*Note this only covers the first six seasons, it doesn’t (necessarily) address the reboot in season 7
Once Upon a Time is a rather fascinating study. It is imminently appealing and incredibly flawed at the same time. Which means, in many ways, it’s the epitome of a show you love to hate. Or perhaps more accurately, hate to love.
It presents itself as a modern version of fairy tales, which is a lot of the appeal. But it mishandles and even betrays so much of those stories in so many ways.
- There’s a lightness to the storytelling that makes it fun. And also prevents it from moving below the surface to become compelling. (The casting in many places doesn’t help with the lack of depth.)
- It’s got costumes and elaborately digitized “sets” that create a fantasy world with what quickly becomes an incoherent timeline.
- It uses the names and pseudo story structures of many well known (and Disneyfied because it’s ABC) fairy tales and we love a new take on an old favorite. But it betrays so much of those characters and what made us love them in the first place.
It’s not terrible to rewatch if you can overlook the inconsistencies and flaws. And it will always get credit for turning Colin O’Donoghue into a pirate.
But the more you watch, the harder it becomes to ignore that as a modern version of fairy tales, it really doesn’t measure up. We can criticize it (which is easy enough). Or we can learn from its missteps and tell better stories ourselves. Lesson the first:
Don’t Corrupt Your Characters
When you decide to play in a fairy tale world, you’re accepting certain limitations off the bat. First, your characters have been established, multiple ways by multiple other storytellers and you have no control over that. Or the perceptions the audience is going to bring to your story. Or that the Disney version will undoubtedly affect how your audience approaches your story.
Because this is a retelling, we don’t want you to retread everything we already know. We want you to take everything we love and make it new – the story we love with a new flavor of adventure or a different shade of wonder. Make it exciting and fresh and slightly familiar all at once.
But in the effort to do something new, the worst thing you can do is corrupt the character you’re working with.
The creators of Once Upon a Time had a clever idea. But Disney entrusted their properties to writers with a superficial understanding of fairy tales. Kitsis and Horowitz think, quite incorrectly, that being a fairy tale heroine means being saved by the hero. That these characters aren’t strong, interesting, bold and smart in their earlier incarnations.
So, apart from Snow White, they omit a lot of the strength and virtue the characters bring to the table. They can’t seem to turn the story in interesting ways without betraying the characters. (spoilers abound ahead)
- Jasmine goes from a fierce, defiant girl to a defeated princess.
- King Arthur (you can call him “King Arthur” all you want but he isn’t really, is he?) goes from being a beacon of nobility and honor to being a selfish fool.
- Cinderella makes a deal with the villain for the sake of revenge.
- But her prince likes her because she is soft and timid and sweet. It plays into the worst ideas of the character and completely ignores her virtue and her strength.
The underlying problem is that Kitsis and Horowitz put the need for conflict above the character integrity (and also above the importance of a coherent timeline but that’s another matter). I get it, it’s tv. You need fresh conflict every episode, week after week. But good writers won’t sacrifice their characters for the sake of contrived conflict.
Plot, yes, roll that upside down and inside out. Choices the characters make, sure play with those as long as it’s logical and consistent with the characters. If it’s out of character then don’t do it. At that point, it’s not a clever twist on the character, it’s not really the character at all. And establishing that balance requires knowing the character you’re working with.
Because it isn’t any fun watching the wreckage of characters you love. And (personally) beyond the storytelling choices, I really didn’t like a lot of the casting choices. The single theme threaded through the 5 lessons series is that casting matters. It’s either going to make or break your show and I felt that it broke a lot of Once Upon a Time.
If you’re going to dance in a fairy tale world, you need to know the steps. Whether you follow them or defy them, know what you’re doing enough to still enthrall the audience, to be true to the characters and make it clever and interesting (or at the very least fun!).
Passive Empowered Heroines
It’s an oxymoron, right? How can their heroines be both passive and empowered at the same time? Easy, they talk a good game about being strong and say, “No one saves me but me.”
And then they make choices that undermine their intelligence and capability.
- They feel weak and helpless and make a deal with Rumpelstiltskin. Because if she can’t have the hero save her then she might as well have the villain at least get her out of this mess.
- They utter the 4 worst words in any story. “I had no choice!” is not the mantra of an empowered heroine (and, seriously, one character or another says that every. single. episode.)
- They blame someone else for their choices (their mothers quite often or the bad guys or the good guys or anyone else).
Being empowered doesn’t mean you can pick a lock or face down an ogre. It means having the agency to effect your own destiny, making choices that shape the world around you and the story. Therefore, OWN those choices.
It’s rooted in the same problem as the corrupted characters. Kitsis and Horowitz prioritized the need for conflict above all else.
Which (again) creates a contrasting dichotomy in this series – smart, bold, often capable heroines that put themselves into positions of weakness or passivity. Which is bad enough in any story. But worse when it’s stories we know and characters we love but barely recognize.
This likely isn’t a term many are familiar with, but Once Upon a Time is rife with negative control. You see it every time a character makes a choice for someone else because “it’s for your own good.” But really because they don’t trust that other person to make the choice themselves. Because they don’t respect the other character enough to think they can actually make their own choices. And because they need to be in control of the situation and the other character.
Sometimes it’s acknowledged. Usually by Belle when Rumpelstiltskin is controlling her. He’s the villain, that sort of negative control is part of his evil-ness. It’s part of Regina’s Evil Queen traits. And it’s also a consistent part of the Charming family. Snow controls David. David controls Snow. Emma controls everyone.
It’s the terrible crutch they use to drive the plot. And, to be quite frank, it’s a terrible unconscious message to feed the audience again and again over six seasons. That this is what loving someone looks like. Or that this is a healthy relationship because it’s a fairy tale and they’re the heroes. And it’s hard when you watch the episodes to not let that seep into your mind.
Living in tell instead of show
You know every writing advice anywhere will tell you “show, don’t tell”? Yeah, Once Upon a Time is an entire series built on telling.
And it makes the stories superficial. It makes the characters weak. And it keeps the audience from REALLY feeling the depth of what is possible.
Because, these actually are pretty cool ideas and could be powerful stories. Having to sacrifice the thing you love most? Splitting a heart in half? Curses and power and magic and true love. These are all pretty fantastic themes, the kind of stories that fairy tales are known for.
But Once Upon a Time only skirts the surface of them. They contain plots with sacrifice and pain and hope. But they never dwelt in those stories. They just talk about them again and again. The actors tried to feel the depth of what they were talking about but it only ever stayed at the level of talking about it.
Shows like Battlestar Galactica and Buffy, The Vampire Slayer were often poignant and storylines resonated. Which is interesting because several of the writers on Once Upon a Time also worked on both Battlestar and Buffy.
But on Once they only wrote the idea of an interesting story as if that would suffice without showing us the story they imagined.
And as a result, you don’t feel it. You might feel something. But it doesn’t grab your heart, suck the breath out of you and evoke tears you don’t realize are streaming down your face. The characters all did those things but the themes and stories they toyed with were only words.
This is one of the lessons where perhaps you can’t recognize or correct it yourself. Because the story and the world and the characters live in your mind so when you read it, you bring context and emotion that perhaps you aren’t conveying to the reader. You need a good editor to help you spot where a story is weak.
Or it may be the sort of thing (perhaps like Once Upon a Time) where you’re leaning too heavily on the reader’s pre-existing connection to the characters and not taking the time to delve into your own story.
Either way, if you want the audience to feel something about what you’re saying, leverage editors and beta readers to make sure they’re actually feeling it and not just listening to the words you’re saying and moving on.
The Magic of Metaphor
One positive lesson is the beautiful way they took metaphor and made it tangible and real.
Hearts are these beautiful gems that can be ripped from our chests, cursed, crushed, broken in half and shared. The problem is that because they’re stone, they can’t be healed, repaired, restored.
Still, the way they handle hearts is powerful and beautiful and interesting.
This is a short lesson because there really is no how. Just the knowledge that if you can take a metaphor and make it real – make it literal and tangible – that can engage your reader in a powerful way. It can even create magic in your fantasy world.