Wednesday, September 24, 2014

TV Review: Once Upon A Time (2011 - ???)

Once Upon A Time is a television series beginning its fourth season on ABC. The first three seasons are currently available for binge-watching on Netflix. I’m actually not 100% sure I should recommend Once to you. Let’s put it this way, while I do enjoy the series a great deal, it has all the weaknesses that are typical of broadcast network productions and those rob the show of its punch. In effect, they prevent the show from feeling real enough to grab you or fantastic enough to be a wild ride.

The premise of the show is genius. Imagine if every storybook character you can think of, from Snow White to Captain Hook to some major surprises in between lived in the same enchanted forest and basically knew each other. Now imagine if all those characters were suddenly transported to our world, to live in a town named Storybrooke in Maine. Only, none of these characters has any memory of who they really are. The one exception is the evil Queen who cast the curse which brought them all to Storybrooke. She's made herself the mayor.
That has serious potential.

The story is largely presented through the eyes of Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), who is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. She was sent to our world to avoid the curse and save the rest of them. She, however, has no idea about any of this, nor does she believe it when she is told. Her only concern is Henry. Henry is the son she abandoned when she was young, and he lives in Storybrooke. He tells Emma about her destiny and shows her a book of fairy tales as proof that everyone in Storybrooke is from a fairy tale. Incidentally, he has been adopted by the evil Queen, who is raising him as her adopted son.
The episodes themselves involve Henry’s attempts to get his real mother to help him break the curse and free the people of Storybrooke so they can return to the enchanted forest. Each episode typically involves two stories being told simultaneously. The first is the advancement of the story in Storybrooke. The second involves the telling of some character’s backstory. If this sounds like Lost, that’s because Once was created by Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz.
The backstories are interesting for several reasons. First, they tell you who the characters in Storybrooke really are. Secondly, they tend to take the stories we all know and twist them around. For example, we learn that Red Riding Hood is really a werewolf. We learn how Hook lost his hand. We get the story of who Prince Charming really is and how he came to marry Snow White, and we learn the sad fate of Stealthy the Dwarf... the eighth dwarf. Moreover, these stories are all intertwined and that intertwined thread is largely told backwards as we discover how Rumpelstiltskin manipulated each of their histories for his particular purpose. This makes for some nice twists.

All told, each episode is entertaining, though some are better than others. Several of the characters are really quite excellent as well. In particular, the evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) is excellent. She’s complex and interesting and you never quite know when she will be evil or when she will try to be good. Parrilla does a great job too of portraying a woman who is simultaneously wildly out of control and incapable of taking NO for an answer, and yet a woman who desperately seeks affirmation from other people. Even better, noted actor Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting) plays Rumpelstiltskin, who is the heart of this show. Rumpelstiltskin is the evil force behind everything that has happened. He is a joy to watch as he manipulates everyone and demonstrates an utter lack of conscience. Minor characters like Grumpy the Dwarf and Hook are excellent as well, as is young Henry (Jared Gilmore).
Unfortunately, the show does have some problems. Some of the actors simply aren’t strong enough to carry the roles they are given. For example, the actor playing Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) is a lightweight who doesn’t come across as a capable leader. Emma, the lead, isn’t all that interesting either. She’s largely a placeholder to let the other characters do their thing. Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), another lightweight, is hard to believe too the way they present her.
Even worse, the show suffers from being produced for broadcast network television. Because it is being made for ABC, the production values are low. The CGI looks horrible on a big screen. Most of the sets feel like television sets rather than real places. Little in the show feels like it actually exists. Further, the show still panders to the broadcast view that each show must be broken up into acts, which are then separated by television commercial breaks. Thus, the demands of the story often feel like they are subsumed to the medium and each commercial break ends on a phony cliffhanger.

If you compare this to the better network productions, like those made by HBO or AMC, you will be struck immediately by the higher production values on cable. The film quality on those shows is that of film stock rather than the made-for-TV video like Once uses. This makes a huge difference in the “real” feel of the productions. Further, the cable networks rarely let commercial breaks dictate the pace of the story, and they will simply stop for a break rather than forcing in an unnatural cliffhanger. The result is that the cable shows feel more realistic, like they involve real people rather than actors. Moreover, the other networks aren’t afraid to interject more complexity. People die every episode on HBO. Lovers have sex and betray each other. Evil people do evil things which hurt people. And good characters are routinely presented with complex and difficult moral choices that rarely offer easy solutions.
Once has none of that. To the contrary, Once plays by network rules which tell you that main characters cannot die, evil must be cartoonish and incompetent, moral questions need to be obvious with easy solutions, and life’s underside has no place on screen. At times, I really wonder what HBO would have done with this amazing idea.

So ultimately, I would say that Once is an entertaining show that leaves a ton of potential on the table. It’s still worth watching, but it could have been awesome if it had been freed from the restrictions that still seem to haunt network broadcast television.


Kit said...

I agree about the sets, especially those in Fairy Tale Land. The use of CGI hurts it. Could it have killed them to build a few half-decent real sets? The problem with CGI sets was put perfectly in the Red Letter Media reviews of the Star Wars prequels; you can't run and interact fully with the world they inhabit.

Say what you will about Lord of the Rings but the sets (for the most part) were real. They built a real Shire and a real Edoras and a real(-ish) Minas Tirith.

On the plus side: I agree about Rumplestiltskin and the Evil Queen. Amazingly-well drawn characters. Now, while I do think Jennifer Morrison, Josh Dallas, and Ginnifer Goodwin do fine in their roles, in the first two seasons I did find it kind of annoying that the two villains, Rumplestiltskin and Evil Queen (a.k.a., Regina Mills), were far more fascinating than the heroes.

Though the writing of Snow, Charming, and Emma has gotten better in Season 3. Especially the second half.

But it is very entertaining and very fun. It is one of the few shows that has me eagerly awaiting the next episode. And I eagerly await their take on Frozen this Sunday!

Koshcat said...

My 10 year old daughter loves it. I have only watched part of a cople episodes. Couldn't get into it. Guess not enough sex and violence for me :).

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, To be clear, I do enjoy the show. I don't want to sound too negative. It's just that the show has a lot of self-inflicted wounds that I think could have made a real difference.

Agreed that the villains are far more interesting. I enjoy watching them a lot... the heroes, not so much.

Kit said...


If you want Sex and Violence, watch Game of Thrones or Spartacus. The latter even apparently has Lucy Lawless showing her breasts. Often.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, Our 11 year old is heavily into this and that's what got me watching. While I love the idea and some of the execution, I am hesitant to recommend it because I'm not sure how broad the appeal will be.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Game of Thrones is heavily into sex and violence and it also happens to be a great show. :)

Kit said...

"To be clear, I do enjoy the show. I don't want to sound too negative. It's just that the show has a lot of self-inflicted wounds that I think could have made a real difference."

I agree. It is a fun show. Though it does have its... flaws.

Jason said...

It’s funny that I didn’t take notice that the show looked cheap, but having digested Hercules, Xena, and Buffy, perhaps my mind isn’t conditioned to expect high-grade fx for fantasy tv shows!

I’ve gotten through much of the first season so far and I’ve liked what I’ve seen. The most fascinating character so far would have to be Rumpelstiltskin. The episodes that have focused on him, the queen, or most other characters have usually held my interest more than Emma.

Anonymous said...

The premise was probably stolen from a comic book called Fables.

KRS said...

I'm with Jason in that I'm happy to cruise along in a TV series with low CGI values, like Hercules, provided that the stories are entertaining, so I don't fault this series on the basis of effects.

In fact, Andrew, having noted that you're a fan of the original Dr. Who series, I'd expect you to be a little more ... how shall it say it, ... indulgent? ;-D

The big, big problem with Once is, as has been pointed out, the fact that none of the heroic characters are played by actors/actresses who have the chops to go head to head with either Carlyle or Parrilla. It's kinda like Obama vs. ISIS - you want to cheer him on, but the prospect leaves you feeling a little empty.

If, in the ranks of the heros, you had a Jim Caviezel, Guy Pierce or Andrea Parker-type (she's too old now, but she was a force in The Pretender), this series would be freaking awesome, even with the other defects.

Btw, Andrew, I took you up on your recommendation to check out Dr Who (Yay, Netflix!). I haven't quite bought into the old ones, but the modern series has totally sucked in my wife, son and me. Thanks for the recommendation!

AndrewPrice said...

KRS and Jason, Let me be clear: I'm not at all saying that people should avoid the show because of bad CGI or production values. I list that as a negative so people will be aware of the issue and won't tune in expecting something on the level of Game of Thrones. But I don't see that as a reason to skip the show.

Where I think the heart of the "production" problem lies is not the CGI or sets, it lies in the network mentality. That is a mentality that says (1) the story must be told in acts with cliffhangers at each fixed commercial break, rather than telling the story the way it should be told -- this creates an artificiality and prevents you from really getting into the storylines, and (2) let's avoid complexity and ambiguity because audiences want simple and obvious -- this keeps the show from truly hitting its stride. To me, that is the problem with most network attempts to mimic what they see on channels like HBO, AMC and FX. They want to get the same respect those networks have earned, but they won't trust their writers enough to free them from the network formula... so they keep turning out things that feel weak and unsatisfying.

Beyond that, I concur that the ultimate problem is that the leads just pale in comparison to Carlyle or Parrilla. They feel like glee club actors compared to seasoned veterans. Carlyle in particular has amazing feel and range and can do things on screen that Snow and Charming never will be able to do. And whenever Snow and Charming face off against Carlyle, it just really stands out that he is far, far above their level as an actor.

If I could do anything to fix the series, it would be to replace Snow, Charming and Emma. Jim Caviezel or Guy Pierce would both be excellent Charmings. They have the right mix of good guy and menace needed for the part -- Dallas plays him so earnestly that it almost feels like a parody, only he doesn't seem aware of that. Even the actor who plays Hook (or Pinocchio) would have been a far better choice. For Snow, they really need someone with a harder edge if they want her to be the character they claim she is. Goodwin simply doesn't have any gravitas. The perfect candidate would be Lena Heady from Game of Thrones or even Ann Hathaway (who I normally don't like, but who can do good with an edge). From the series, I think Belle would have been a better choice for Snow. I do like Parker a lot and I think she would have been an excellent Emma with a stronger range than Morrison.

You're welcome on the Dr. Who recommendation. I love the new series.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, I haven't heard of that, but I'll have to check it out.

KRS said...

Andrew - You also have an excellent point about the contrived cliff hangers. I am so tired of those. I never needed them, but ever since the "Who shot JR" phenomenom, cliff hangers have been breeding like rabbits in TV series writing. Now we're hanging off a cliff for every commerical break, as you say.

What do they think, we all have ADHD and won't stay through the break? I'm only just going for a beer!

Koshcat said...

Couple weeks ago we had HBO for free so I watched a few episodes of the first season of Game of Thrones. Felt like a soap opera with more boobs and blood. Maybe I didn't give it long enough...

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, It did start like a soap with violence and sex. It takes time for the storylines to start developing. It took about six or seven episodes before I got into it and a season before I really fell in love with it.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, I have the same reaction. If the story is good, I don't need fake cliffhangers to get me to wait until the commercials are over, especially as I'm probably fast forwarding through the commercials in any event.

Kit said...

Emilie de Ravin does a great job as Belle.

Kit said...

Ok, to go into detail on the pluses of the show, three characters.

Evil Queen: Got nothing, You summed her up perfectly with this line: "a woman who is simultaneously wildly out of control and incapable of taking NO for an answer, and yet a woman who desperately seeks affirmation from other people."

Rumplestiltskin: I disagree about the "no conscience thing". The primary theme of his character arc is that he is a coward who almost always knows the right choice and wants to make it.
In a way, he is a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge, whose greed grew out of a fear of poverty but eventually morphed and twisted into greed for the sake of greed.

You have two villains/anti-villains who are, when you scratch the surface, deeply insecure. The Evil Queen constantly seeks validation from others and Rumplestiltskin constantly wants to prove he is not some weakling coward. They are both given clear and, in many ways, understandable motivations,

Henry Mills: An interesting person. At first he seems like the typical TV precocious kid but when you scratch the surface you realize there is bit more to him. He has a bit of a manipulative streak and can lie without batting an eye. He maybe the grandson of Snow White and Prince Charming but he was raised by the Evil Queen. This adds slightly darker shades to what would be the typical kid character.

Tohokari-Steel said...

I like the show, mostly for Rumplestiltskin and the Evil Queen, whose actors are clearly having a lot of fun being such evil characters. But...yeah, it's definitely not for everyone. I enjoy it, more because I'm a fantasy buff. However, I still acknowledge that it's more of a love it or hate it show with not much middle ground.

Rustbelt said...

Okay, I've heard about this show, (haven't watched it), and, honestly, as a big Disney fan, I also love the idea. However, I read some reviews that had me ready to gag myself. It appears this show has a massive feminist following. I went on to read descriptions of the lead character, Emma. Oh, she's tough, they say. She's balls-to-the-wall, steel tough exterior, invulnerable, cares nothing for relationships, a former prison guard, more than a match for any man- and makes sure everyone knows it- and completely obliterates the Disney heroine (or princess) archetype in the best best, nastiest way possible.
Hm...translated from critic speak to normal English, I'm guessing this means she's...a b****!

So, that's what made me shake my head. "Oh, wow. I really want to see an unlikable character on a show that sets out to parody and insult the source material. I mean, what an original idea- ANOTHER T2-esque Sarah Conner clone. And, I'll bet the female character is going to look strong by the writers making all the male characters look like morons. Aren't there enough such hipster-inspired videos making the rounds on Youtube?"
The added fact that the show is made by men desperate to suck up to uber-feminist women (in other words, wimps) doesn't help the cause in my eyes. Gentlemen, it doesn't matter how much you suck up. ("Ah, director wrote that crap so he could get laid." -Tom Servo) You're always going to be a bad male in the eyes of NOW. Self-castrating our gender isn't the answer, especially when those you're trying to appease cannot be appeased- ever. (typical liberals) In other words, the man-hating, PC 90's are over. Can we let them rest in peace?
All right, I'll stop incoherently ranting here.

I'm sorry, (well, actually not), but I'm burned out on cynicism. As soon as I saw the previews for this show, immediately my mind drifted back to high school when I was in forensics and, at many competitions, a popular trend was the politically correct fairy tale. (Oh, Lord.) Had this show been on cable, as Andrew said, it might have had a chance. But in addition to the problem of the commercial break format, lack of violence, and lack of sex, I would add the additional demand for PC by the networks. which automatically results in predictability (doubly worse when the twists are done in a feminist angle). Because of that, like Star Trek from TNG to Voyager, I immediately guessed that you could call the plot points from opening, pre-credit sequence to the end. From everything I've read, I think I called this one.

Again, I haven't watched this show. But all that stuff I surmised from the commercials and read in the reviews left me reeling. Am I being too harsh? Or am I just someone who's too judgmental and sees cynicism everywhere and desperately needs to lighten up?

AndrewPrice said...

Tohokari, Hence my hesitation in recommending it. I know that half the audience will hate it, and it's hard for me to tell them they are wrong because I can see the flaws.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, That's not quite right.

How to put this...

This show is aimed at women and it certainly traffics in the "women can be as good as men" trope. BUT... BUT...

(1) The show doesn't intend to insult the source material. It plays with the source material and it does it in an entertaining way, but there doesn't seem to be a political motive to the changes they make. It's more a matter of giving you something unexpected and tying each story into the overall story arch where Rumpelstiltskin is manipulating events for his particular purpose.

(2) The feminists are pretty pathetic if they see these as "strong women." For one thing, the women in this show are all a mess. They're all desperate to find validation from everyone else and their biological clocks are ticking so loudly that you wonder how Hook can stand to be near them. Moreover, they have all relied on the men in their lives to give them the things they need.

Take Emma for example. Emma is tough on the surface -- an ex-con, turned bounty who lives alone and acts like she's tougher than a biker gang. That sounds like it fits the man-hating "I am woman, hear me roar" trope, but that's just the surface. Dig a little deeper and it doesn't take long to realize that she's really not competent, that she's desperately lonely, and that her protestations about not wanting her son are totally false. And while she does get the drop on a couple of the males on the show now and then, she is out of her league when it comes to the stronger male characters, e.g. Rumpel, Hook, Pinocchio... even Henry. She quickly becomes a glorified supporting character as the more interesting characters handle the various scenes... and most of them are men.

The Queen is supposed to be the ultimate feminist statement, right? Well, she's totally lonely and socially awkward. She's obsessed with killing the person who got her fiance killed. Her mother manipulates her unbelievably easily. Rumpel taught her magic and made her the Queen, i.e. she did none of it herself... even the curse. Almost everything she wants to do requires her to seek the aid of some male character, none of whom are intimidated by her. And her biological clock dominates her thinking.

The Queen's mother too needed to learn her powers from Rumpel.

Snow is supposed to be a sort of warrior queen, but she's so unbelievable in the role that you just can't buy into it. Not only is the actress too childlike, but her character is too wishy-washy. And while she makes a point of not relying on Charming, she still relies on Rumpel, the dwarves, etc. She's ultimately very passive.

So all in all, I think you are right that the setup (and maybe the intent) was a feminist diatribe, but the execution makes a mockery of its feminist credentials. The show definitely feels like it's aimed at women, but it is hardly flattering to them and it definitely does not do the usual feminist garbage.

AndrewPrice said...

Sadly, after recommending this series, they started the new season and it sucks badly. For reasons unknown, they've thrown away all of the conflicts and storylines they've built up over three seasons by introducing the characters from Frozen and basing the entire season around their family issues. This was a stupid idea and it's made this season intensely boring as none of the things that drew you to the series are in evidence, none of the characters you cared about get more than a couple minutes of screen time, and none of the Frozen characters are particularly interesting.

This was an unbelievably bad choice by the people who control the series.

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