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Monday, March 18, 2013

My Tension Filled Relationship with 'Once Upon a Time'


Why I'm (Now) Watching 'Once Upon a Time:


Let me preface this by saying that I'm pretty much in love with Jennifer Morrison.

I recently went on a 'House MD' viewing marathon which led to me Googling Jennifer Morrison and lamenting her break-up with Jesse Spencer (because seriously, I learned that they dated/got engaged/broke-up in the span of five minutes). Then I remembered that her personal life was none of my business and decided that IDMB would be more useful and ethical.

Which is the first time I realized she was in 'Once Upon a Time'.


Sure, I'd heard about 'Once Upon a Time'. For one thing, my mother is obsessed with it and has been telling me that I "would like it and should watch it immediately" forever. So obviously I'd never bothered.

I'd always thought of it as "that Ginnifer Goodwin show". Apparently I also don't bother looking at promotional materials.

I don't really watch sci-fi/fantasy (except for the occasional episode of 'Buffy' or 'Firefly'), but I've been known to follow actors/actresses I like from one show to another.

(Segue: I liked Sasha Alexander on 'Dawson's Creek', so when 'NCIS' first started she was legitimately the only reason I watched the show. It was also the first procedural show I ever saw; meaning Sasha Alexander is solely to blame for my procedural obsession). 

Anyway, I decided to watch 'Once Upon a Time' because Jennifer Morrison was in it. I'm glad I did.

 What's 'Once Upon a Time' About?


If you haven't seen 'Once Upon a Time' let me give you some background. The most this will spoil is the premise of the show (aka the first 15 minutes of the pilot). Jennifer Morrison plays a woman named Emma Swan who's startled to discover the child she gave up for adoption ten years ago is standing on her doorstep. The boy drags Emma back to his hometown and explains to her that everyone in the town is a fairy tale character trapped in present day suburbia. No one remembers who they really are because they're under a curse that only Emma can break. Obviously, Emma thinks the kid is crazy...and the show takes off from there.

Emma and Henry
Each episode of 'Once Upon a Time' cuts back and forth between two worlds: the "present day" world of the curse and the characters' forgotten fairy tale pasts which occurred in a parallel universe. Personally, perhaps because I'm not a big fan of fantasy-based shows, I enjoy the present day scenes far more than the fairy tale flashbacks.

What's interesting about the show is that the writers are careful to have the fairy tale scenes be relevant to framing of the present day timeline. For instance, one key episode which deals with the present day relationship between a mother and daughter flashes back to moments in fairytale land where their relationship began to fray. The flashbacks from episode to episode are not necessarily sequential, but rather jump around in the past to give us information relevant to the theme of the episode we are watching. If that sounds confusing it's only because you haven't seen the show. It's from the producers of 'Lost', and if you think of the framework of that show you'll have a better understanding of the format of 'Once Upon a Time'.

 

Strength in Female Characters (or What's to Like?)


There's one aspect of the show in particular that I find admirable: the inclusion of strong female characters. And not just emotionally strong, many of them are physically strong as well. In fact, in many cases their physicality overshadows their emotional capabilities, which is a rare thing to see in a female character.

Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) is a case in point; she's physically very capable (she works in law enforcement and slays dragons)  but emotionally distant, though much of that is blamed on her upbringing in the foster care system. Even more interesting, many of the classic fairytale princesses are portrayed as warriors. Snow White can handle a crossbow as well as any male character and although Sleeping Beauty is initially shown to be a prissy princess she ultimately chooses to go to the rescue of her prince. I think this is a great improvement over the Disney version of the tales, where the princesses are always waiting for the man to come to their rescue. It's not surprising that Jane Espenson is a writer and consulting producer for the show. Espenson was also a writer and producer for 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', a show that is considered revolutionary because it placed a girl in the superhero role.

What's Not to Like?


Since there's so much good in 'Once Upon a Time', what's not to like? The biggest complaint I've heard about 'Once Upon a Time' is that the quality of the special effects is subpar. It's certainly true that this isn't the CGI that you'd see in a movie theater. Then again, this is a television show and the budget for state of the art special effects just doesn't exist. The quality of the effects don't distract to the point where the episode is unwatchable. You just have to accept that this is a network show and they're doing the best they can.

The biggest complaint I have personally is the show's portrayal of both adoption and foster care. Much of the show's tension is derived from the triangle of Henry, his biological mother (Emma) and his adoptive mother (Regina). Regina is portrayed as evil throughout most of the first season, and regardless of whether she is or not, the worst thing is that she (and consequently the viewers) are constantly reminded that she's not Henry's "real mother". Regina is the only character who points out that she chose to stand by Henry through sickness and growing pains and actually loves the boy, biology be damned. No other character seems to see her point.

The foster care system is also portrayed as horrible. Emma grew up in the foster care system and repeatedly references the bad experiences she had. She even states that the families only do it for the money. While I recognize that the writers can say this was her character's experience, it still made me feel bad for the thousands of American families who welcome foster children into their homes and honestly do the best they can to look after those children. [I have more to say about adoption/foster care and 'Once Upon a Time'].

Personal Feelings


Now that I've caught up with the show I have to admit that I do enjoy watching it. However, it occasionally causes me moments of stress to the point where I purposefully skip an episode. Obviously it's necessary to have conflict so that the audience maintains interest in the show. However, this is a show that never really has a happy ending. The moment you think that a character is finally happy something else horrible happens. Remember, this complaint is coming from someone who enjoys watches crime procedurals, I definitely don't expect my TV shows to play out like a romantic comedy and I still occasionally find this show painful to watch.

Maybe that's why I like procedurals so much: there's some sense of accomplishment and progression at the end of each episode. Ninety-five percent of the time they've at least solved that week's case, even if their personal lives are still in shambles. Here there seems to be very little reward for the suffering that the characters endure. Maybe at the end of the show's run there will be a happy ending. It is, after all, based on fairy tales.

Yeah, I really could have paid better attention to the promotional materials...

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