I am not often a fan of giant media conglomerations, but for ABC's Once Upon a Time, I have to make an exception. The ABC network is owned by the Disney Corporation, and never has this relationship worked out better for the prime time viewer. The show was billed as a fantasy-drama based on classical fairy tales, but it takes much of it's core characters from Disney's animated features and borrows from them to an extent that would be difficult for anyone forced to navigate the "enchanted forest" that is Disney copyright law. The show is by no means made for children, and is often violent and heartbreaking. Still, it is mindful of the themes of the fairy tales (and is some cases Victorian children's stories or other story classics) it is based on. Family, the battle of good verses evil, and true love are not only paramount thematic issues, but actual forces of power, both magically and when enacted through character motivation. By keeping this fairy tale grounding, the show is free to morph the content and characters, enhance the nuance, and add complications, still while maintaining something that feels authentic at least to the versions of these stories we as viewers are most familiar with.
The result to anyone that grew up or raised children in the age of the Disney Renaissance (Late 1980's to 2000) is a show that seems like an updated, more mature version of these now classic animated films. Obviously, some things are different because of format - a television show demands a cast that is more interconnected and recurring than discrete films. It demands a new twist, a mystery or conflict that bridges the various individual stories and drives the characters, and thus the show, forward in a new way. The show accomplishes this in the form of a new curse put forward by the Evil Queen (from Snow White) to transport all the fairy tale characters to our world, oblivious to who they are, forced to live as she dictates: without their "happy endings." As the main narrative unfurls from this plot point, the show also reveals the actions of the past, in the realm of fairy tales. These stories, are focused on individual sets of characters and are paired up with relevant events in the forward flowing plot, so they are told out of order. Slowly, as the show progresses, the past gets woven together and drops hints as to the events of the future.
In this, the show succeeds wonderfully. The balance between hints that pay off and misdirections, for those readers bouncing theories around in their head, is very satisfying. The show never feels like it is fooling with you just for the sake of convolution, nor does it come off as predictable and boring. Similarly, the show doesn't become a detective puzzle that forces the viewer into hunting for clues, for those viewers who are content in letting the mysteries unfold without trying to guess which well known character might show up and what role they might play, or what betrayal or alliance might come to light next. The overall plotting, and the way the various fantasy stories interweave is done elegantly.
Unfortunately, the writing that is so stellar at the drawing board doesn't always translate into the dialogue. Some of the scenes fall into saccharine or maudlin sentiments, often at the same time sounding like generic and stilted dialogue for a scene of tension, revenge, passion, or some other standard story book fare. During scenes that take place in the fairy tale realm, the writers operate under the added complication of trying to use a kind of folktale mode of speaking. Fortunately, as season 2 progresses the kinks seem to be smoothing out.
Part of this fault may lie with the actors as well, especially because TV drama is a medium where the writer of each episode varies and the problems in the writing are much more apparent consistently in some characters than others. In television, the actor becomes more of a constant for the character than the writer, and they become vital in bringing the lines to life. In Once Upon a Time, it's the villains (primarily the Evil Queen Regina, played by Lana Parrilla, and Rumpelstiltskin, played by Robert Carlyle) that outshine their cast-mates.
But they have help from a story that does work hard to challenge the classical fairy tale ideas of evil, while maintaining that true good and true evil exist. It isn't moral ambiguity so much as a deep, pervading sense of sympathy. The show does not hesitate in illustrating true evil and then showing its tragic, sympathetic motivation. This is one way that Once Upon a Time updates its source material for an older audience. As adults, the flat evil-for-evil's sake villains that dominate the Disney canon don't pass for believable characters.
Another update of note the show made is to the roles and ideals of gender. Snow White is turned from the 1937 house-wife princess in distress to a survivalist-princess on the lam who rescues her prince as much as he rescues her. But it isn't just about de-feminizing her role. Snow, in her updated fairy-tale life and in her modern world is powerful as a mother, a lover, and a teacher as well as being one of the most capable fighters on the show. The core cast of Once Upon a Time is, in any given arc, at least half female, and though romance (what with the theme of true love) definitely plays a part in the show, it is far from the only driving motivation.
Briefly, no account of the show is complete without a comment on the aesthetic. As costume designer Eduardo Castro said “We didn’t want it to look like a Renaissance Faire, we wanted it to look like an Alexander McQueen show.” The costumes and styles, aside from certainly being grown up, provide insight into character, future plot points, and clues to morality and timeline. Above all else, they are exquisite.
For anyone familiar with Disney's Masterpiece Collection, Once Upon a Time is a wonderful chance to relive and re-meet childhood classics in a new, more age appropriate way. Even for those who haven't, it's a great way to get to know classic characters in an exciting, innovative way.