Review – Once Upon A Time : The Complete First Season
I think it comes as no surprise that I skipped over Once Upon A Time, when it first came to television. As a fan of Fables, I felt that the conceit of the show borrowed too heavily from that book and thus deprived us of an eventual adaptation of Bill Willingham’s Vertigo series. Willingham said on his twitter account that the series were completely different but drawing from the same well and I suppose I should have given the ABC show the benefit of the doubt at the time but I simply didn’t want to put forth the effort. Now that the second season is about to begin and the first series is available on Netflix and on blu-ray, I decided to give it a chance. Mostly because I figured it would be a nice show for myself and the lady-friend to enjoy together on lazy Sunday evenings, but also because I don’t want to be the kind of person who writes something off without at least giving it a fair shake.
After sitting through all 22 episodes of the series on blu-ray, I can say that it bears very little resemblance to Fables outside of the “fairytale characters in the real world” baseline. The characterization is completely different, the structure is completely different, and the story is aimed in a completely different direction. The major difference between the two is that in OUAT, the characters do not know about their fairytale past. The conceit being that they have been cursed by the evil queen to live in a purgatory devoid of magic in our world not knowing about their past lives. Fables depended fairly heavily, early on at least, on the idea of the magical folk to hide their identity from the real world. If there is any reason not to watch the show, a loyalty to Fables isn’t it. You may find yourself turned off at the SyFy original movie level CGI that makes up a lot of the fairytale portions of the show, but don’t try to claim this is a ripoff.
Let’s talk about what does work for a moment. The actors and actresses in Once Upon A Time truly give it their all. They commit to the material with the same sort of dedication that you see from actors doing Shakespeare. Is it sometimes over the top? Yes. But we are talking fairytales here. You can’t expect there not to be a little melodrama. All of that works in the favor of the show. I found myself being reminded a lot of Buffy in terms of tone, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering how many time Jane Espenson’s name pops up in the credits. You have to embrace your genre in a show like this and I will say that Once Upon A Time does not try to be anything that it isn’t. What makes that work is the fact that none of the actors seem to be ashamed of that fact or think the material is below them. Lana Parilla is downright magnificent as the evil Queen/mayor Regina. She nails the character on every level. It takes a special type of actor to make you want to claw someone’s face off because they’re so delightfully wicked and she is one of them. As Rumpelstiltskin, Robert Carlyle seems to relish the chance to play both darkly sinister and creepily impish. The dichotomy the actor is able to showcase with the character is impressive and while some may think his portrayal of Rumpelstiltskin is a tad over the top, I would argue that it works to establishing the tone of the show more than just about any other character. There have been realistic depictions of fairytales in the media before, this year’s Snow White and the Huntsman comes to mind, but by making Rumpelstiltskin a cackling gold-flecked imp, it is hard to ignore what sort of show you’re watching. You have to embrace it or turn off the set.
Some things don’t work quite as well. As I mentioned, the CGI can be a little dodgy but then again this thing doesn’t exactly have Peter Jackson money. More of the problems come from the pacing. I talked about how the characters are unaware of their background and as a result it can cause the viewer to grow impatient waiting for them to come to their senses. Having the audience know more than the characters is something that happens often in a television medium but at the same time there has to be a modicum of payoff. I feel like the show takes a bit too much time getting to the logical culmination it requires to movie forward. Some might not have the same problems I have with pacing, but it was the number one issue I had with the series as a whole. I feel that the show could have easily been a few episodes shorter and been far more effective. Perhaps I’m growing too accustomed to the shorter, tighter seasons of cable television shows like Breaking Bad. It’s a distinct possibility.
All things considered, I really enjoyed the show for what it was. I have not yet had a chance to watch the first episode of the second season, but there may be an addendum to this post when I get around to checking my DVR. If you have Netflix, I wouldn’t argue against adding this to your queue. It’s entertaining and accomplishes most of what it sets out to do, which is more than I can say for 80% of network TV shows.