The Confident Optimism of Once Upon a Time

once

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.

Advertisements

2017 in Review: TV That Made Me Happy

Related image

I don’t think anyone will call 2017 the greatest year on record. Because of that, I found myself drawn to good, escapist TV even more than usual this year, seeking shows and stories that would make me happy above all else. With the generally horrific state of our country, TV was both a refuge and frankly, a reason to get up in the morning, making me especially grateful for its existence. Here are are some TV things that made me happy this year:

The idealism of Madam Secretary

There’s a lot I love about Madam Secretary: it’s feminist, it lets its characters be happy, and it features what’s currently my favorite marriage on television. And, impressively, it’s politically relevant while still feeling escapist. M Sec takes place a few years in the future, which allows it to comment on current happenings—fake news, for instance—but with a happier outcome. The promise of what could be gave me some much, much-needed fuel this year.

Supergirl‘s Lena Luthor

I think everyone has a handful of fictional characters they just flat-out love, even if they can’t quite explain why. This year, Lena became one of mine. It’s not that I relate to her necessarily; she’s got a tragic backstory, her best friend is Supergirl, and someone tries to kill her at least once a week. It’s more that she’s such a fully realized character—thanks in no small part to Katie McGrath’s performance—that I can’t help but both root for and admire her. Plus, she’s just a fun character to watch: fierce, funny, self-deprecating, and insanely good at her job.

Heartfelt comedy

The same way I like my TV escapist, I like my comedy heartfelt, and that was especially true this year. I certainly enjoy the occasional piece of cynical comedy, but Parks and Rec isn’t my favorite show of all time for nothing. Luckily, 2017 offered a whole host of shows that would make Leslie and Co. proud: the wonderfully specific Speechless, the consistently warm  Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and the already sweetly hopeful The Mayor.

The fierce females of Legends of Tomorrow

I love the term “badass lady,” but its meaning is often reduced to “literally kicks a lot of ass.” The ladies of Legends, Sara, Amaya, and Zari, do that—and man is it fun to watch—but they’re also leaders and strategists, as well as empathetic and caring people. There are various types of badass-ness, and I took just as much pleasure in watching Sara captain the Waverider as I did her honest conversation with Alex Danvers about lost loves.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I maintain that AOS is one of the best shows no one’s watching—not even one of the best superhero shows, just one of the best shows. Last season’s third “pod” of episodes, which found Team S.H.I.E.L.D. trapped in a computer simulation, was one of the tensest, most heart-wrenching series of episodes from any of my shows last year. What’s more, this season’s first few episodes have somehow kicked it up a notch, with a truly great premiere episode reveal that left the gang in a terrifying dystopia on…well, I won’t spoil it.

A genuinely lighter Grey’s Anatomy 

I’ll admit I was very skeptical when the creatives at Grey’s promised this season would hearken back to the show’s slightly less angsty, significantly more fun glory days, but I’ve never been happier to be proven wrong. This fall, the show wrapped up relationship drama that had long grown stale, hit character beats I’ve been waiting forever for, and delivered a beautifully nostalgic 300th episode that reminded me exactly why this show is still on the air.

Late night comedy

I don’t know that this made me happy, per say, but it did make me feel understood and because of that was even more essential to my sanity this year than last. This was a mind-numbingly sad year in a lot of ways, but watching the likes of Meyers, Colbert, Bee, Oliver, and even Kimmel shake their heads in disbelief reminded me that this isn’t normal, and we can’t let it become so. Gallows humor also played a big role in 2017; sometimes you have to laugh for a second before you can pick yourself up and do something.

A creative resurgence for The Flash

Like with Grey’s, my hopes weren’t high that The Flash would actually be able to rediscover the fun of its excellent first season, but this season has struck the perfect balance of hilarious and high stakes. As their first non-speedster villain, The Thinker has proven to be an original and formidable opponent for Team Flash, and the show’s epic fall finale cliffhanger has me counting down the days ’til its return.

Shows that take risks

My two favorite shows on the air right now are Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The Good Place, two shows that couldn’t be further from one other in regards to plot, setting, tone, etc. However, they both have one thing in common: they surprise me at every turn. I don’t want to spoil for those who haven’t watched, but The Good Place has redefined itself countless times in its first two seasons, supremely confident that its viewers could make the leaps required. Meanwhile, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend offers smart, funny, genre-defying storytelling week after week while also meditating on mental illness and the female experience. As a student of TV, watching these shows take risks no one else is taking has been an unmitigated delight.

A bloodless May

Every TV fan has a love/hate relationship with the month of May: sweeps are awesome, but May brings with it the possible renewals and dreaded cancellations of your favorite shows. However, this May, for the first time ever, every single one of my shows got renewed. I’m unfortunately drawn to shows consistently on the bubble, so I’m not expecting it to happen again anytime soon, but it certainly made me happy this year.

A truly great Once Upon a Time “requel”

With more than half of its cast leaving last season, I went into this seventh season of OUAT completely expecting to be disappointed. Imagine my surprise when I actually loved the first half of this season. I genuinely like the new characters, the storytelling has been familiar but refreshing, and, most impressively, the writers found a way to keep Emma and Killian happy despite Jennifer Morrison’s departure. Plus, though not part of this season’s “requel,” last season’s wedding/musical extravaganza and truly lovely finale managed to hit all the right notes, giving my favorite past characters the perfect sendoff.

GLOW

The first ten episodes of this show were pure joy: fizzy, feminist, and funny, it offered nuanced portrayals of a whole host of female characters, all badasses in their own way. Each episode flew by, a crackerjack of a story that fed into a smartly plotted and wholly entertaining first season. This was one of the most confident introductions to a show in recent memory, and binging it was one of my favorite TV experiences of all time, not just in 2017.

Your turn! What TV things made you happy this year? Hit the comments, and let me know!

Once Upon a Time Review: “The Garden of Forking Paths”

Image result for once upon a time the garden of forking paths

This third episode of season seven was the most quintessentially Once of the three we’ve seen so far, switching easily between past adventures in the forest and present-day ones in Hyperion Heights. The first two episodes did that as well, but here the stories in both places had the similar thread of Cinderella/Jacinda learning something and Regina/Roni helping her get there. This sort of mirroring was done a lot in the first season especially, and it felt pleasantly familiar here, much like the references to the past in the first two episodes did.

The interactions between Cinderella and Regina worked the best for me. Regina quickly adopted a sort of mothering presence with her, which was both sweet and logical considering Cinderella will one day become Henry’s true love. However, I also got the sense that Regina saw Cinderella as an equal, an independent woman she instantly respected, regardless of the choice she made in this episode.

Their conversations also had the most direct connection to the past, with Regina telling Cinderella that she needs to forgive herself first and that “Believe me, I’ve done a lot worse.” Regina has always made a habit of reminding people of her past deeds whenever possible, almost as if in penance for what she put her family and friends through. It’s a pretty defining part of her character at this point, so it was nice to see that in play here. TV is my favorite storytelling medium largely because of how easily it allows for character development, so it’s extremely satisfying to see Regina go from the Evil Queen terrorizing everyone to a key part of another kingdom’s resistance.

The Henry/Lucy scenes also worked well and did a lot to further establish that relationship. It’s tough because there can only be so many scenes of Lucy begging Henry to believe before it becomes exactly what Emma and Henry’s relationship was in the first season, but I think they’ve done a decent job of differentiating it so far. Even though, as Lucy said, their storyline here was very similar to Henry looking in the mines, I appreciated that they acknowledged that similarity. Plus, it makes total sense that Lucy would use Henry’s book as research of sorts.

Three episodes in, certain new characters are starting to pop for me, like Cinderella and Tiana, while others, like Victoria, aren’t. Until that last scene, Victoria felt like a dime a dozen villain to me, both in the forest and in Hyperion Heights. The mystery prisoner, however, feels like she could be a very interesting villain, or at least play a role in making Victoria a more interesting villain herself. I’m also glad we found out exactly what Lady Tremaine/Victoria’s motivation is. It’s pretty dark for this show but enjoyably so, and I’m sure that information will help make her a more specific villain as well.

A couple of other thoughts on “The Garden of Forking Paths”:

It was a very small moment, but there seemed to be a hint of something between Hook and Tiana. It wasn’t a big enough thing for me to properly gauge how I’d feel about it, but there’s no doubt that seeing Hook with another person might be a little strange, especially at the beginning. Even though he’s not our Killian, it’s been several seasons since we’ve seen him with anyone but Emma Swan.

The Weaver/Rogers storyline fell really flat for me this episode; I just don’t find their dynamic all that compelling yet. They seemed to tread pretty much the same ground they did in the last episode, with Weaver establishing that he also wants to take Victoria down, albeit in a less moral way than Rogers does. I’m assuming I’ll be more interested in Weaver once we find out in next week’s episode exactly what led Rumple there.

What did you think of “The Garden of Forking Paths”? Let me know in the comments!

Once Upon a Time Review: Emma Returns in “A Pirate’s Life”

Related image

I went into this episode expecting to feel disappointed once it was over, knowing that it was our last one with Emma, at least for the time being. While I had a few issues with this one, I actually feel more optimistic about this season now.  It gave me a better idea of what a standard episode will look like and also alleviated any concerns I had about Killian and Emma’s long-term happiness.

For me, the biggest problem with this episode was the amount it expected the audience to suspend their disbelief. That’s par for the course with this show, considering the fantasy elements and their habit of breaking previously established rules. However, they’re usually very good at keeping it real on a character level; the more unbelievable aspects of the show work because the characters and relationships feel so grounded.

Here, I didn’t totally buy everyone’s actions, from Emma suggesting that Henry and Wish Realm Hook team up to Regina choosing to stay behind. It’s not that they weren’t believable decisions, just that they happened very quickly. I felt similarly about Hook’s turnaround from leaving Killian for dead to feeling terrible about what he did. It was nice but very fast, which is another reason I was surprised that Emma wanted Henry to stick with him.

This episode also really made you cling to the idea of time moving differently in other realms because there’s no way that Emma and Regina would have let Henry grow up without seeing him once. I would have liked a little more clarity on how long it’s been since Emma and Killian’s wedding, or at least on how long it feels like it’s been for them.

Despite the speed of it, though, I don’t hate this new status quo. You have to give the writers props, really. It’s extremely rare for a show to continue past its natural endpoint without torpedoing the characters and relationships that the audience loves (cough, Castle, cough). Emma and Killian fans (including myself) can’t complain because they’re not only happy and together in Storybrooke, but expecting a baby to boot.

As a Regina fan, I’m pleasantly surprised that we’ll presumably get to see her in the forest flashback scenes, instead of just as Roni. She and Henry were really the only two characters who left last year’s finale not wholly satisfied, so it doesn’t feel like they’re blowing anything up by continuing their stories. Plus, there’s something kind of poetic about starting the next chapter of the show with Henry and Regina the only original characters playing themselves, similar to the way it was in the pilot.

This episode also lent some clarity to Rebecca Mader’s return; Zelena is another character who definitely has more story to tell. I also buy it because Regina’s her only family aside from Robin, and it makes total sense that she’d stick with her. I’m assuming there will be words about Regina up and leaving Storybrooke without telling her, though. I’ll also be curious to see how Rumple got mixed up in Hyperion Heights, but I’m assuming we’ll find out when Belle returns in a couple episodes.

Other thoughts on “A Pirate’s Life”:

We have to talk about Robert Carlyle in head to toe denim, too good!

Female friendship has always been a big part of this show, so I’m enjoying Sabine and Jacinda’s relationship a lot. Looks like we’ll get a taste of Cinderella and Tiana’s next week as well.

I can’t complain about how Emma and Hook’s story ended—let me say for a minute how absolutely lovely it is that two people who have been through so much wound up where they did—but I wish there had been slightly more Emma in this. Probably knowing it was her last episode made me greedy, but I would have loved to see her in a couple more scenes.

Why did Henry keep referring to Emma as “Emma”? She and Regina were always adorably just “mom” and “mom,” and Regina obviously would have known who he was talking about if he’d said “mom.”

I feel like Jennifer Morrison and Lana Parrilla got a taste of what Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas had to do with the “acting like a parent to someone your age” thing. Wonder if they called for tips…

What did you think of “A Pirate’s Life” and the Henry/Regina/Faux Hook teamup? Let me know in comments!

Once Upon a Time Kicks Off Season 7 in “Hyperion Heights”

 

Image result for hyperion heights

Once Upon a Time kicked off season seven with what was dubbed a “requel,” or combination reboot and sequel, of the show we know and love. For me, “Hyperion Heights” felt more like a spinoff: new location, new characters, but with the same tone and themes I’ve come to expect from Once. As a premiere episode, it wasn’t great. It felt pretty overstuffed due to all the new characters, making me wonder why people like Ivy and Sabine, neither of whom played a huge role in this episode, weren’t introduced in the second or third hour instead. That being said, if we’re looking at this as a more of a backdoor spinoff pilot, I get it. Pilots are always setup heavyit’s just how you establish thingsand this show has always required more setup than most.

One good thing about this premiere was that it didn’t make me miss the original incarnation of the show as much as I thought it would. It probably helped that Roni, Rogers, and especially Weaver were more side characters than anything else. This is firmly Henry, Jacinda, and Lucy’s story, to the point where I wonder if it would have been better to completely leave the original characters behind and let this stand on its own. As excited as I am to see Emma next week, for example, that episode probably will make me miss the original version of the show, as will any episodes where old favorites return, or the current cast plays themselves instead of their Hyperion Heights alter egos.

As I said, the tone and themes of this were textbook Once but in a way that felt reassuring instead of repetitive. Henry and Cinderella’s time in the forest, especially, was reminiscent of a lot of things we’ve seen before. Their first meeting wasn’t unlike Snow and Charming’s, the addition of the motorcycle making it a romance for modern times. Plus, how great was it when Henry looked on ruefully as Cinderella stole his bike? The product of two take-charge women—plus Grandma Snow—he can’t have been all that surprised.

In the present-day, Cinderella’s alter ego, Jacinda, bore no small resemblance to Emma Swan, from standing up for herself when her manager treated her like crap to swallowing her pride and apologizing to the same manager, all so she could take care of her kid. Fierce moms are such a hallmark of this show, and it’s another aspect I’m very, very glad made the jump to this season. Though, I do feel like more needed to be done to explain why Victoria is able to take Lucy whenever she wants. She may be powerful, but there are obviously judges and lawyers and all sorts of people who need to be involved in custody issues.

Even with the familiar themes, the most familiar aspect of the premiere was the returning characters: Regina, Hook, and Rumple, here playing completely new versions of themselves. Of the three, Regina’s Roni got the most screentime, and, unsurprisingly, it was a ton of fun to see Lana Parrilla immerse herself in yet another version of this character, though we’ve never seen Regina quite this casually cool. In some ways, Roni is Hyperion Height’s version of Emma Swanor at least seems like she may become that—, and I love the idea of Regina going from the villain of one town to the savior of another. 

One of Roni’s big moments was meeting Henry, though I would have liked that scene to have a bit more warmth. They legitimately felt like strangers, which I guess was the point, but, beyond the winking “Imagine if I walked in here and told you I was your son?”, there wasn’t any indication that either of them felt a connection. A moment similar to Rogers looking at Emma and instantly knowing she was important to him would have been nice.

Killian’s alter ego didn’t make quite the impact that Regina’s did, but I like that Rogers is not only a cop like Emma but also a real “boy scout,” a fun flip on his pirate identity. As mentioned, the look he gave Emma’s picture was nice and also a good way to tee up Jennifer Morrison’s return next week. I also like the idea of Weaver and Hook as partners, particularly because both Rumple and Hook would hate it so much. Weaver was only in a couple of scenes, but he certainly seems like a morally complicated dude, which jives with the Rumple we know.

Other thoughts on “Hyperion Heights”:

At Comic-Con this year, they released the opening scene where teenage Henry says goodbye to Regina, and there was originally a line about Emma and the Charmings knowing that there was no changing Henry’s mind, but it seems to have been cut from the broadcast version. The scene still felt unrealistic without that line—Emma would obviously have been there to say goodbye, even if she approved—but I think cutting it was a mistake.

While explaining the curse to Henry, Lucy started to mention that some of their family was in Hyperion Heights but got cut off before she could say where everyone else was. I’m assuming that’s how they’ll explain the missing members of the cast, saying they remain trapped in Storybrooke or the Enchanted Forest.

I loved Alice’s frustration about also being from other places, and it was very in-character of Rumple to use someone else for his dirty work.

Good to see that Killian’s sword fighting lessons paid off for Henry, and he channeled Emma in the best way possible when he told Lucy that Cinderella needed to save herself.

I’ve written some version of that “Poetic opening line goes here” placeholder in pretty much everything I’ve ever written and can guarantee most writers have done the same. Henry finally writing that first line—”Once upon a time,” naturally—was very reminiscent of the end of the original pilot.

What did you think of Once Upon a Time’s “requel”? Let me know in the comments!