Once Upon A Time is fun to watch, if you’re a fan of Lost. It has beautiful production values, Robert Carlyle, and great guest stars. The only problem is that, like Lost, it’s a narrative mess. The split between Storybrooke and the Fairy Tale Land is less like watching parallel stories that inform and drive each other, and more like watching a set of back-to-back Fun House mirrors. Roughly the same plot playing out in both the, “Real,” and Fairy Tale worlds, leaving the audience interested but stuck. While Lost had the advantage of being completely unknown and using the flashback format to inform a motley group of characters, Once Upon A Time is already dealing in mostly known characters and it’s simply become repetitive.
True North and 7:15 A. M., are entertaining hours of television that don’t bring any depth to the show’s narrative as a whole. We already know that Emma Swan ( Jennifer Morrison) grew up an orphan in the foster system. We already know that Mary-Margaret and David (Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas) are replaying the Snow White/Prince (James) Charming narrative. We know these things.
The thematic focus of the show is maternal/parental relationships. Emma, Regina (Lana Parilla) Snow, Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle), Archie Hopper/Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge), even James/Charming/David are treated to the parental loss/abuse/failure plotline.
Losing a parent, or losing a child is painful: we get it. There are bad parents and parents who do their best but fail anyway: we get it.
In its last two outings, Once Upon A Time has cemented the fact that it does an amazing job of making fairy tales fresh and it has no idea of how to make the lives of Storybrooke’s residents more than a cheap soap opera.
Hansel and Gretel ( Quinn Lord and Harley Scott Collins) and the Evil Queen’s machinations to exploit their separation from their Woodsman (Nicholas Lea) father to steal from the Blind Witch ( Emma Caulfield) is far more interesting than the Storybrooke side of True North, which is simply Emma Swann replaying her inner child’s issues and trying to protect the children.
Showing the audience a warped version of how Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came about, through a deal with Rumplestiltskin, the Prince’s venal father (Alan Dale) and true love’s sacrifice, has more depth and meaning than the triangle of Mary-Margaret/David/Kathryn, and 7:15 A.M. suffers from the contrast.
Once Upon A Time has the potential to be great genre television, and great television full stop, but until the Storybrooke narrative is as strong as the fairy tale, it continues to fall flat. The addition of a meta-fictional element in the form of The Stranger (Eion Bailey) as a writer in a town where a book holds the key to reality, could prove interesting if the show’s writers don’t leave the obvious trail of breadcrumbs we’re expecting.