"Once Upon a Time" (which my colleague Laura Prudom has been recapping all season) has pulled off a very interesting trick in its debut season: It may be the most unusual and the most traditional show on TV.
It's extremely traditional, if not to say old-fashioned, in its storytelling, which riffs on fairy tales that are hundreds of years old. The ABC drama plays around with two different timelines -- a magical kingdom and a modern-day town in Maine -- but in every other way, it's the opposite of cutting-edge. Sentences are declarative, costumes (especially in the fairy-tale realm) tend toward primary colors, heroes (and heroines) have strong jaws and true love always wins.
If you're looking for a hidden dig in the paragraph above, there isn't one (OK, here's a little one: I can't stand the Blue Fairy's retina-searing costume). I'm not here to bury "Once's" intrinsic sweetness with a dose of snark, but it'd be silly not to acknowledge its earnestness, which is what makes it so very different from almost everything else on TV.
Those of us who watch a lot of television dramas -- everything from the soapy "Revenge" to darker fare like "Game of Thrones" and "Mad Men" -- are used to suspicion and hidden motives: Characters don't trust each other, we suspect the people on screen of subterfuge and ruses, and at times, we wonder if the shows themselves are pulling the wool over our eyes. Emotions are there, sure, but irony and distance are the currencies of many, if not most, dramas.
Trying to find a hint of cynicism in "Once Upon a Time" is a fool's errand, but I applaud the show for wearing its heart on its crushed-velvet sleeve. There aren't a lot of shows that are as nakedly romantic as "Once" (or in which fewer characters actually get naked). I just hope that, now that the ABC program has hooked a sizable audience, the show's creators, "Lost" veterans Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, trust the audience to follow them to darker places.
I'm certainly not expecting "Once" to become "Lost," a series that was wildly romantic, but which also explored the dark side of obsession and devotion. Despite "Once's" twinned timelines and the dual versions of characters in the fairy-tale drama, its well-scrubbed air of innocence made it very different from the island drama from the outset. And despite being pleased with the course corrections on display as the show wrapped up its final season, a sense of cognitive dissonance sometimes lingered in the air.
"Once" had some fun rewriting certain fairy tales; Ruby/Little Red Riding Hood as the lupine was a nice little twist on the Big Bad Wolf tale, and some of the show's other origin stories were mildly interesting as well (Rumpelstiltskin and Belle clicked nicely, thanks mainly to the unforced chemistry between Robert Carlyle and Emilie de Ravin). Where the show ran into trouble was with origin stories that failed to create compelling stakes or even a modicum of suspense. I'm probably a bad human being for disliking an incredibly earnest hour of television starring Amy Acker (playing a clumsy fairy, no less), but the episode titled "Dreamy" felt as though it was three hours long instead of one.
"Once" tends to have a stately pace at the best of times, and when it delves into the stories of bland supporting characters or tells them in overly deliberate, predictable ways, it becomes very slow indeed. The show could actually learn a thing or two from another ABC drama, "Revenge": When you're spinning out a melodrama (or near-melodrama) in which many of the characters are more or less types, you'd better have an energetic plot to keep things moving or the whole enterprise tends to congeal.
The show's pacing generally improved as the season went on, and there were fewer slow patches in the last third or so of the season. But still, as is the case with many shows that feature ongoing narratives (not just "Lost"), the most mythologically based outings tended to be the best ones, and the end of the season was generally far better than the mushy middle. Within those denser and more energetic episodes, I developed a clear preference for stories involving Emma, Carlyle's Mr. Gold/Rumpelstiltskin and Eion Bailey's August/Pinnochio. In fact, the smartest thing the show could do is pair up August and Emma in the show's second season.
The chemistry between those two actors leapt off the screen, and, for me, overshadowed any of the stories involving Mary Margaret/Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and David/Prince charming (Josh Dallas). I know their "I will always find you!" moments were supposed to tug at my heartstrings, but the characters never really caught fire for me, individually or as a pair. Part of their dullness could probably be traced back to the couple's lack of on-screen chemistry, part of it could be the things Goodwin in particular was given to do. Mary Margaret as a moony schoolteacher tended to be a little passive for my tastes, but Snow as a badass leading an attack squadron of dwarves was a whole different deal.
As I said, it was good to see "Once" gain narrative steam as Season 1 drew to a close, and the show even managed to tone down the Evil Queen/Regina to the point that I could tolerate her (especially in the first half of the season, Lana Parrilla and her character displayed all the subtlety of a dinner-theater actress doing a third-rate impression of Joan Crawford). But the unevenness of Season 1's side excursions leads me to my main concern about the finale, despite the fact that "A Land Without Magic" was generally very strong.
"Once" wrapped up its season by having Emma (the very capable Jennifer Morrison) break the Evil Queen/Regina's curse on Storybrooke, Maine. But before the townsfolk could revel in the fact that they had regained their memories and lives, Mr. Gold unleashed another curse, the nature of which isn't quite clear yet. It's very tantalizing that Mr. Gold is at the center of Season 2's story, because, more than anyone else on the show, Carlyle has been able to delightfully thread the needle between the heightened tone of fairy-tale world and Storybrooke's more low-key vibe. Any ongoing tale that gives that versatile actor more to do is OK by me.
But here's my big question about Season 2: How many of the side trips we'll inevitably get before that curse is broken will be either useful or interesting? I understand that every show with a 22-episode order is going to have a few clunkers in the mix; that's par for the course. And as I said, I give "Once" credit for displaying a consistent tone as it tightened up its storytelling over the course of its first season.
But unless it's willing to give some of its key characters more depth, do consistently interesting things with supporting characters and go a little darker in Season 2, I fear we'll get too many weightless, ultimately pointless hours when the show returns. And if I'm being honest, if the kind of thrumming pace and heightened stakes we saw in episodes like "The Stranger" or the finale aren't on display most weeks, I'm guessing "Once" will start piling up on my DVR as one of those things I mean to (but don't) watch.
Emma had to learn to trust Henry over the course of the first season; her belief that the fairy-tale curse was real finally allowed her to fulfill the quest at the heart of her heroine's journey. (Sidebar: Kudos to "Fringe" and "Once" for putting ladies at the center of stories about saviors, who, in the stories we choose to tell ourselves, can be whoever we want them to be.) Now it'd be cool if the show demonstrated the same kind of faith in its audience.
I hope the show's writers trust that fans are willing to accept scenes like one of my favorites from the finale: Upon learning that Henry was near death, Emma dragged Regina into a supply closet and got into a tussle with her, and unleashed all the anger she felt about Regina's manipulations. It was a wonderful moment of release and catharsis, and the show needs more of that kind of thing.
Primal emotions, after all, are what lurk in the murky lower layers of fairy tales; there are tales of love and reunion, of course, but a lot of heroic quests begin in anger, revenge, loss or some kind of pain. "Once" clearly wants to be a show that families can watch together, but it doesn't need to stand, as it often does, at a gauzy remove from these kinds of strong feelings and conflicts. What is "Harry Potter" if not a story about loss and dislocation? Same goes for "Hunger Games" (which began life as a young-adult novel), and even in the more sprightly "Doctor Who," the lead character has his heart broken every year or two when the people closest to him leave him.
Whatever age or maturity level people are at, they generally respond to characters going through heavy stuff, because we all go through heavy stuff. I hope "Once" decides to go to those sorts of places more consistently, not just every so often. Emma's desire to leave Storybrooke and her anger at having to deal with her special destiny -- those kinds of things made her human and made me root for her (and of course, part of her appeal comes from the empathic qualities Morrison brought to the role, especially in "The Stranger"). I'm not expecting both versions of every character to have that kind of complexity, but it'd be great if more of them did -- and if more of them clashed in realistic, human ways, not the kind of theatrical ways the Evil Queen/Regina favored.
Given its network and time slot, I don't think "Once" will morph into a show that delves very deeply into the kind of murders, kidnappings, rage and grief that you find in any self-respecting fairy tale. But in Morrison, Bailey and Carlyle especially, the show has actors who can take emotionally charged moments and sell them like nobody's business.
There's a line between simple and simplistic, and there are times when "Once," in its earnest desire to leave no viewer behind, errs on the wrong side of it. But when it gets its own peculiar mixture of romance, sincerity, pain and hope right, it is pretty magical.
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan