I’ve watched the first couple episodes of the new ABC show Once Upon a Time, enough to offer an articulate opinion of, “Eh.”
All right, I can be a little more articulate than that. The show actually has some potential, if only because it has the vast resevoir of fairy tale and myth from which to draw the essence of story stuff. If they can get past a couple stumbling blocks, it might actually turn into some enjoyable family fare.
The first thing it has to do is shed the notion that they’re doing anything new by playing with fairy tale tropes. Granted, I’m probably more well-versed in contemporary fairy-tale literature* than the average TV viewer (especially kids, and it is rated PG), so it’s going to take more than a twisting a few tales together in order to impress me.
But so far, it looks as if the writers are letting the “novelty” of playing with fairy tales in the real world take the place of compelling writing. “Look what we did,” they say, sniggering behind their hands, “we made Jiminy Cricket a psychiatrist! And his umbrella is his good luck charm! Aren’t we clever?” Only, they’re not so clever, because Dr. Jiminy doesn’t have any good dialog, just a bunch of stereotypical shrink-like platitudes with a dash of cricketish wisdom tossed in.
It’s worse with the more prominent characters (particularly the Evil Queen/mayor of Storybrook). The characters are flat, the conflict overly simple (Snow White good, Queen bad), and the structure of each episode (which includes LOST-like flashbacks) and the story on the whole just seems to be ambling around without any greater purpose. It’s just kind of…there. Not bad enough to make me turn it off, but not enough to have me eagerly turning in each week.**
The other problem is larger (and encapsulates the uninspired writing to some degree). Everything is so plastic. Visually, you can see a lot of money was spent designing sets and costumes***, but it comes off looking like a ride at Disneyland — intricate, yes, but so obviously fake. I suppose this might have been a deliberate design choice, but it just ends up looking like every other fairy tale movie that’s ever been made. Even the Evil Queen looks like a replica of Susan Sarandon from Enchanted. After the lush, imagined realities of shows like The Tudors and Game of Thrones, I’d like to see a fairy tale world as carefully created.
And then there’s the acting. The real world stuff is fine, I suppose…but once they flashback to the magical kingdom, everyone slips into that faux high speech, “I am in a fantasy so I must speak grandly” patter and cadence of language that plagues so much fantasy on tv and film. Combined with weak dialog, it can only spell doom.
But here’s a secret: bad dialog can totally be saved by a good performance (and good direction). If you doubt me, just take a look at some of the dialog from the Lord of the Rings movies. Those actors have to spout off some of the cheesiest, corniest lines in the history of movie-dom, but you never notice because the actors are fully invested in the reality of their characters, and in the truth of what their characters are saying (in the way their character speaks). The importance of the words is intrinsic in the delivery, not because the actor decides he or she needs to say it With Importance, but because the character knows it’s important.
This sense of investment is the crucial thing missing from Once Upon a Time, and from so much fantasy produced for the screen, and really even many fantasy books and stories. It’s as if the label “fantasy” magically lowers the expectations of all involved, so that they fail to strive for the same depth and sense of reality that they would expect from non-fantasy productions and literature. Maybe it’s the ol’ “fantasy is kids’ stuff” prejudice rearing its head — kids don’t need depth, after all.
But reality is the secret ingredient of the best fantasy. If we can’t believe the characters are real, we won’t care about them. If the settings feel fake, and the situations contrived, we’ll dismiss the story as inconsequential. If you want me to love your story, your movie, your show, if you want me to come back to it again and again, then you need to prove to me that you love it too, and you’re not just putting on a show for the kids, or playing with tropes because you think it’s clever.
Because, really, it’s not.
For fun, share you’re favorite cheesy Lord of the Rings movie quote in the comments!
* Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt, Jane Yolen, Tanith Lee, Robin McKinley, the graphic novel series Fables, etc. etc. etc. But really, people have been remixing old stories into new ones since…well, the beginning of stories, I bet.
** I recorded it, and watched (while folding laundry) when there was nothing else on to watch.
*** In the flashbacks to the fairy tale kingdom. Modern Storybrook is just…modern.