You folks know me. You know that I watch a lot of mediocre and awful television because…well, I am not exactly sure. I know that I cannot quit a series once I put more than five or six hours of investment into it, which explains why I am still watching miserable offerings like Dexter. I also know that legitimately awful television compels me much more than simply blah television (which usually ends up being boring anyway). After its pilot episode, I hoped that ABC’s Once Upon a Time would become legitimately awful (and therefore interesting), but assumed that it would simply devolve into middling, boring territory.
After seven episodes though, Once Upon a Time has not really fallen into either one of those categories. I would not necessarily call the series “good,” in fact, far from it. However, there is something fundamentally solid about this story and these performances that I find myself starting to really care about the ridiculous circumstances they find themselves in. At this point, I actually want to watch Once Upon a Time, which is more glowing praise than it probably sounds like.
Once Upon a Time succeeds primarily for two reasons: the story engine and the performances. After watching the pilot episode, I was not convinced that this story could sustain itself across eight episodes, let alone an entire season or two.* The second episode was a plodding mess, but the third effort, “Snow Falls,” established the very Lost-like story structure that pairs the fairytale and “real” worlds about as best as anyone could. I still do not have much investment in the fairytale world – this is surely at least partially impacted by the fact that I have never cared about fairytales – but using that world to inform character or themes in Storybrooke works for me. There is no question that the writing is still heavy-handed way too often and the writers are still afraid to let the audience think for themselves and make obvious connections that are so clearly there, but the balance between fairytale land and Storybrooke is more controlled and purposeful than I assumed it would ever be.
*I honestly never thought I would have to worry about this because I assumed that Once was going to debut to terrible ratings. You know, instead of the biggest ratings for any new fall drama.
The character-centric approach might be borrowed entirely from Lost, but A.) At least Kitsis and Horowitz worked on that series and therefore are sort of borrowing from themselves and B.) It works really well for Once Upon a Time’s story. While I think the series already has a problem with a quickly growing cast (so much so that characters that are dominant in one episode disappear for the next two), the structure gives individual episodes a focus that it desperately needs. The writing staff knows how to pare things down and focus on one or two characters in each episode and now they need to figure out how to keep the other characters still in the story’s orbit without it seeming too overstuffed.
As I said, I do not care about fairytales or the history of these characters, which still makes that part of the story a bit middling to me. However, I am similarly surprised at how well the writers have come up with fine Storybrooke stories. It sure felt like the characters were going to act like idiots for one episode after another while Henry told them who they actually were, but there has been a sufficient amount of interpersonal conflict and intrigue to keep the story compelling and propulsive. The writing is slightly less afraid of moving quickly than I thought they would be.
Moreover, the actors of Once Upon a Time make even the most miserable dialogue seem at least moderately appealing. The pilot did not sell me on Emma being a role worthy or tailored to Jennifer Morrison’s talents, but recent episodes have dialed down the hackneyed tough girl façade and started to rely much more on Morrison’s solid charms. Though Emma still sometimes feels like a broadly-drawn secondary character, the series has done a nice job of using her arrival in Storybrooke as the catalyst for all sorts of other events.
Ginnifer Goodwin, Lana Parrilla and Josh Dallas’ performances have all improved fairly handily in the post-pilot episodes. The pilot had so many tonal and rhythm issues that it is really hard to place much blame on the actors who were stuck in the middle trying to play two different, but similar characters. Nevertheless, all three have figured it out. Parrilla has dialed down the overt histrionics of her Mayor and Evil Queen and Goodwin and Dallas have really warm, inviting chemistry. I cannot believe how much I actually care about their characters’ relationship. Maybe I’m just a sap.
This past Sunday’s episode had its issues (which I’ll address momentarily), but also embodied the things I like about Once. It was pretty clear to me that Graham was The Huntsman and yet, the series did a fine job of using that character reveal to push the narrative forward. The series has an earnestness to it that appeals to me and so even though so much of the dialogue was overwrought and the missing heart story was a bit wonky, Jamie Dornan’s performance was sufficiently moving.
The writers tried to make us care about Graham’s relationship with Emma even though it came completely out of nowhere and had little time before this episode, but again, Dornan and Morrison made it work for the most part. Even though Graham’s death didn’t earn the kind of emotion the episode suggested, it did show that the Queen is fully aware of her plan in Storybrooke and showed the audience that this story does have stakes. I would have preferred to let Graham stick around for a bit longer before taking him out, but I understand the desire to have a big moment in your fall finale. It could have been a lot worse.
Once Upon a Time is not a good series yet. However, I fully expected it to be borderline awful at this point and the fact that it is inherently watchable and enjoyable, despite tons of clear flaws, is worth noting. I did not think this story had much potential after watching the pilot, but I am happy to be wrong. I am in for the long haul no matter what, yet it is nice to actually want to be there.
- Because of the dual worlds, I guess Jamie Dornan could still be around in future episode flashbacks.
- The series has moved away from Henry a bit in recent episodes and is much better for it. I like the actor just fine, but the writers haven’t figured out what to do with the character unless he’s just telling people how they’re fairytale characters. He’s a device, and not a very good one.