The Confident Optimism of Once Upon a Time

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When Once Upon a Time premiered way back in 2011, TV fans were intrigued. It was one of the more original concepts for a show: a mishmash of fairytale characters that would probably feel even more refreshing now, in the era of reboots and revivals. In the pilot, we were introduced to twists on well-known characters: a sword-wielding, awesomely feminist Snow White who had snappy as hell chemistry with the man she sarcastically dubbed “Charming” and a snarky, elaborately-dressed Evil Queen who actually got her happy ending, as well as various dwarfs, crickets, fairies, etc. There was also true believer Henrywho perhaps made you feel a little sad and nostalgic the first time you saw him, a reminder of the childhood innocence you once had, and an understandably skeptic Emma Swan, who grew up with no knowledge of fairy tales or happy endings. Unfortunately, she’s probably the one the majority of us related to the most.

As is my way, I didn’t watch the pilot of Once until critical buzz had quieted a bit, between its second and third seasons. But when I did, I remember being surprised by how confident an introduction it was. A lot of serieseven ones that wind up greatstumble through their first episode or even their first season. This was not the case with Once Upon a Time. Right from the beginning, from the moment Henry watched that clock tower chime, the show’s message of hope was clear, a message it never strayed from in seven seasons. It was sure of its characters, too. Sure, Regina and Emma, to name a couple, evolved beautifully from the pilot, but their personalities remained much the same. This is no small feat. Instead of tweaking characters or other aspects of the show that didn’t quite work, Once hit the ground running, laying the foundation for well-earned relationships and character journeys from its very first episode.

The show’s impressive character work quickly became my favorite part. I loved Once’s almost hilarious disregard for logical timelines, its crazy plot twists and character relationships (just try to explain Henry’s family tree to someone), and its delightful “anything goes” mentality (there were certainly moments it felt like they shook up the Disney canon in a bottle and went with whatever came out), but most of all, I loved its characters.

As mentioned, Regina and Emma, in particular, grew a ton throughout the course of the series, in two hard-fought character arcs that were a sight to behold, especially for a character development junkie like myself. In the pilot, I don’t think anyone would have called the Evil Queen their favorite. But she was portrayed with such empathy and heart that, by season three, she was my favorite. The writers on Once took immense care of their characters, slowly building up Emma’s optimism and trust in others, Regina’s learned selflessness and forgiveness for herself, Hook’s internal battle with darkness and the man he wanted to be, etc. Even if I didn’t agree with what a character did, I nearly always understood why they did it. Characters on this show rarely felt like plot devices, but rather whole human beings, something that shouldn’t be rare on TV but somehow is.

This is especially impressive considering that well, Once was a show about a bunch of fairy tale characters. It’s crazy to say that you found small pieces of yourself in Snow White or the Evil Queen or any of the other countless make-believe characters that graced Once over the years, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The show’s characters made fantasy transcend the common experience, through wonderfully small, realistic beats and huge, character-defining declarations. It was the combination of these two that made the show work: Regina’s never-ending parade of one-liners paired with her staring at the actual embodiment of her past self, finally ready to forgive; Emma and Hook making pancakes shortly after she declared “I am not nothing, I was never nothing!”; etc. Once always made time for those moments between the battles and plot twists that provide just as much insight into characters as the declarations do.

As mentioned, the show had immense empathy for its characters, but it also wasn’t afraid to make them do the work, especially in their relationships with each other. I think what impressed me most was that, with such a huge cast, for the most part, each relationship felt specific and ridiculously well-earned. It would have been easy for Regina, for instance, to have similar relationships with Emma, Snow, and Charming, all people she hurt in much the same way. Instead, she and Emma slowly but surely became co-parents and best friends, developing a no-nonsense understanding of each other that was pretty unparalleled. Snow, ironically, became a sort of advice-giving sister and sounding board for her former step-mother. And Charming welcomed her into the family graciously, always having faith in who she’d become, even when she doubted it herself.

With a big cast, complicated backstories, and additional characters who would pop up for an arc or two, it would have been easy to miss potential points of commonality. Instead, Once often surprised me with how much characters like Belle and Hook, Emma and Elsa, or Snow and Jasmine had in common. It’s funny to say it about such a sprawling show, but Once was very methodical about things that other shows often overlook or deem too obvious to be interesting. It loved finding those intersections in characters’ pasts, setting up backstories that neatly led to revelations in the future, or building to the kind of full-circle moment that we rarely get in real life.

It wasn’t a perfect show. It ebbed and flowed like the best of them, with entire arcs or characters that didn’t quite work for one reason or another. This entire seventh season, while enjoyable in its own way, has been far more focused on churning through plot than delving into genuine character moments like the ones mentioned above. But, as I said, admirably, this show knew what it was from its very first episode: a show for and about optimists, whether current or recovering. It featured complex, imperfect female characters and romances for the ages, while never once suggesting that those two things couldn’t exist simultaneously. As mentioned, it had two of my very favorite character arcs of all time in Regina Mills and Emma Swan. And most importantly, it took great pains to remind its audience that happy endings are possible.

At its heart, Once was a symbol of why TV was invented in the first place: to entertain, to offer an escape, to bring a little joy. A simple idea, sure. But one that was well worth watching.

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2016 in Review: TV’s Best Duos

Giving Thanks for Great TV

Image result for gilmore girls a year in the life

It’s become a tradition here at Standing in Front of a TV for me to write about what I’m thankful for each Thanksgiving. I have a lot to be thankful for this year: family, friends, health, etc. However, 2016 wasn’t the best of years otherwise, making me more grateful than ever for the escape that television provides. Here are eight TV-related things I’m thankful for this Turkey Day:

  1. Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. I’m sure this is on a lot of people’s lists given that it premieres this weekend, but I’m beyond excited to revisit this cozy blanket of a show. The revival also gave me an excuse to rewatch the series again, and falling back in love with Stars Hollow was just the distraction I needed this fall.
  2. A strong crop of new shows. A lot of my shows got canceled or held for midseason this year, leaving me with some holes in my fall TV schedule. Luckily, this was one of the best seasons in recent memory for new shows, and I’ve happily added new favorites like This Is Us, Pitch, and The Good Place.
  3. The CW. Last year, I mentioned superhero shows specifically, but this year I’m grateful for the network in general. Yes, their DC lineup remains strong (especially with the addition of Supergirl), but they also have other wonderfully unique shows I love, such as Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
  4. The West Wing. Regardless of your political affiliations, I think we can all agree that this was a tumultuous year, making President Bartlet and Co.’s idealism both reassuring and refreshing. This was my first time watching the show all the way through, and I’m definitely glad that I picked this year to do so.
  5. Divisive female characters. I love characters who aren’t traditionally likable–especially female characters because women have only recently been given those parts. Right now, I’m thankful for characters like Petra Solano, Cat Grant, and the returning Paris Geller for reminding people that women are complex individuals who need not smile.
  6. Samantha Bee, John Oliver, and Seth Meyers. Not to make this list all about politics, but these three were life savers this year, providing just the right blend of outrage, humor, and optimism during the election season. It was also great to see a woman break into the late-night boys’ club in such spectacular fashion, offering a long overdue female perspective on social issues.
  7. ‘Shipping. Yes, discussing ‘shipping on the internet can get nasty pretty quickly, but watching couples like Emma and Hook, Amy and Jake, and Jane and Michael (all of whom are particularly happy and adorable this season) brought me a lot of joy this year. When your love life gets you down, it’s nice to disappear into someone else’s for awhile.
  8. Once Upon a Time. This show’s brand of optimism is exactly what the world needs right now, and watching it is the perfect way to head into a new week. It’s also chock-full of wonderful female friendships and has some of the most believable and swoon worthy romantic relationships on television, despite the show’s fantasy elements.

What are you thankful for in the world of TV? Let me know in the comments, and have a great Thanksgiving!

Thank You, Kate

In light of today’s news about the show, my usual review didn’t seem appropriate. Instead, as our time with her draws to a close, I want to take a moment to celebrate the amazing Kate Beckett.

I’m going to avoid talking about the politics of the decision, because in the crazy world of Hollywood there’s really no way to know for sure how it happened, who was involved, and what their reasoning was, but I will say that if Stana Katic truly didn’t have a choice in the matter, then it’s a real bummer that an actress who clearly took her job and her character very seriously wasn’t given the chance to say goodbye to that character on her own terms. Katic took the words on the page to new heights with her fearless, badass, and, at times, heartbreaking performance. She made Beckett who she was, and I can’t imagine anyone else doing justice to such a wonderful character. She sold every one of Kate’s emotions without it ever feeling jarring, creating a nuanced character who was flawed and believable and achingly human. So, in addition to thanking Kate, I want to thank Katic for her hard work and unflagging commitment to the role.

That nuance that Katic, as well as the writers, brought to Kate Beckett is one of my very favorite things about her. Kate is strong. She’s vulnerable. She’s tenacious. She’s brave. She’s kind. Sometimes she’s all of those things in a single moment. She’ll take a murderer down without batting an eye, then laugh at her husband’s cheesiest joke. She worked tirelessly for years to get justice for her mother, despite the personal cost. She’s an excellent captain, mixing compassion and authority effortlessly. She survived countless near-death experiences because of her nerve and intelligence and brave reliance on friends and family. She let herself fall in love and choose happiness, even when her past screamed at her to never get close to anyone ever again. She proved to herself and to viewers that love isn’t a weakness or a weapon; it’s the purest strength imaginable. Broadly, she proved that women are multi-faceted, complex individuals, making her an excellent role model, especially for young women.

I know she’s been one for me. I binge-watched the first three seasons of Castle when I was in the middle of college, trying to figure out the whole adulthood thing (I’m still figuring it out, to be honest) and feeling more than a little self-conscious about doing so. But I swear, the minute I saw that fierce, leather-jacket-wearing detective with the wicked smile, fantastic at her job and oozing confidence, I somehow felt a little more confident myself. If this woman with an impossible past and a dangerous job still managed to be so self-assured, then why couldn’t I? Shortly after, I bought my first leather jacket and a pair of high heel boots, putting a little bit of Kate’s fire in my own life at a time when I really needed it.

Now, I’ve happily gotten to a point where I don’t need the jacket or the boots to feel confident; it’s just something I am now. However, I’ve grown rather attached to them, partly because they remind me of what Kate Beckett taught me about finding your best self and remaining steadfast in who that person is. So thank you, Kate. Thank you for being a role model and a positive influence, for being unapologetically imperfect, for kicking ass and letting yourself have fun along the way. No matter how you leave the show, I, and every Castle fan out there, have that to hang onto, “always.”

Giving Thanks for Awesome Television!

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I’ve got a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving: friends, family, health, happiness, etc. But, in addition to those things, TV plays a pretty big role in my life (and this is a TV blog), so I’d like to take a moment to celebrate all that I’m thankful for in the world of television this year.

  1. A wealth of new shows. This is the age of peak TV, and, while some believe there is simply too much of it out there, I’m of the mindset that you can never have too many options, even if it can seem overwhelming at times. This year, I started watching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, ArrowThe Flash, SupergirlBlindspot, Master of None, and probably others I’m forgetting about. I like each for different reasons, and all have only made my love of good television grow.
  2. Challenges for couples that will hopefully make them stronger. This has been a tough year for ‘shippers in a lot of ways: Captain Swan, Caskett, Danny & Mindy, Juliette & Avery, etc. have all been put through the wringer in the last few months. And, while I’ve had issues with some of their obstacles (especially Castle and Beckett’s), others have been written in a heartbreaking but beautiful and realistic way (like Emma and Hook’s) that have only increased my love for the couple. Also, in most cases, I’m confident that the challenges the couple is facing will only make their relationship stronger in the long run.
  3. Relatable, realistically awkward leading ladies. Truth time: Like a lot of people, I can be ridiculously awkward sometimes. So it’s been really, really nice to see more women like me on television lately: women who don’t always say the right thing and don’t always have it together. Amy Santiago, Jane Villanueva, Felicity Smoak, and Kara Danvers are all great alternatives to the many stereotypical “cool” girls on television. These ladies are  cool too, but in their own badass, original way.
  4. Large ensemble casts that allow for endless character combos. One of my favorite things about shows such as Once Upon a Time, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Grey’s Anatomy is that, with such huge casts, there’s an infinite number of ways to create new dynamics amongst characters. Some of my favorite recent storylines on those shows have come from grouping characters in ways I never considered, such as Mulan, Ruby, and Merida working together to save Merida’s kingdom, May and Hunter teaming up to infiltrate Hydra, and Richard acting as Arizona’s wingman. It’s also a great way to add life to aging shows; if the characters are still interested in creating new friendships and alliances, then I’m interested in watching them do it.
  5. Hot men with babies. For whatever reason, this has been the year for men and babies together on television, and I’m totally on board with it. The OriginalsJane the VirginThe Mindy Project, and Nashville have all had angsty moments this season, but they’re a little bit easier to swallow when you see a guy like Elijah Mikaelson or Rafael Solano holding an adorable baby.
  6. Superhero shows. This time last year, the only superhero show I watched was Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Now I watch five (!): S.H.I.E.L.D.Agent Carter, ArrowThe Flash, and Supergirl.  This may seem a tiny bit excessive, but, though all originate from the world of comics, these shows go far beyond that, creating unique worlds and characters of their own, all while staying grounded in the genuine emotion that makes a great TV show. They also each bring something different to the table, whether it’s grit and friendship (Arrow), a sleek spy world (S.H.I.E.L.D.), heart and humor (Flash), a film noir escape (Agent Carter), or a superhero for the every woman (Supergirl).
  7. Shows constantly redefining what they are. When Nina Dobrev and Patrick Dempsey left their shows last year, I’ll admit that I was a little nervous about the future of TVD and Grey’s. So, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the creative resurgence in both of those this year. The flash forwards on Diaries and the taut, emotional scenes with Stefan and Damon, amongst other things, have made me more excited for each new episode than I’ve been in a long time. And, while I don’t think this is going to go down as my favorite season of Grey’s, I respect the way the writers are filling the void left by Derek, and the new sister scenes with Meredith, Maggie, and Amelia have struck a comedic and emotional chord reminiscent of the show’s glory days.
  8. Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Quite simply, for being my happy place. Each week, I tune into that show knowing I’ll be with characters just trying to do what’s best for one another and having a hilariously fun time doing it. Plus, with Jake and Amy together romantic-stylez, the show has never been sweeter or more romantic.

What are you thankful for this TV season? Let me know in the comments, and have a wonderful Turkey Day!