Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Case of the.... Once Upon A Time - Midseason Review

This column is a long time coming, but with Once Upon A Time returning later tonight, I thought I should probably get on this and write my review of what we've seen so far (a whole lot of Neverland, for one).

There are two basic criticisms I've always had of Once Upon A Time, which does remain one of my favorite shows on television:  They don't seem to properly pace themselves with their stories, and they often tell us things instead of showing it.  Let's start with my first point.  In the first season alone, they went through two stories which, I believe anyway, could have carried them for years:  The fairy tale identity of the Sheriff, and the breaking of the curse.  Sheriff Graham, admittedly, probably wasn't a multi-year story, but in one episode they brought attention that we don't know who he is, told us who he is, and killed him off.  Friends of mine who watch the show would legitimately discuss who they thought he might be (my one friend -- a casual viewer at best -- correctly guessed that he was the Huntsman).  And while he was a relatively minor character, he stood out because nobody knew who he was (in promotional material, he appeared as the Sheriff in both "realities") and because we really didn't know his motivations given his feelings for Emma and his relationship with Regina.  But, like I said, they asked, answered, and wrote off the character and the mysteries involving him in one hour.

Likewise, I think they were a little too quick to break the curse.  I actually think they did a great job of building a new story and making the now knowledgeable characters interesting in their new landscape, but that IS a story that could have lasted longer.  Why not make Emma realize the truth, and struggle with having to convince Mary Margaret and David that she's their daughter, even though they're the same age?  Or have Emma struggle with the decision to even tell them that.  Mr. Gold was an immensely interesting character because we wondered if he actually remembered.  When we found out he did, he continued being a great character because he could stir the pot and manipulate situations, because he knew the truth.  Emma could have become a similar character, but on the side of good.  They probably could have continued the curse for another year or at least half of a season, with Emma and Henry now trying to break the curse for everybody.  

Again, I think they've done a great job with the stories they have written, but it feels very rushed.  It's sometimes hard for me to believe that this show is only in the middle of their third season, because so much has already happened.  In three and a half years they've broken the curse, returned to the Enchanted Forest, returned back to Storybrooke, gone to Neverland, returned to Storybrooke, negated the curse, and now returned back to the Enchanted Forest (with Emma and Henry having no memory of the past few years).  To give you perspective, at this point on Lost, we only just discovered what's going on with Desmond's visions and we still don't know what's going on with Jack and the Others at the barracks.  And Sawyer STILL hasn't figured out that Locke's dad is the man who is responsible for his parents' death -- a major character story point that most fans had pieced together and suspected seasons ago.  I'm not saying that Once has to go quite as slowly as Lost, but I think they could pace themselves a bit better.  I only say that because it seems like the show is constantly reinventing itself and, as a result, losing viewers.  These little "mini series stories" (Saving Henry against Pan, going against the Wicked Witch) doesn't seem to be attracting viewers as much as the original premise, which was fairy tale characters we all know and love (with a fun twist) living in a modern world where they don't know who they truly are.  Obviously the series needed to evolve (and I commend them for doing that proactively), but I think they rushed it a bit.

So, what does all of this have to do with the first half of this season?  For one, I think the audience had been trained to expect fast paced story arcs.  Instead, the Neverland story was slow.  Really slow.  For context, Snow and Emma were in the Enchanted Forest for, I believe, 8 episodes.  And those 8 episodes were supplemented by the characters in Storybrooke.  The characters were in Neverland for 10 episodes, and while that doesn't seem significantly more than 8, keep in mind that all expect for one of these episodes exclusively featured the Neverland cast.  And for many of these episodes, not a whole lot happened.  And because of the big reveal they made halfway through the story, we were forced to deal with that whole "we'll tell you, not show you" mentality they've gone with in the past.  We kept getting told that Mr. Gold was powerless against Pan, but we were never shown why (well, we were....and it was an awesome twist, but until then we were just scratching our heads).  Likewise, Regina kept saying stuff like "our magic doesn't work here."  Except when it did.  And I STILL don't quite understand what their limitations were in that regard.

But how about that twist?  It WAS pretty awesome and, in my opinion, really did help create a great deal of interest in the Peter Pan/Neverland story.  It made sense of prior actions and did a fantastic job of setting up Mr. Gold as a heroic and sympathetic character.  And ultimately, that's why I really did enjoy the season thus's done a great job of evolving the characters and getting them to the place they needed to be at.  Shows like Heroes struggled with this....they couldn't allow the characters to evolve from bad to good (or vice versa) and as a result, they floundered and became frustrating.  Sylar would seem like he's turning good, then he's killing an innocent victim.  Then he's giving Claire advice on how to live a happy life.  Then he's killing again.  I'm thankful that Once has resisted this trap -- before the end of the midseason, whenever they turn Mr. Gold or Regina "good," it's always with limitations and a clear set of rules.  Mr. Gold has his loyalties to Bae and Belle.  Regina to Henry.  Everybody else is fair game.  But now they've finally taken that step towards making them genuinely good characters, and honestly it was the right move.  They're edgy characters that, at this point, people want to root for.  And the "flashback" aspect of the series allows them to not abandon their evil ways completely.  They can have their cake and eat it too in ways that Heroes could not.

So, yes, I quite enjoyed the "face turn" moments for Regina, Gold, and Hook, because it felt like the right time.  If you force certain characters to stay on a certain side, you just hamper their growth.  They had spent so much time building sympathy through generous flashbacks and they were doing increasingly selfless things in their current acts that to have them go back to the dark side would have set them back.  And, evident by the introduction of the Wicked Witch, there are certainly enough villainous characters to pull from that the series won't live or die on the idea of Regina being the Evil Queen.  And Regina's return to the light, where she selflessly gave up Henry and gave him and Emma the best gift she could (and the one that would hurt her the most) of happy memories that never involved Storybrooke was a sweet turn.

Hook's pathway to hero didn't involve the same fireworks, it as just a gradual turn that occurred throughout the season.  Motivations notwithstanding, he spent the entire season doing the right thing.  He saved Charming and he helped Henry, despite being the one person who had no relationship with him (ironically, he did it to honor his relationship with Neal....who would be his romantic competition).

And then there's Mr. Gold.  Is he actually dead?  My feeling  He's WAY too fun of a character and the fact that all of these stories seem to tie to him makes me question why they would even want to remove him from the series (of course, Mr. Gold being dead and Rumpel appearing in flashbacks is always a possibility).  On top of that, he DOES appear in recent production images alongside the Wicked Witch (which, again, could be a flashback).  But, if he is dead, I'm glad he went out as a hero.  Doing something brave (since he was always called a coward) and selfless (since he was always in it for himself).  And he got to save the two people he loved the most -- his son, and Belle.  But I really do hope he's alive.

So there you have it.  I still wish they would have done a little more explaining through actions (again, what were the limitations of Regina and Gold's magic in Neverland?) but they did a great job of introducing new characters (Ariel!  Tinkerbell!) and they built some fun intrigue for the upcoming new episodes (will Regina and co retain all of their memories in the Enchanted Forest?  How will they acclimate to their familiar surroundings, with their new relationships?  How will this all tie into Oz?)  Like I said, it still remains one of my favorite shows and I'm looking forward to the new episode in an hour.

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