.

So far, we have seen nothing of Storybrooke itself. Actually, we saw more of Storybrooke in the premiere of Once Upon a Time in Wonderland than we did in this opener, which could say interesting things about the season. Then again, it might not mean anything at all.

The problem with a show like OUAT is that there’s really no use in predicting it. While that does mean the show is a lot more fun to watch than your average hour-drama, it also means that the show varies wildly between hilarious and unexpected and downright insane. What I’m hoping for, and what I think we might get with this new season is a chance for the show to stabilize. It’s got the key elements it needs and now there’s a chance, just a chance, that it can calm the crap down and just tell a story.

We’ll see how that goes.

Honestly, though, even if the show doesn’t settle down, and it keeps up this ridiculous habit of tossing characters in and out of realms, uniting and tearing apart star-crossed lovers and making everyone and their brother related in some way to the main characters, I’ll still watch it. You know why?

Because OUAT exists in a really unique space in pop culture. It’s a show that manages to affirm our best and most wonderful hopes about the world while also pointing out that sometimes life sucks and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. It gives us traditional fairy tales, then turns them on their heads. It gives us female characters who cry and long for true love and then pick up a chainsaw and cut down an apple tree or dive into a magic hat or freak the crap out.

I love it because it isn’t easy, and it isn’t safe. It’s a show that is weighted effortlessly in the direction of female characters and female stories, but that doesn’t deny the importance of men in those stories.

And, the number one reason I love it, it never makes excuses for bad behavior, but it does show you that inside every villain is a scared, unhappy person trying to get out.

Moreso, it makes a point of showing that there are two sides to every story. Emma is furious that her parents are trying to give her life advice and control her actions, which is understandable, as she is in her late twenties, and her parents are actual literal fairy-tale royalty. I'd rebel against that too. But then Snow and Charming have a point too - they might be screwing it up, but they were devastated to lose her and they want any chance they can get to be a part of her life. No one's really the bad guy here, even if no one is precisely agreeing either.

I like that. I like that a lot.

For all that we adore shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones for revealing things about human nature and giving us a raw, unfiltered view of ourselves as people and the world at large, I’m pretty sure that this is actually the most accurate representation of humanity I’ve seen on TV. It’s no real surprise either, since this comes from the same people who made Buffy, who made Battlestar Galactica, and who made Gilmore Girls.

People are both good and bad. Even the people who are bright and beautiful and noble are still also flawed and dark and willing to do terrible things in the name of justice. No one is straightforward. We’re all just stumbling through, trying to figure ourselves out. To figure out what kind of story we want to be, and whether we’re the villains, or whether there’s still hope for us to be the heroes.

This is a show that I would say is more concerned with the emotional reality of our lives than with the empirical reality, and honestly, that’s just fine with me. I get that. I get these characters. Every time Rumplestiltskin fails and chooses power over love, I get that. Every time Emma hesitates before she trusts someone because she’s been burned so very many times, I get that. And every time Snow lashes out in rage only to shudder at her own anger, I get that too. Those are all human things, and they are all completely real.

So, yes, OUAT is a very silly show where people are constantly being pushed through portals and finding out that so-and-so is their long-lost whatever, but that’s okay. It’s a show about people trying to find the happy ending. Some of them won’t. Some of them will. And the fun of it is seeing which one is which.


  1. It’s a show that manages to affirm our best and most wonderful hopes about the world while also pointing out that sometimes life sucks and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.

    It works on fairytale logic - but you can never be quite sure whether this time's fairytale is going to be a Disney one, a Grimm's one, or a Mediaeval one.

    1. Definitely! Yeah, I do really like how they skip around a little. Just when you think they're going full on Disney, they pull a Grimm. Pretty cool.

  2. What defines a relationship? Is it marriage or love? I'm asking because you said Hook had no relation to Henry. It's true he had no blood relationship or legal relationship, but he was Henry's paternal grandmother's partner. That's why he was there in the first place. There's much more love in the relationship between Milah and Hook (Killian then) then there was between Regina and Snow's dad (whose name escapes me). So why do you think Regina is dignified with the relationship of step great grandmother but Hook gets nothing?

    1. In this context, the word relationship is neither good nor bad, but simply a connotation of familial relation. It's true that Hook does have a relationship with Henry through Milah (and I'll be honest, I totally forgot about that when I was writing this), but I feel like it's been less emphasized throughout the show than Regina's multiple ties to the family. That having been said, Hook's connections to the family only serve to illustrate my larger point, which is that this show relies way too heavily on revealing family connections to add drama, and not enough on genuine character interactions. So in that sense, I think I'd actually be happier if he weren't related. I mean, wouldn't it be nice if someone in all the realms weren't a part of this family? Just for novelty's sake?

    2. Thanksgiving there would suck. :)

      I always read the show as being about family and all the ways it manifests itself. But Henry/Bae/Mr. Gold was a little soap opera-esque.