3 Reasons Why “Once Upon a Time” is the Show I Love To Hate
I’ve been binge hate-watching “Once Upon a Time” since it came back on Netflix. The show makes me angry with practically every episode, but I can’t stop. I just watch more and yell at the TV.
You’d think I’d be the kind of viewer who would love this show. I LOVE fairy tales of all stripes, but particularly the original Grimm and Anderson tales. I can sing along with every word from 99% of all Disney movies (except “On the Range.” Nobody saw that one.) I even love retellings of fairy tales and classic stories–I watched ALL of “10th Kingdom” when it aired on TV, pushing my parents out of the way to make sure I saw that show every night. I did the same a few years later for “Tin Man.” No regrets.
On any given night, you might find me rewatching either a Disney/Pixar movie or the likes of “Ella Enchanted,” “Shrek,” “Enchanted” or “Ever After.” (So many enchantments!)
So it was with horror that I realized, in the first episode, that I hated “Once Upon a Time.” (I’m halfway through the third season as of this writing). But I know I’m going to watch the whole thing because I’m a sucker and I’m taking this train all the way to the end of the line.
What’s got me so mad? Here are the three reasons I hate “Once Upon a Time.”
1) It betrays the original concepts.
As I hope I’ve made clear, I LOVE re-imagined stories. They offer a new perspective on something we think we already know and love, and broaden our views of what “really” went on (one of my favorite books as a kid was “The Real Story of the Big Bad Wolf”!)
But the term “re-imagining” can only be loosely be applied to the characters in “Once…” It’s more like “creating a new character and giving them props people will recognize from the original.” It’s so disappointing. It doesn’t help that the ABC/Disney-created show wants to pull mainly from Disney stories, but also wants the darker edge of the originals. That means the source material is all over the place, creating a really awkward hodgepodge. A lot of the time, the backgrounds concocted for these characters are barely cogent. It’s actually getting a little better in the third season, but this mess makes it really difficult to keep track of any individual characters’ storyline. I feel like I’m constantly saying “wait, what happened? What’s going on?”
Beyond that, despite the many versions out there, there usually remains a kernel of the original story. There’s a universal tone, a charm found only in this kind of story. It’s usually uplifting, even if the main character has to die to find that purity (see: The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson) That tone feels like it’s completely missing in “Once…”
2) It tries to simultaneously make fairy tale worlds and the real world suck.
It’s a bad sign that I’m three seasons in and I still can’t figure out a) why any of the fairy tale folks wanted to leave their magical world or b) why the people of Storybrook would want to go back.
Let’s look at this carefully: There are two villains who apparently wanted to go to non-magic land. Though they both kept a way to use some of their magic, it was really limited. Furthermore, they both got massive demotions: Queen moves down to mayor (I guess it matters if it’s a strong mayor system or if there’s a city council…all the mayors I’ve known don’t really have that much power…) and super-magical Rumplestilskin becomes… a pawnbroker. Well that doesn’t make sense. I mean, I don’t watch “Pawn Stars,” but I get a sense that they aren’t among the 1%, if you know what I mean.
Plus, everything was going just dandily for about 28 years before the hero of the show popped up, so what were they doing for all that time that was SO MUCH BETTER than their lives as all-powerful magical folks would have been in magical-land?
Then I thought perhaps it was more about watching your enemies be humbled. Muhahahaa, the princess is reduced to… being a kindergarten teacher. And…she’s actually really kinda good at it? I mean, I guess she’s not with her magical prince or whatever, but that’s not a bad life, all things considered. She’s got a really cute apartment and stuff.
And then when Henry, ie. the most annoying and delusional kid ever, “discovers” that they’re all magical creatures and works to free them all… why would they want to go back? Now that they’re awake instead of regular-world zombies, they can get back with their beloveds! And now they can do what they want! They’ve sort of built nice lives for themselves in Storybrook. Would you want to go back to a place where someone is always trying to magically kill you? Plus now they get modern medicine, which is apparently more reliable than magical lakes.
If magical-land was as dramatic and messed up as the flashbacks make it out to be, why go back at all? Aside from kinda being trapped, Storybrook seems like a pretty nice place to live.*
*though I do wonder where their food and supplies come from. Do they get, like, a biweekly shipment from the outside world? Can I visit Storybrook? I’d like some of Grandma’s pie.
3) It has a twisted idea of family.
The other things are annoying, but this–this is the thing about “Once…” that really grinds my gears. It’s probably inevitable that a show based on Disney princesses would involve a lot of love stories, and I expected that. But that has morphed into this insane devotion to a very particular kind of “family,” to the sacrifice of literally everything else.
For example, in the first season, Henry claims his adoptive mother is the Evil Queen. That’s a pretty hurtful thing to say to someone, so I was waiting to see how that would be demonstrated. Regina was SO MEAN…she made him do his homework? And..baked him pies (using non-lethal apples). And… what exactly did she do to him that was so offensive and made her a bad mother?
Whereas Emma abandoned him as a baby (probably justifiably so, based on the allusions she makes to her past at the time) and yet she becomes the Heroic Mother very quickly. She, in comparison to Regina, doesn’t seem to care about things like school, doesn’t seem to know how to take care of herself, must less Henry, and, while perhaps a decent babysitter, isn’t really much of a mother. And she makes it very clear that she doesn’t really WANT to be his mother, repeatedly trying to drop him off at home! But the show forces her into the motherhood role, and before you know it, she’s acting crazy-protective of this kid she barely knows, storming up to Regina and saying things like “well, he’s MY son.”
Actually Emma, no, he’s not. You gave up custody a long while ago. Regina’s the mom here, you’re just some weird interloper.
Then we go to other familial relationships: Snow and Charming. It infuriates me that, with everything else going on, all Snow wants is a baby…and preferably a boy, because (of course!) they’re better. Sorry, Charming, you got stuck with a girl, oops! Wanting to protect her kingdom? Insufficient motivation. Wanting to save her beloved? Insufficient motivation. Revenge? Insufficient. She has to obsess over her kid.
This show is chock-full of examples like that. All the women (even Mulan! What a travesty!) are required to be motivated by a) wanting a man (if they aren’t yet married) and then b) taking care of their kid/having a kid.
A man, on the other hand, can enjoy kids, but really they are around to fight things. Philip sacrificing himself nonsensically and very quickly; Charming being incompetent at everything except swords; even Pinocchio as a kid went out of his way to fight things! It’s ridiculous.
And if you dare violate that standard? Something terrible is guaranteed to happen to you. For example, Rumple’ ‘s wife, who admittedly was a horrible wife and mother for a lot of reasons, didn’t deserve to be murdered. Regina dares to adopt a kid rather than having one of her own? Clearly she’s a bad mother and deserves to have her world ruined.
Rumple was denounced as a coward because he wouldn’t fight and would rather take care of his son; that breaks the rules, so his whole life is systematically dismantled.
I think “Once…” sends a horrible message, particularly to kids from non-nuclear families and kids who aren’t gender-conforming. Sure, girls, you can want to fight dragons, but only if you do it for your baby. Boys, grab your swords or be labeled a coward forever. It’s so disappointing, but the show seems to be popular.
Proponents of “Once…” speak up, tell me what you like about it. Please try to convince me I’m wrong, because I desperately want to like this show.