TV Show Review

Once Upon a Time

By Kersley Fitzgerald

Dev and I are sci fi/fantasy lovers to include fairy tale adaptations. We own The Tenth Kingdom and Red Riding Hood. JT and I even like Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. (Dev is so wounded by Helena Bonham Carter's Bellatrix Lestrange that he can barely stand to watch anything with her in it.) So when we saw previews for the new TV series Once Upon a Time, we were ready to go.

Once Upon a Time follows the adventures of once-bail bondsman Emma Swan in the town of Storybrooke, Maine. Brought to Storybrooke by Henry, the son she'd given up for adoption ten years before, she stays on as sheriff, in large part to protect Henry and his school teacher, Mary Margaret, from Henry adoptive mom and the town's mayor, Regina Mills. Although Emma quickly accepts Henry's assessment of his adoptive mother as cold, manipulative, and generally evil, she can't believe him when he explains that Mary Margaret is Snow White, the man in the hospital in a coma is Prince Charming, and the Mayor is the evil witch who cursed the entire town, sending them from fairyland to Maine, wiping their memories, and manipulating their relationships to suit her purposes. Not to mention that Emma is Snow and Charming's daughter and the only person who can break the curse.

The biggest damage is to Snow and Charming. Mary Margaret is single. The newly awakened David Nolan is presumably married to Catherine. But he loves Mary Margaret for some inexplicable reason, and she loves him. Drama ensues.

Eighty percent of the show is well done and extremely clever. Rumpelstiltskin (one of the only other people who remembers what happened) owns the town. Jiminy Cricket is a psychologist. Regina's devoted genie is the Mayor's devoted newspaperman. The fairies are all nuns. And Little Red Riding Hood is not all she appears. Shows cut between a chronological telling of the drama in Storybrooke with random, explanatory cut-aways to fairyland.

There are two big problems with Once Upon a Time, however. The first is the show's depiction of adoption. As a fairytale lover and writer, I understand the whole point of the Evil Queen adopting the protagonist's son and proceeding to be evil. Haters gotta hate, and it goes well with the story arch. But the driving force is just relentless. Adoptive mom is evil! Birth mom is good! Birth mom is here to save the day — to save the town from the evil adoptive mom! As an adoptive mom, I just find it depressing. The other expressions of adoption include the Mad Hatter's daughter, cared for by another family after the Queen tricked the Hatter into abandoning her, and Rumpelstiltskin's driving desire to protect his stepson with his new-found power, even if that power is evil. This is the reason we won't let JT watch it. The negativity is just too much.

The other issue is Mary Margaret and David in Maine. Yes, it's true that David and Catherine probably aren't really married. But they believe they are. This is of little consequence to Mary Margaret and David. Their feelings of "true love" for each other trump David's marriage, with little consideration for Catherine. Not the honorable Prince Charming or the pure-hearted Snow White of legend.

But there is no ambiguity of good and evil here. Mary Margaret is punished for her affair — and feels genuine remorse. The motivations of the bad characters (the Queen and Rumpelstiltskin) are explained without being excused. The most ambiguous major character is David/Charming. Having just come out of a coma (a reflection of the horrible wounds he received at the time of the curse), he has shadow-memories of his former life and is often ruled by them without understanding them. Other than that, the good people are good (and sympathetic) and the bad are bad (and not sympathetic).

There a few distinctly Christian parallels. In order to control her victims, the Queen takes their hearts and stores them in little boxes in a crypt. When a subject crosses her, she crushes the heart, killing the person. How like the enemy who wishes to take our hearts to the depths of death. Another striking metaphor is in Emma's reluctance to see the truth and understand where the real battle is. Our society is the same, often refusing to see the spiritual battle in front of us.

Is Once Upon a Time worth watching? That's a personal judgment call. The flashbacks to Fairyland are great. Rumpelstiltskin's struggle with evil is enlightening. Emma is inspiring in her integrity and doggedness, if frustrating in her lack of foresight. Some of our favorite characters are Red Riding Hood and the counselor/Jiminy Cricket. If not for the Mary Margaret/David/Catherine love triangle and the unrelenting negative messages about adoption, I'd recommend it more heartily. As it stands, it's up to you.

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Published 5-2-12