“‘Where Are We Going?’ ‘Somewhere Horrible,'” Indeed: ABC’s Once Upon A Time

October 24, 2011 § 17 Comments

I think my folks in Maine would resent that particular exchange between Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White (post-labor, pre-time warp) and the Evil Queen, played by Lana Parrilla. Maine is far from horrible.

In fact, compared to the hour I just spent watching ABC’s fairy tale-themed new show, Once Upon A Time, Bangor, Maine is paradise on earth.

The show’s concept is a little convoluted, which is why I had such a vague idea of what I was going to watch, despite reading several summaries beforehand.

I’ll give it my best shot: Some time ago in that vague story-land that should, if we’re reading the stories right, be Europe in the middle ages, but always turns out instead to be some fantasy video-game set, Snow White is rescued by her Prince, gets knocked up (like you do), and then is the victim of a terrible curse set upon her by the Evil Queen. Evil Queenie stops time, dooming everyone in video game land to live immortally in a state of amnesia, not remembering who they are or what they all meant to each other.

Flash forward to present day: Emma Swan, a sad (and sadly written) female protagonist is having a bummer of a birthday when knock, knock—a small boy named Henry arrives at her door with a strange leather-bound book. He introduces himself as her son given up for adoption 10 years before, and convinces her to drive him home to Maine from Boston. Emma does this, because any lonely woman who clearly doesn’t want to deal with a kid would rather do an overnight drive to Maine with said strange child rather than call the authorities, try to contact the child’s adoptive parents, or do any sort of responsible adult thing.

Thus, we arrive in Storybrooke, Maine, where lo and behold! All the characters from Henry’s crazy book, appropriately titled “Once Upon a Time”, are living with Story-Amnesia, unaware that they are so-and-so. The Evil Queen, who is Mayor of Wasilla Storybrooke, is Henry’s adoptive mom, and she and Emma have a little tete-a-tete in which Emma decides she really does like that kid and gets all in Evil Queen’s face, asking her questions like “But do you really love him?”, which is a completely appropriate question to ask someone who adopted and raised your unwanted child that you were calling a nutcase just a commercial break before.

Emma Swan decides to stay in Storybrooke rather than return to her home in Boston and we all get to wait and see how this completely underdeveloped character will somehow save the inhabitants of Storybrooke, so that they can all go on wearing their Sci-Fi garb and waving swords about.

I wanted this show to be good. Fairy tale retellings are my bag, in a big way. But the combination of bad writing and character development with what I soon found to be a blatant “nobody knows, so who cares?’ attitude towards the fairy tales themselves wore on me until it was a chore to turn the volume up after the commercial breaks. I just wanted it to be over.

I’m sure there are others out there commenting on how the relationship between adopted child, adoptive mother, and birth mother are so underdeveloped in this show, so I won’t go into the glaring generalizations and convenient character motivations there, except to say this: even if a show is generally a fantasy, if it applies a realistic narrative as a foil to that fantasy, then that reality has to be sharp in order for the contrast to work its magic. If Emma’s whole interior monologue when confronted by Henry is, “Ok, sure, I didn’t want you but I’ll drive all night in the rain for you,” and the show never gives us a compelling (or even just interesting and unique) reason why, then why have any part of this show set in the “real world” at all? Why not just go all David Lynch and create a world in which the bad logic makes sense?

But what I really want to address here is the fairy tale aspect, not the so-called reality bit.

A great deal of buzz on Twitter surrounded “figuring out” who all the characters were–ok, knock yourselves out. You had Snow White, her dwarves, her prince, Rumplestiltskin, Red Riding Hood, a fairy, Geppetto the woodcarver (I’ll get to that), Granny, etc.

Should be right up my alley, right? Fairy tale characters, a somewhat interesting concept involving stopped time. Ok. But what the creators of this show have done is something that gets so under my skin, I can’t bear to watch it unfold. All promotional material has made free use of the term “fairy tale.” It’s a show about fairy tales, featuring fairy tale characters, etc. And yet, the pilot episode proves that when it comes to ABC and Disney, “fairy tale” means just about anything, when in fact it has a very specific definition:

A fairy tale is a tale usually featuring folkloric characters which has its roots in oral tradition. Literary fairy tales exist, and are the ones that we’re most familiar with, since a “literary fairy tale” is a fairy tale or folk tale that has been written down. But at heart, fairy tales have their genesis in a region’s oral storytelling traditions, and are stories that have been passed down and around by word of mouth.

Once Upon A Time doesn’t exactly stick to these stories. Of course, that’s part of the show’s schtick–the fairy tales you never heard as a child! Fairy tales with a twist! But even the characters they’re “twisting” have nothing to do with what fairy tales really are. I suspect that the show’s ideal audience probably won’t even notice.

The show relies on the nostalgia kick of a fairly specific, and yet undoubtedly vast, group of watchers: those who grew up with Disney films, and who either never knew that those films were bastardized versions of primary literary material, or who knew and just didn’t ever care to acquaint themselves with the originals.

The show is absolutely not trying to expand anyone’s knowledge of the original fairy tales–or original children’s novels, which are something completely different, but whatever, OUAT, do what you want–because no exploration of the themes and tropes of actual fairy tales exist in the pilot hour of this strangely cobbled-together show after the first two minutes. We begin with Snow White, and then we’re nowhere. We’re in children’s lit soup.

No, what the show is primarily trying to do is make sure that you never forget that Disney owns the term fairy tale, and what “fairy tale” means in Disney language is whatever it own rights to.


We briefly see a couple of illustrations in Henry’s book of fairy tale lore as Emma flips through it. One is taken from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Another is taken from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland–neither of which are fairy tales. They are novels.

Another example:

Halfway through the show, we are given a brief introduction to young Henry’s psychologist, another victim of Story-Amnesia. When the kindly man leaves the scene, Emma asks Henry which fairy tale character he was supposed to be. Henry, without a moment’s hesitation, answers that the man is really Jiminy Cricket.

Here’s where you showed your thin deck of cards, ABC, and where you lost me for good.

Jiminy Cricket is not a fairy tale character, for two reasons.

One, because Pinocchio was a serial written between the years of 1881 and 1883 by a man named Carlo Collodi. The difference between a book-length collection of episodes written by a single author and a traditional fairy tale is vast, and one does not become the other just because Disney made a film a while back. That film, sorry, is not a fairy tale either.

Two, because Collodi did not create a character named Jiminy Cricket. Disney did.

What this means is that the show, which is supposed to be about “fairy tale characters” is really just about Disney characters. The Wikipedia page tells me that we’ll soon be joined by Maleficent, of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty fame. Hey, guess what fairy tale never actually had anyone with a name so dumb as Maleficent? We’ll also get to spend more time with Dopey, Grumpy, and the rest of the vertically challenged crew, none of which had names until Disney decided they should. This, my friends, is not surprising, given that ABC is, of course, part of the Disney empire. But it is disappointing.

Ironically, the real fairy tale characters truly are stuck in time, folks–because no one will remember them, the Brave Little Tailors or the Clever Marlenes or the Simple Ivans of this world. If Disney didn’t use them, they’re not worth knowing. And if Disney did use them, then they’re not worth knowing in their original, dark, mysterious and wonderful form.

I wanted to enjoy this show. Television that draws on childhood nostalgia has the potential to do a great thing, by creating a link between people who remember the same stories. But for me, growing up, stories existed in many forms, not just the Disney ones. Seeing Disney once again present something as “the fairy tale your parents never told you,” and then just give us another bright Disney spin entirely reliant on their own copyrighted characters is insulting to the many of us who know what fairy tales actually are–and for the most part, the real fairy tales aren’t the ones your parents told you about anyway. I’m talking here to people who loved this show, the “OMG! I love fairy tales!” types all over Twitter an hour after the pilot premiere. Because chances are, your parents didn’t tell you fairy tales at all. They just plopped you in front of the movies.

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