I made the fateful/wonderful/terrible/inevitable decision to get Netflix recently. I love TV shows, and I didn’t want to deal with commercials any longer. Plus, I like having the ability to watch an entire season without having to wait a week for the next episode. Part of the reason I signed up for Netflix was also my decision to finally watch Once Upon A Time.
I remember when OUAT first aired. Everyone was obsessed with it. All my friends watched it and constantly told me to watch it. They assured me that I would love it, that it was right up my alley. And, I’ll admit, I do love fairytales. I was hesitant, though, because something when you love something a lot, you hate to see it done badly or simply done a way you don’t like or wouldn’t have done yourself. So I avoided OUAT for a couple seasons, but I kept seeing things on Tumblr and Pinterest and eventually those teasers were enough to make me cave. Now I have to admit that all my friends were right. I do love OUAT. I’m hooked.
OUAT tells the story of fairytale characters—from Snow White to Jiminy Cricket to Little Red Riding Hood—who used to live in the magical realm called the Enchanted Forest. However, the evil queen Regina cast a curse, transporting all of them to the modern world of Storybrooke, Maine, where she is mayor and none of the characters remember who they are. The only chance for the curse to be broken and for the characters to remember who they are is 28-year-old Emma Swan. Emma has not had an easy life, growing up an orphan in the foster care system. But when a little boy named Henry shows up at her door on her birthday, claiming to be the son she gave up for adoption ten years ago, Emma find herself in Storybrooke. Henry tells her that she must break the curse.
Each ensuing episode follows Emma’s difficult task of breaking the test, or rather Henry’s difficult task of convincing her that the fairytales are real. Meanwhile, the evil queen/Mayor Regina Mill/Henry’s adoptive mother tries to thwart Emma to keep the curse in place and keep Henry’s affection for herself. Regina is also busy trying to make the fairytale characters’ lives miserable. But while this is all happening in the real world, each episode also flashes back to their lives in the Enchanted Forest. This is where I think the show’s strongest hook is.
The fairytale narrative is told backwards. The opening scene of the pilot is how it ends—the wedding of Prince Charming and Snow White, Regina enacting the curse. The viewer gets to see how every character ended up in the fairy tale world. Then, each time there is a flashback to life in the Enchanted Forest, it’s all about how the characters ended up the way that they are. We know that Snow White and Prince Charming ended up together. Slowly, the show reveals how that happened. We know that Regina hates Snow White. Slowly, the show reveals how she came to feel that way. This narrative structure is powerful and addicting. It’s the thing I love most about the show. It’s fascinating to unravel a character’s story backwards, to work towards their beginning when you already know the end. I would love to write/read/see another story with this narrative structure.
I also love the interpretations of the fairytales. The writers stay true to the essence of the fairytales while giving them new twists and interpretations that appeal to a modern audience. I’m also amazed at how the writers link all the fairy tales together. OUAT is the most intricate story web I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how they juggle so many characters and storylines, but they do it in marvelous fashion. Everytime you get an answer to one mystery, they introduce two more mysteries. This show is like a storyteller’s drug. You have to keep coming back for more.
If fairytales are your thing, you’ll love OUAT, but I think that anyone interested in an unconventional narrative structure or anyone who likes large, complex stories will also love this show. I’m almost down with season 2 and I can’t wait to start season 3 (and get to the Frozen characters in season 4!!!). So excuse me while I go watch another episode or three or ten.