Sunday, September 29, 2013

Once Upon A Time, This Was A Good Show

Those who have been following my mom’s blog for some time might have deduced that my family has never been an ardent viewer of scripted television (at least not openly scripted television; a swarm of Duck Dynasty maxims has gradually seeped into our everyday conversation and mother consumes an arguably obscene number of 99% fictional house/wedding dress shopping shows).  We missed Lost, we missed 24, we missed Breaking Bad, and we continue to miss both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones; when we do end up watching a scripted program devotedly, it usually falls under the denomination of classy British import (Sherlock, Downton Abbey) or classic family comedy that has no continuous, overarching plotline (Gilligan’s Island, Hogan’s Heroes, Get Smart, and other great shows loaded with racist and sexist humor that would never get past the FCC in today’s sickeningly PC television atmosphere).  ABC’s modern fairy-tale saga Once Upon A Time is decidedly divorced from each of these categorizations, so it must have been doing something exceptionally well to retain this household’s attention for a full two seasons.  Since its inception, however, the show has lapsed so far into tedium and nauseatingly complicated world-building that it will take a daring feat of conclusive and intelligent writing to wrench this ship from the whirling tides of Charibdis that threaten to consume its characters and the show itself.  Every good story must needs possess at least three components, a beginning, a middle, and an end, but OUAT is so deeply mired in the middle and focused on making every episode a climax that a satisfying end is but a distant mirage on the horizon.  History has generally indicated, not only in television but also in literature and other media, that the likelihood of a series delivering satisfying closure varies inversely with its length, and OUAT appears to be testing this theory yet again after ABC previously flipped off viewers of Lost, which coincidentally was written, produced, and acted by many of the people involved with this fairy-tale-gone-wrong.

The primary draw of the show is a spectacular if not remotely original concept that’s ripe for creative storytelling and thought-provoking allegory.  The early episodes of Once Upon A Time take a clever narrative slant by retelling a familiar fairy story as it plays out alternately in the past and the present, affecting characters in a fantasy setting just as their real-world contemporaries struggle with almost the same conflicts.  At the story’s beginning, an evil queen named Regina (ha ha, I get it – real smart, writers) has placed a might curse on the land of the Enchanted Forest, once ruled by the noble Prince Charming and his benevolent queen Snow White, which condemns all the fairy tale creatures to live out the rest of their miserable lives as amnesiacs in a small seaside town called Storybrooke that’s more or less insulated from Obamacare’s hefty tax and premium cost increases, the IRS’ political machinations, the NSA’s widespread invasions of people’s private lives, and all the other phony scandals that have erupted across America.  In all sincerity, though, it would hardly be inaccurate to state that Storybrooke is completely isolated from the nation at large, as no one can leave or enter the city except for a 30-something single mom named Emma Swann, who can travel to and from Storybrooke because she’s a child of both universes, being born to the royal family and sent to the “real world” just before the witch forcibly exiled everyone, herself included, from the Enchanted Forest.  When Emma faced an unplanned pregnancy (yet another word that needs to be added to the dictionary of New Newspeak) in her younger, wilder days, she gave up her child for adoption assuming that she’d never see him again, so she’s naturally confounded when a 10-year old boy named Henry turns up on her doorstep declaring himself to be her son.  Though Emma resists at first, Henry ultimately succeeds at dragging her into Storybrooke, where she becomes the new sheriff and discovers that her son’s adopted mother, also named Regina (the creators gave everyone in our universe an alter-ego except for her – lazy), is actually the mayor of the town.  Henry insists not only that all the fables in his storybook are historical accounts of actual events, but also that his mom is a kind of Chosen One whose destiny is to liberate Storybrooke’s denizens from the Evil Queen’s curse by reminding them of their true identities.  Emma’s gradual conquest of her nearsighted, overly literal worldview and her eventual acceptance of magic over materialism together form the basis of the first season’s conflict, making also for some remarkably stimulating commentary on the intersection between reality and fiction.  OUAT has a kind of Matrixy element underlying its surface action with the whole “What is real?” question, something that’s probably overused in modern pop culture but is still interesting to ponder in a society that scoffs at fantasy/science-fiction as the sustenance of nerds while praising the latest uber-biased documentary, historical drama, biopic, or whatever ‘based on a true story’ as a more accurate portrait of reality, which of course is anything the critics want it to be.

Although I initially thought that Once Upon A Time’s premise was the most revolutionary and imaginative thing to come by since, well, Terra Nova, which is literally and most unfortunately the only TV ‘drama’ I’d watched prior to this except for maybe a couple Firefly episodes, my admiration of the show’s false originality soured slightly when I started conducting extensive research into comic book lore and gleaned that OUAT is almost a direct ripoff of Bill Willingham’s long-running series Fables, albeit with marginally less adult content.  Still, as far as comic book adaptations come, one could certainly choose a worse series to adapt than Fables; when you think about it, there exists a theoretical possibility that some totally delusional company like Warner Bros. might choose to make a Batman Vs. Superman cross-over movie starring Ben Affleck and based on Frank Miller’s overly talky, deficiently walky Dark Knight Returns, but we all know that will never happen.  As highly derivative as it is, OUAT is at least partially successful for a triumvirate of reasons, the first of which is its strong character development.  OUAT wisely resists the temptation that has seduced many another fantasy epic, mainly the easy decision to pit flawless heroes against irredeemable villains.  The show’s creators, Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who previously wrote episodes for Lost before moving on to script 2010’s spectacular Tron: Legacy, have imagined a world where clear good guys and clear bad guys are hard to distinguish.  Most of Storybrooke’s residents, even those who seem to be the purest of heart, suffer from dark sides that can overwhelm their reason and lead them to commit terrible acts in strained situations.  Prince Charming and Snow White are noble and kind-hearted royals who nonetheless give into their baser lusts, Rumplestiltskin is a violent and cowardly beast who constantly struggles between his love of himself and his love for others, Regina exacts revenge against innocent people for the tragedy she endured in her childhood, and so on and so forth.  No one is without wrong, yet many have been severely wronged.  The actors, for the most part, excel in capturing the conflicting emotions and desires that torment their characters, but the dichotomy between the high and low end of performances often seems like a war between angels and demons orchestrated by John Milton.  Robert Carlyle (Rumple), Colin O’Donoghue (Hook), and Eion Bailey (August, whose secret I won’t divulge, even though his character essentially got killed off a while ago for inexplicable reasons) are all superb actors, and the women overall do a good job, though the contrast between all the drop-dead gorgeous girls and their admittedly “dweeby” (to reiterate my mom’s verdict) partners in the male cast is a little jarring and decidedly unsuitable for what should be a romantic fairy tale.  On the opposite side of the talent spectrum, however, you have the guys playing Henry and Charming, who are frankly so bad that I won’t run the risk of furthering their careers by calling out their real names.  Child actors already have a bad enough reputation without someone like Henry delivering every line with the same blank stare and a vocal tone that shifts only in volume to signify moments of peril or extraordinary frustration.*  Of Charming, I’ll just say that Anakin Skywalker might finally have some real competition in the Least Romantic Actor In A Romantic Role category.

The second aspect that largely works in OUAT’s favor is its unique and dynamic storytelling approach of showing the present unfold through the prism of the past.  Most of the early episodes attempt to tell two narratives at once, one from the characters’ past adventures in the Enchanted Forest and one from their comparatively mundane lives in current-day Storybrooke, which together complement and overlap each other to give a fuller picture of the characters and their struggles.  The show is equally creative in the way it meshes figures from different fables, using Rumplestiltskin, for example, to represent not only the mischievous troublemaker of renown but also the undeserving Beast to a compassionate Beauty and the crocodile that Hook hunts with a vengeful passion.  OUAT doesn’t have a clearly defined brightline for what kind of story qualifies to enter its fantasy world, and the effect of mashing Hans Christian Anderson/Brothers Grimm into Lewis Carroll into J.M. Barrie into Carlo Collodi into Mulan (whose author, if a single one exists, I don’t care to look up) doesn’t always work, but the broad range of literary sources ultimately adds to the show’s appeal, even if the writers occasionally take heavy liberties with the original texts (gone is the Christian symbolism of Pinocchio).  Unfortunately, the show only adheres to the coinciding stories formula faithfully for the 1st season, after which the theme more or less recedes and the plot devolves into a boring and conventional narrative that just happens to focus on entirely unrelated events happening in separate dimensions.

The show’s final advantage, specifically its production design, is probably the least important of the bunch, but deserves recognition anyway.  Filled with colorful landscapes and castle settings, catching costumes, and some imaginative CG wizardry, the Enchanted Forest is certainly a pretty place to look upon which stands well above the typical made-for-TV alternate universe (again, I would clarify that my “typical” is Terra Nova).  Bad green screen abounds and the effects team never really figured out how to translate Jorge Garcia into a giant, but these are just the smallest complaints I can muster.

As for the biggest complaints, I might boil everything down to the simple fact that tonight marks the dawn of a whole new season to a story that should have wound down many episodes ago.  Now in its third year running, OUAT has amassed such a convoluted entanglement of unresolved subplots, brutally gnarled family trees, and arguably irrelevant supporting characters that I perceive no logical reason why I should commit another 45 minutes every week to unraveling the Gordian Knot that ABC and Team Kitsis-Horowitz have so tightly drawn.  Since the very beginning of the program, OUAT has entertained a perilous habit of introducing a new character in virtually every episode and leaving old characters’ plights completely unresolved.  This tactic could be sustainable for a short while on condition that the writers commit themselves to wrapping all the loose ends up in a concise timeframe, but otherwise it only ensures that the show will build up an increasingly greater deficit of trust in its audience and become ever less likely to close everyone’s story in a satisfying manner.  Similarly to the government’s devastating practice of adding another $1,000,000,000,000+ to its debt every year with no eye to the burden of relieving it in the future, OUAT has piled so many characters and conflicts onto its already onerous set of main players that it falters to give anybody a proper sendoff and thereby lighten its load.  Thus it resorts to aggravating filler techniques in order to artificially buy time until the series’ inevitable collapse/fiscal cliff/shut down/whatever you want to call it.  Season 2 was particularly maddening in the way that it separated the central heroes from each other for almost a dozen episodes, briefly reunited them, then split the party again in a lead-up to season 3, all while intimately familiarizing viewers with a new villain who appears to be a lasting character but dies abruptly after building up a dramatic presence for an entire season.  Another example of the show’s lunacy: I’m totally a card-carrying member of Team Rumpbelle (though I’m vomiting inside as I type that), but it’s hard to cheer two lovebirds on when one thinks she’s a slutty club girl for what seems like eternity and the other delights in beating up random people to ease his grief.

On top of its ridiculously complicated and overlong plotline, Once Upon A Time suffers at times from what can only be described as a serious case of moral bankruptcy.  Having grown weary of but accustomed to the rants of Free Love fundamentalists, I can tolerate some glorified depictions of single motherhood or even the perennial stereotype of the hateful Christian who doesn’t want anybody to love, i.e. “marry”, besides herself – after all, don’t such stereotypes really function more to expose the ignorance and bigotry of those who endorse them?  Still, the program crosses a red line in its handling of the Snow/Charming romance.  The problem lies in that Charming, or David as he’s called in Storybrooke, is an unhappily married man when he falls deeply in love with Snow, or Mary Margaret, and neither one of them seems to give a damn about his attachment to another woman.  Charming is comitted to standing loyally by his wife, but only in so far as she remains pregnant; in the absence of this one condition, the show’s illogic suggests that he retains a moral right, maybe even an imperative, to philander with any woman he presently desires.

The insanity starts at 0:35.  This conversation has absolutely no logical sequence of ideas.

If their whole affair wasn’t appalling enough, the show also peddles the message that it’s better to come clean to your spouse and leave her to be with the one you really love than to “live a lie” and stand by someone who just doesn’t do it for you anymore.  The way the writers handle such a tragic and sensitive issue as divorce is simply disgusting and completely inappropriate for a show that’s ostensibly aimed at families.  As a result of their adultery and unrepentant stance, it’s nigh impossible for the audience to sympathize with Charming or Snow, even after the latter gets turned into a Hester Prynne-like societal outcast.

If I had to describe a single instance at which Once Upon A Time reached a point of no return, it’d be the episode wherein Red Riding Hood joins a union of gay werewolves who fancy themselves the Lost Boys of the Enchanted Forest.  Had the production team decided not to pursue such laughable tangents, this fantasy could and should have drawn to a close once upon a long time ago.  “All convoluted plots come with a PRICE, dearie!”

Final rating: Nyehehe!

* Come to think of it, pretty much all the kids in this thing suck at acting, which is a darned shame given that Hollywood has such a vast pool of talented young stars including Hailee Steinfeld, Chloe Grace Moretz, Quvenzhan√© Wallis, maybe the cast of Moonrise Kingdom, and... never mind.  I can count all the good child/teen actors I know on one hand.

Side-note: Yes, I did watch the pilot to Marvel’s Agents of Shield, and yes, it was lame.  Maybe it'll get better with time, but for now I’m assuming that Agent Coulson died a noble death stopping Loki in The Avengers.

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