I fell in love with Once Upon A Time when Rumplestiltskin blew up a fairy. I resisted for literally years because I figured it was a cheese-ball, cheap costume drama. Netflix kept telling me I would like it, but I didn’t reach for Once until I had run out of every other adult-seeming option on Netflix in the course of a serious couch-bound injury. I wish I’d listened to the wise Netflix-bot MUCH sooner.
It was one very sunny summer evening when I was lonely, miserable and figuring things just couldn’t get any worse by my trying this probably campy and lame series. I could always turn it off, after all. And there she was. The Evil Queen told Snow White and Prince Charming she was coming for their happiness. Yes, I smiled when I met Emma and she bagged her baddy, but it was Regina who kept me in my chair. I’ve seen a million procedurals and I might have sat through another, but this was different.
This was my childhood love of magic wrapped up in a sparkling package of adult snark.
This is what I had been missing, looking for, for so many years. Urban fantasy is the ultimate genre allowing goofy, smart play with the supernatural and the grit of our gnarly world. After that tragic attempt to bring the Dresden Files into live action, I figured Buffy would be the last of the Mohicans considering the unending sea of procedurals and sitcoms clogging the airways since Buffy went the way of the dinosaur.
Sure there were a few attempts, and I tried many of them, but here’s the secret: if the world is too dark and the characters too miserable, unlikeable/reprehensibly awful or just plain recycled, I have no reason to come back. My TV land destination vacations need to be places I actually want to go. Sometimes a place I want to go really means people I care about, no matter how bleak the landscape/spacescape (Battlestar Galactica: 2003, Breaking Bad), as much as it means visiting a world that is interesting, if a little (a lot?) broken. In short, I need a reason to come back and Once gave me that and then some.
Getting back to Rumplestiltskin, when he blew up that fairy I knew I was home. I sat up and thought, “Who is that, he’s marvelous!” Only after looking him up did I recognize him from Trainspotting and Angela’s Ashes. Once Upon A Time attracted serious talent in Robert Carlyle and he is not alone. If I fell in love with Once for Rumple, it was Lana Parrilla‘s Regina who hooked my attention initially and, along with -obviously- Carlyle, has kept it since.
Here is why Once Upon A Time deserves your attention. You should go catch up on Netflix this weekend because:
10. Once is FUN
If fulminating fairies weren’t enough to convince you of this show’s sarcastic sense of humor, wait until you meet the dwarves. Replete with witty dialogue, Rumplestiltskin and Regina’s one-liners will alternately have you chortling or cringing. Once has a ongoing subtext of gags and self-aware jesting. Though Once is not a dramedy, you won’t lack for laughs.
9. Once is imaginative
When you have finished brushing up on the classic fairytale canon, Once will inspire you to do just that, you’ll be treated to a lush forest of alternate explanations and motivations for your favorite characters. What you think you know will lead you right into the writers’ hands providing the set up for the most rare and marvelous of treasures: the genuine surprise.
8: Once has more in common with a book than typical TV
Events really have consequences, far reaching and life altering consequences for the denizens of the Once universe. Unlike so many TV shows, both past and present, there are very few stand alone episodes in which the characters wrap up a problem with a neat bow by the end of the episode but in which little actually changes. Enjoy Once like you would a really great book. Watch in order and expect the beginning episode (chapter), and all the intervening ones, to be relevant to the later ones. Once demonstrates real character growth and evolution. It illustrates proof of change.
7. Once rewards cultural literacy and exploration
Once draws on a vast reservoir of tales extending back hundreds of years. The fairytales you read to your kids? They feed your experiences with Once. That humanities/literature class you accidentally took in high school? Useful all of a sudden as you start forming theories about Once and guessing ahead. New neural connections are forming in your brain, you are getting smarter, emotionally and cognitively (forgive me, I couldn’t help but point that out). See if you don’t look up that half remembered tale from long ago and have an “Ah ha!” moment. Google is waiting for you.
6. Once provides positive role models
Finally! Characters that are written as if the writers actually know real people in their lives!! The “evil” characters have human, relatable motivations. Wait. I thought this was about positive role models. It is! In addition to providing realistically written women and men, a central theme of Once is the question “How do we treat those around us who are troubled?” Do we forgive them, help them? Or do we shun, ignore and drive them away? To go even further, Once takes on sexism head on in the smartest way I have yet seen on TV: writing unapologetically tough and smart female leaders. I know Reginas and Emmas in my real life- don’t ask me which of them I take after the most. These are not the token, reluctant, unselfaware and selectively strong female characters of TV past. No, their struggles are like the struggles of people I know, like my struggles. They make mistakes, they have knockdown drag outs and they have the range of human emotions. They are not hyper-feminized. Once women are a breath of fresh air.
But let’s not forget the men, while we’re talking about the damaging effects of exaggerated gendering. Once has a range of male characters not limited to the narrow range of hyper-masculine emotions. Everybody cries, not just the women. Everybody throws punches, not just the men. Everyone has moments of strength and toughness just as they all have moments to deal with their bad decisions, fears and desperations. It is almost as if Once is writing roles for humans instead of WOMEN and MEN with a no man’s land in between the two. Thank you Once for giving a new generation permission to be Regina with her fireballs and/or the tender parent we see in many of the men.
5. Once has adult depth while remaining accessible to families
Once reminds me of Star Trek with this quality. You can sit down with your ten-year-old to watch Once. You won’t be bored by kid-glove superficiality and your child won’t be exposed to graphic adult themes like they would with say, Game of Thrones (this is not a criticism of GOT). Tired themes of sex and violent crime have been given a rest and you and your child can have meaningful discussions about what makes a character good or bad and why they should have sympathy for Mr. Gold. You can chat with your friends about the dangers of righteousness and whether the Blue Fairy is actually a positive force in the universe, or not. Who deserves a second chance? Who doesn’t?
4. Because Robert Carlyle
Speaking of Mr. Gold… if seeing the height of the craft, what depths acting can truly reach, matters to you, Robert Carlyle is a reason to watch Once. Dare I say, he routinely gives arthouse performances not commonly seen (though the renaissance of TV writing is attracting more and more talent these days, as it should) in main stream television. Carlyle is special, you’ll see. Though he plays a dark character, he is the light of this show. His Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold is a television treasure the likes of which I have not previously scene. It is easy to imagine what the run of the mill bad guy, we’ve seen enough examples elsewhere, would have been like in this role. Probably interesting, but we’ve been there done that. But Carlyle’s Rumple demonstrates a voluminous imagination and deep understanding of human nature, specifically the human nature of marginalized people. Falling for the romantic hero is easy and obvious, but when you find yourself falling for the bad guy because you can see his worth, his shiny special personness? That experience might make you question how you conduct yourself toward such people in the future. Carlyle’s scholarship on the subject of “difficult” people brings Rumple/Gold’s humanity to the forefront and makes it impossible to ignore.
3. Once is beautifully written
The world of Once is a huge place. The richness of detail this show provides is mind boggling, in the best way. The writers of Once are weaving a tapestry for us with every thread a unique and vibrant hue. If you’ve ever tried to write a story beyond ten thousand words or so, you know that keeping track of everything is crucial. Strangely, and yet not, the audience keeps track of everything as expertly as they do the intricacies of their own lives. Why? Because we care. Because the writers made us care.
A few general things are abundantly clear. The writers very purposefully and methodically explore their thematic material and bring us along for the ride. This complex system of people and motivations is still moving forward five years later, an accomplishment by any standard. The show as a whole remains accessible. Like any great book series, call backs and references allow the audience to keep the past straight and relevant to the current moment. This is a great piece of writing.
That said, nothing is perfect so when you find one of those moments, just ignore it. You’ll be rewarded for it.
2. Once is culturally attuned
In this age of growing technological separation between people, this show focuses on family and the connections between people. Our communities. The motivation of most characters, heroes or not, is establishing or repairing connection to another, be that someone they lost or someone they hope to gain. For most, their Happy Ending involves integration with others. The most painful moments the writers show us are those of isolation and exclusion reminding us exquisitely that the people in our lives are the what is most important. There is no scene in Granny’s where everyone is ignoring each other with their heads down in their cell phones.
- Once is about hope
The single most important reason to watch Once Upon A Time is because this show is about hope. This piggybacks on the topic of cultural immediacy. So much of TV is dystopian, graphically violent and spends time glorifying drugs, crime and treating other people badly. (I liked Breaking Bad too, I’m not judging.) This is not Once. Not to say that Once is all unicorns and rainbows, it certainly isn’t, but it’s focus is not on the next novel way it can shock you with something really awful.
Once sets its sights instead on the pursuit of the ever illusive Happy Ending. It explores the idea that happiness is possible for everyone and shows us effective ways to find happiness just as it illustrates catastrophic, train-wreck mishaps on the way to finding happiness. The fairytale platform allows us breathing room between the thematic material and our own lives. Difficult subject matter can be made easier to digest with an indirect approach. Distance lets themes percolate in the background until the audience is ready to either except or reject them.
Once is special, stands out from the crowd of mainstream TV because it has the audacity to hope (forgive me), something everyone can relate to. Watch Once because it’s delightful, funny and great entertainment, even when it makes you cry. Most importantly, go catch up on Once on Netflix because it is a shining source of positivity in the world and the more of that, the better.
Are you already a Once Fan? Come check out my Once projects: