‘Once Upon a Time’: We All Love It, But Why?

After the winter finalé of Once Upon a Time, I am left with both hope and skepticism. While this latest episode managed to retain a sense of cohesion and resolved a few of the perplexing concepts of the plot, quite a few issues with this popular series still remain. Despite some mediocre acting, a scattered and sometimes illogical trajectory, an overwhelming abundance of characters and unclear character motivations, Once Upon a Time still keeps me coming back for more. But why? What is it about this world of fairy tale (and Disney, and Arthurian, and Gothic novel) characters that remains so compelling?

One of the core issues of this show is the acting, especially when it comes to some of the key characters. I hate to rag on a kid, but Jared Gilmore’s portrayal of Henry is unbelievably one-dimensional and does not invoke any of the sympathy the character demands. I have often said that if I were writing for the show I would fast-forward the timeline just so Henry could be re-cast with an older, and more effective, actor. Jennifer Morrison’s performance as Emma is also surprisingly underwhelming. While her role on House M.D. was both compelling and convincing, for some reason the character of Emma, a wayward 28-year-old grappling with feelings of rejection and with giving up her own child, seems to elude her. These are two of the most essential characters of the show, and the shortcomings in their portrayals is a severe hindrance to its overall impact.

However, some of the characters are played impeccably. Lana Parrilla as Regina (a.k.a., the evil queen) is capable of being both menacing and sinister in the flashbacks as well as soft and relatable in the more recent episodes. Robert Carlyle’s Rumpelstiltskin is exquisite, and although arguably the “villain” of the show in many senses, he leads the viewer to empathize with him more than many of the “good” characters. It’s interesting to note that it’s the supposed “bad guys” in the show who are the most sympathetic and loved by the audience. And therein lies one of the great successes of Once Upon a Time. The delineation between “good” and “bad” is consistently and successfully broken down in the show, giving it a richness and moral depth.

With such great writers on the staff as Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz (Lost), David H. Goodman, (Angel, Without a Trace, Fringe), Liz Tigelaar (Brothers and Sisters, Revenge), Andrew Chambliss (Dollhouse, The Vampire Diaries) and one of my all-time favorites, Jane Espenson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Warehouse 13, and many more), I would never expect that the writing for Once Upon a Time could be one of its shortcomings. However, the storyline is meandering and incoherent with no clear trajectory. It’s not as though writing staffs with many such strong voices haven’t been successful in the past, yet somehow there seems to be a lack of cohesion in the plot line.

In this instance, the issue seems to be not that there are too many cooks in the kitchen, but rather the lack of a head chef to guide them. While creators Kitsis and Horowitz seem particularly well-suited to guide a team of writers, the end result lacks a singular focused voice. It seems as though they are attempting to appropriate the format of Lost, with all its mysteries and shocking reveals with a (supposed) resolution in mind, yet after the first season of Once Upon a Time, in which the true fairy tale identities of the characters were gradually revealed, this approach is no longer apt. The audience is now at the point where they want a coherent story; they want to feel like the plot is going somewhere and not just meandering through as many new characters as possible.

New characters are introduced nearly every week, sometimes conveniently killing them off in the same episode, sometimes leaving them to languish as the focus is turned back to the main characters (what ever happened to Pinocchio??). Sometimes it seems as though the show is reaching too far; even accepting the (minimally explained and belatedly introduced) premise of multiple dimensions, it is still tenuous. I’ll give them Wonderland and the Mad Hatter, if only because he is one of the few truly likable characters, but why bring in Dr. Frankenstein (or is it Dr. Whale?) and then not revisit his (still unresolved) involvement for weeks?

While there’s certainly something to be said for ensemble casts, Once Upon a Time pushes it to the extreme, and the sheer volume of characters makes it nearly impossible to investigate them in enough depth to understand their motivations. Herein lies one of the other major shortcomings of the show: the characters’ motivations rarely make any sense. One recent instance in the episode “Into the Deep” (25 November 2012) deals with Prince Charming and the too-easy-to-hate Henry. Having been under a sleeping spell, Henry experiences nightmares in which he is effectively transported into the netherworld, complete with fire and brimstone. They soon learn that the fires in the netherworld have real-world effects, burning Henry’s skin badly.

Enraged by Henry’s injuries, Prince Charming volunteers himself to be put under a sleeping spell himself, with no assurance of that cure-all true love’s kiss, to venture into the netherworld and communicate with those in the fairy tale world in Henry’s place. Protective instincts aside, this is a sloppy way to move the plot towards an admittedly touching scene between Charming and Snow (who also has a half-baked plan to get there) in the netherworld. There’s no reason why Charming’s decision to take Henry’s place would keep him from returning to these nightmares anyway, as he’s still suffering from the after-sleeping-spell-sickness. In addition, Henry’s burns could be healed instantly by the resourceful (and magical) Mr. Gold. Such illogical motivations are found all throughout Once Upon a Time, usually with several instances in every episode. Perhaps it’s the sheer number of characters that makes it too difficult to fully examine each one’s motivations.

So with this patchy acting, illogical storylines, and unclear character motivations, why is Once Upon a Time still such a popular show? What is it that keeps bringing people (including me) back for more? This is a complex question with no clear answers, yet a few elements seem to be at play here.

First, people love magic. For some reason, the concept of magic and spells draws us in — perhaps from a desire to believe in something enchanted and miraculous. But even more than that, part of the huge appeal of Once Upon a Time is the familiar characters. The entire first season hinged on gradually revealing which fairy tale characters were present in Storybrooke. This is a testament to the current popularity of remakes and adaptations; for some reason, we all love to see familiar faces and stories and Once Upon a Time gives us that opportunity — with some twists. These mysteries and twists and turns set the audience on a thrill ride, yet we still hope for a realistic and logical conclusion. In addition, overlooking the awkward computer graphics, the cinematography for Once Upon aTime is stunning, bringing in fantastical locations and gorgeous settings.

Once Upon A Time is the show I love to hate. It has all of the potential in the world — magic, familiar and compelling characters, mystery, beautiful visuals — yet it falls short in many ways. If the storyline and character motivations were reexamined and made logical and coherent, the enchantment of this show could be allowed to come to the fore and become more than a gimmick. In the end, we all keep watching this show because we want it to succeed, and we are waiting for it to become all that it can be.