You Should Be Watching: Once Upon a Time

As I touched upon in a previous article that I wrote about music guilty pleasures, we often label things as guilty pleasures but really we should be proud to admit the things that we enjoy. I mean, they make us happy, right? Why bother restricting yourself to a specific set of interests, only to feel like it's wrong to like other things when you discover their quality? That's how I like to view it anyway. Unfortunately I ran into a problem. I like the TV show Once Upon a Time a little bit too much and it's starting to make me freak out a little, so, like Usher had to do in the form of two songs and a remix, this Alt:Mag article is my confession.

This whole fiasco started because my girlfriend and I enjoy watching shows together. She introduced me to Game of Thrones, which I adore, and I got her her into Breaking Bad, which she loved just as much. Around the time I showed her Breaking Bad, I agreed to watch a show she'd been raving about called Once Upon a Time. She'd given me an idea of what the show was all about and I admitted it sounded cool.
Once Upon a Time follows main character Emma Swan, who on her 28th birthday is visited by the son she gave up for adoption ten years prior, Henry. Henry is convinced that his biological mother comes from an alternate world and that her parents are Snow White and Prince Charming, who sent her away so she would be protected from a curse enacted by the Evil Queen. It was at this point that I thought that Henry should immediately seek some kind of medical attention, but I decided to hang in there. All this is in the real world with real people and reality and stuff and I enjoy it. It's clear that Jennifer Morrison, playing Emma Swan, is a decent actress from the get-go. Jared S. Gilmore (Henry) is great too, although sometimes I imagine him to be a humanised version of Navi from Zelda, meaning I expect his squeaky voice to utter "hey, listen!" at any second. Either way, Emma agrees to take Henry back to his home, a town called Storybrooke.  

Before all of that happens though, we are greeted with a highly corny - if not slightly obnoxious - scene, in said alternate world of fairy tale people, where Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) and Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) have their wedding interrupted by The Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) who tells them all about a powerful curse that she is going to release upon the kingdom. The alternate world really catches you off guard because it is such a juxtaposition from the real world of the show. In this alternate world there is magic, castles, horrendous CGI (we'll get to that) and all sorts of fairy tale people: Geppetto and Pinocchio are there, as well as the seven dwarfs and a blue fairy that looks like a jellyfish. There's also the whimsical, yet sinister, Rumpelstiltskin who has a glittery face and is played by Robert Carlyle who was in The Full Monty - but we'll get back to him too. It is pretty hard to keep track of all the different characters quickly, but with time everything becomes easier to follow. Anyway, Rumpelstiltskin informs a concerned, pregnant Snow White that the Queen's curse will take them all somewhere terrible where there will be no happy endings. He also reveals that it is prophesied that Snow White's unborn daughter will return as an adult to rescue them all from the curse. Geppetto builds a magical wardrobe that allows Snow White to send her baby to safety and dodge the curse as it hits. 

Back in the present, in Storybrooke, Emma runs into a number of interesting and individual characters, all complete with distinct personalities. The most notable of these characters are the town's mayor and Henry's foster mother Regina, pawn shop owner Mr. Gold, and Henry's school teacher Mary Margaret. What you immediately realise is that these characters are played by the same actors/actresses as some of the fairy tale characters: Regina is The Evil Queen, Mr. Gold is Rumpelstiltskin, Mary Margaret is Snow White. Despite it being obvious that these characters are real world versions of their fairy tale counterparts, the enjoyment in the show is how these characters, as well as Emma, grow to figure out their real identities. The concept is really quite clever and as a result the show has an effective structure it can follow for each episode, showing a character facing a problem in Storybrooke, while constantly flashing back to a second narrative which shows their past struggles as a fairy tale character. These two narratives running side by side complement each other and the solution found in the fairy tale world relates to something that needs to be done, or strength that needs to be found, in order to overcome their problem in the real world.

At the end of the first season, the characters get reverted back to their fairy tale selves, except they are still in Storybrooke. Although I enjoyed the original idea of having real world counterparts for these fairy tale characters and I thought Emma would be the one to help them remember, by this point I enjoyed the characters enough to let it slide. But for a show with so many intertwining stories and so many characters to write, the plot does tend to have me frowning at certain things. There are instances where certain themes aren't explored strongly enough but are used at focal parts of the story. Emma apparently has a "superpower" where she knows if someone is lying to her. I don't know if I'm just missing something but she seems to mention it like once every two seasons when the plot requires it. Same with the fact that she has magic. She'll use it when it's absolutely critical, won't mention it for an entire season, then bring it back at another critical moment. 
Also, the Evil Queen Regina cursed all of the fairy tale characters to live in Storybrooke, making them forget their true identities and passions, killed many innocent people in the fairy tale world and is generally a really cruel individual, yet she now gets to hang out at Granny's diner with the crew. Sure, everyone was out for her head the second the curse was removed, but then a higher evil is introduced into the plot a second later and Emma and the gang then have to work with Regina and overcome their differences for the greater good. Then everything's fine and dandy. Then she teams up with her even more wicked mother and tries to screw everyone in Storybrooke over again. Then her mother is defeated and they're all friends and she's back with the crew at Granny's again. Why is everyone so forgiving of Regina in this show? Sure, I like her more as an anti-hero and an ally more than a villain, but seriously, she made Emma's life a living hell from the second she arrived in Storybrooke, but nowadays they're compadres for life.

While I'm nitpicking, let's talk about the aforementioned awful CGI, something that stood out from the get-go during the fairy tale segments of the show and never seems to improve. The majority of scenes that take place in sparkly castles and other magical places of the fairy world are clearly shot in front of a green screen, with shoddy CG backgrounds placed behind the actors. I'm sure this is a common technique in shows and movies these days, but I think there's something wrong when I am constantly comparing them to the quality of the CG backgrounds from 90s MS-DOS FMV Games like Ripper or Harvester I think something might have got mixed up in the show's budget. There are times when I've even commented how B-Movies have better effects than Once Upon A Time. I think they dropped most of it on The Evil Queen's wardrobe.

But despite all my moans, Once Upon a Time's weaknesses are actually what make me love it even more. I'd even go as far as to say that I wouldn't want to change the show in any way. Take the CGI for example. Yeah, it's awful and it makes me cringe really hard, but, believe it or not, I actually think that it works to the show's benefit. The show's campiness is what makes it so wonderful, and it's not just the CGI; it's the ridiculous outfits, the fact there are a number of episodes following a plot related to Frozen which makes me think the creators are just trying to pander to Disney fans, the fact that the seven dwarves are born out of eggs looking like they are 40 years of age and, finally, how can I not mention the occasional use of somewhat questionable plot devices? There's a bit where Regina is stressed out trying to find a solution to a dilemma and in a rage her magic makes a mirror smash. Suddenly, "oh wait, I know what to do, I'm going to go find the "Mirror, Mirror on the wall" guy and ask for his wisdom." Fairy tales in general are quite corny and cliché, so why shouldn't a show about them be too? 
And as for those plot inconsistencies I moaned about, I am willing to overlook them too. Why? Really, in the grand scheme of things they don't really matter. This is a show with a very large and ambitious story, and these nitpicks I have are merely a drop in the ocean compared to the great writing the show contains. The writers definitely know how to keep you hooked. They know how to grip you with good plot and keep you coming back for more, as well as having the ability to make each new season refreshing.

Now it's time to talk about the best part of the whole show: the characters of Rumpelstiltskin and the Evil Queen Regina. Robert Carlyle and Lana Parrilla both do an absolutely fantastic job in their roles. They are not just great characters in this show, but after much thought, they could even be some of my favourite characters in anything ever. Here's why.
Rumpelstiltskin (or Mr. Gold) is one of those characters who, no matter how much of a colossal bastard he can be, we still root for. We root for him to find his son and we root for him to fall in love. We see his past and we sympathise with him, as he started out a weak, spineless man who tried his hardest to protect his family, yet people still took advantage of him, such as Captain Hook, who took his wife from him as well as constantly strove to humiliate him on a number of occasions. This resulted in Rumpelstiltskin having to seek out and gain evil powers in order to protect his family, which of course led to him becoming corrupt with power.
Although in the present Mr. Gold is just a normal man who can wield magic, in the past he was much more sparkly, a lot more sinister and a bit (a lot) bonkers. This is where Robert Carlyle really shines, playing this character who flits between laughing hysterically to being completely sinister in a flash. I particularly love the moments when for no reason whatsoever he changes his voice from his typical high-pitched one to a completely random accent (he does this many times, each time with a different accent). The character doesn't just do this for no reason though, as Robert Carlyle actually chose to make the character like this on purpose, giving an absolutely fantastic reason why in an interview with Entertainment Weekly: "[Rumpelstiltskin is] 300 years old. He’s met so many people over the years that he’s been impressed and unimpressed by, he’s taken on their voices, he’s taken on their accents and their mannerisms. He’s layered so much he’s lost himself.” Robert Carlyle deserves all the praise he gets in this role. He's absolutely fantastic.

Lana Parrilla is fantastic in her role too, but in a different way. She does a magnificent job of delivering the salty lines written for Regina/The Evil Queen, with many resulting in me thinking "wow, shots fired". When she wants to be an evil manipulator, she can be an evil manipulator. When she wants to show a softer, more vulnerable side, it is delivered in a way that we can understand perfectly. I couldn't imagine anyone else filling her role, and even though more powerful, more evil witches have been introduced, such as the Wicked Witch of the West and even her own mother, she is still the most bad-ass spell-caster of them all.

The show does have its funny moments too. As you grow to know each character you can also laugh with them, the way you would when your friend does something so silly yet it's so typical of them to do. Despite this, more of the laughs I got from this show actually came from a minor character who is introduced in Season 4 called Will Scarlet, who is one of Robin Hood's merry men and is played by the actor Michael Socha. He is a hilarious comic relief character, a drunk thief, and it's nice to see an American show have a British Northerner in its cast and see the kind of Northern humour that I love utilised so effectively. Most shows with English characters tend to just have the stereotypical posh southerner who speaks the Queen's English, or, as I like to call them, the "Token Brit". Here's a funny scene of Will:

Oh, I can't forget the feels. There are moments where I've felt truly moved by things that occur, and this is all because the characters of the show are so well-written that I actually root for them to succeed and always hope that nothing bad happens to them. I can't spoil anything, but I've recently been watching Season 4 and not one, but certain couples are forced to separate for reasons out of their control (kinda) and this had me feeling particularly sad. Because of my investment in these characters, I find that these moments stay with me and are just another reason to keep coming back for more, as I want to see the story follow a path to a solution for the problems the characters face.

Once Upon a Time isn't perfect, but it is something that sticks with me. I've had so much fun watching it, and it is just another thing that has brought me and my girlfriend closer together. It is something we can laugh about and even at times poke fun at (that awful CGI is always getting pointed out). But even if you are still looking for love, this show is still worth checking out. You don't have to be into fairy tales or even Disney to find something to love about Once Upon a Time. It really is quite enjoyable once it picks up momentum, and is incredibly hard to stop watching once it does.

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