Sunday, May 21, 2017

The "Once Upon a Time" Legacy.

‘Tis the best of TV seasons, ‘tis the worst of TV seasons.  Some fairy tale TV shows are lost, some begin again.

Years ago, we experienced a little boom of TV shows inspired by fairy tales and other fantasy.  The stand-outs were ABC’s Once Upon a Time and NBC’s Grimm.  Though, of the two, it was Once Upon a Time that really pulled in the big numbers and drew in a great number of fans (known online as “Oncers”).  Now, with the end of the show’s sixth season, the show is headed for a restart of sorts as various actors from the show have chosen not to return for Season 7.  As for Grimm, the show has simply ended.

Now, I was not the biggest fan of Once Upon a Time.  I watched the show for a while but gave up midway through the third season.  However, our fairy tale blogging friend InkGypsy commented on how no one was commenting on Once Upon a Time’s “semi-finale” and the show’s influence on her one of her blogs.  Now, after having watched the finale and the musical episode that preceded it as well as having a nice Twitter chat with both InkGypsy and fairy tale scholar R.C. DoRosario, I’m going to screw my courage to the sticking place and actually talk about Once Upon a Time and speculate on the impact it will have on how people handle fairy tales.

Once Upon a Time was, and probably still is, a frustrating show for those who already know a good deal about fairy tales and literature.  For one thing, the show billed itself as being about fairy tales but it pretty soon revealed itself to be about Disney movies.  Or rather, Disney movies and a few other stories that were easily recognizable like “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood”.  And sometimes it wasn’t even that.  Sometimes it was just based on what people thought they remembered about famous movies based on famous characters.  For example, at one point they introduced the character of Victor Frankenstein (not a fairy tale, I know.  The show actually even admits to that).  But in the second episode that focuses on the character, they show that he has an assistant named Igor.  Igor the assistant isn’t even a character in the movie or the book.  The movie has an assistant named Fritz and some of the sequels have a criminal named Ygor who manipulates the monster but the combination of the name Igor and the position of assistant is the result of the mass human consciousness combining all that together.  It’s a strange example using a character that barely appears but it kind of sums up the show.  It wasn’t a show about fairy tales or literature.  It was a show about household name characters and what people thought they knew about them, and then throwing some sort of twist or monkey wrench into the works regarding them (I’ll get to the “twists” later).  This was especially troubling for those in the know when the showrunners would say things about how they felt they were running out of stories to work with (there are so many stories they haven't used!).

But let’s get beyond that stuff.  The grumpiness of fairy tale fans and fairy tale scholars.  It’s easy to see that stuff as nitpicking.  The truth is that the show was not without problems at the time I stopped watching it.  Actual, story types of problems.  I stopped watching Once Upon a Time right after they finished their “Wicked Witch of the West” arc and right before they brought in the characters from Disney’s Frozen.  It would be easy to say the Frozen characters were the last straw, seeing as I don’t like that movie.  But like I said, there were problems.  Up to that point, the show often felt like it was on a treadmill.  It was moving alright, but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  For example, the infamous Peter Pan arc was notorious for its meandering.  I’ve gone on record as saying I didn’t like OUaT’s take on Peter Pan, but it would have been a whole lot easier to take if that season didn’t focus so much on people wandering around Neverland.  That’s not all.  The show had one of the longest, most drawn-out versions of the “Snow White” story I’ve ever seen.  The minute a curse on Storybrooke was lifted, a new but still familiar curse immediately seemed to fall on it.  And the writers seemed to go out of their way to invent reasons for Regina to hate Emma Swan and Mary Margaret/Snow White.  Once Upon a Time engaged in the illusion of change without using quite enough illusion.  And it doesn’t seem to have stopped.  The beginning of the next season seems very familiar.  Don’t watch the video if you don’t want the end of the season finale spoiled.

But the truth is that this show will have an impact on how people view fairy tales and other stories.  And thinking back to some of my discussions with Oncers online, it’s likely going to be with the show’s twists on the stories.  I’m not going to lie, this one might be aggravating to fairy tale folks as well.  If you’ve been into fairy tales for a while, these twists and subversions probably won’t seem very novel.  It’s stuff like “What if Peter Pan was a bad guy and Captain Hook was a good guy?” or “What if we gender-swapped Jack and the Beanstalk?” or “What if [insert character] was also [insert other character]”.  Most of these were already out there either in books and comic books or just as thought experiments or writing prompts for storytellers and authors.  There were a couple that caught me by surprise.  Prince Charming taking the place of his evil twin who died was rather surprising.  So was Little Red Riding Hood actually being the Big Bad Wolf.  But here’s the thing, to most people these ideas were brand new.  Most of the audience hadn’t even thought about fairy tales since they were kids and hadn’t ever thought about subverting them.  What the show did was provide a signal boost to ideas that were already there but were restricted to what was essentially a subculture.  It was something that was there since the beginning.  The idea of fairy tale characters being exiled to the real world and interacting with each other there was new to a lot of people, but comic book readers had been reading Fables for years.  Some had even accused the show of being a Fables rip-off.  Probably because ABC had previously tried to make a Fables show that had never gotten off the ground.  And the truth is, it’s not the first time anything like this has happened.  There are always ideas and concepts that are big in a subculture but don’t reach the mainstream public until they’re put through certain channels.  I mean, who here remembers when the mainstream finally realized that superheroes could be a fun and diverse genre?  Or when people were suddenly crazy about epic fantasy?  The question might be what the next idea that’ll be brought to the mainstream would be and how to go about bringing it to them.

The show will continue for at least one more season.  Who knows if it will last with such big changes ahead?  Other shows haven’t.

Now, the other show that premiered that same year was Grimm.  Grimm was a show about a police officer who could see and hunt creatures called Wesen, which were all tied into folklore and story in some way.  The contrast in how the two shows dealt with their fairy tale material was practically night and day.  Once Upon a Time pretty much announced its fairy tale material like: “HEY, LOOK!  IT’S THAT STORY YOU KNOW FROM THAT MOVIE!”  It was always right on the surface and it was always something familiar to a lot of people.  Grimm, on the other hand, played with a lot of more obscure stuff and always kind of wove it into layers and layers of the show’s own mythology.  Sometimes it was so obscure and so woven in that you might have trouble identifying what exactly they were referencing.
I also stopped watching Grimm before it ended, but it was mainly an issue of character.  The main character of Nick Burkhardt was never really anything special.  He wasn’t particularly quirky or complex but he grew on you as a regular guy in an extraordinary situation.  However, before the final season started his situation changed dramatically.  His girlfriend Juliette turned into a crazy witch and was then killed.  Then, he moved into a warehouse with Adalind, a villainess who had more-or-less raped Nick (well, slept with him under false pretenses at least) and the child they had conceived.  Adalind was even being played up as a love interest.  While it might seem strange that losing a regular house and the side character of Juliette would make me lose interest, it kind of served to remove a lot of the grounding a relatability that was there with Nick.  The show was pretty good up until that point.  I kind of respect how much it did its own thing.

It’s kind of strange how these two shows existed with no real middle ground in regards to how they handled the folk and fairy tale material they were drawing from.  One show was very up front and familiar.  The other was obscure and didn’t really bother trying to clue in the audience to what it was working with.  I keep hoping we’ll see something come along that treads that middle ground.  Something that plays with more obscure material but is willing to clue in the audience.  I don’t think we’ll ever see it, at least not on regular network TV.  I just think anything that really puts the cause of informing viewers about obscure folk stories on the same level as providing entertainment would probably be seen more as “educational television”.  So, if anything, PBS or BBC would probably be the most likely placed to see something like that.

But what do other folks think?  What do you think the legacy of Once Upon a Time might be?  Same question for Grimm.


  1. I can't really speak into this, since I stopped watching before you did. But from what I know, although some fairy tale subversions have gone mainstream that are humorous-Shrek and Enchanted, for example-I think these shows may have really helped people to take fairy tales seriously, as entertainment for adults and that you can play around with the stories in ways that aren't just parody. I was surprised to hear OUAT is still going, I feel like I haven't heard anything about it since the first seasons, at least in my own circles it seems to have dropped off the radar. So, glad it's still going, even though like you I would wish it delved more into non-Disney territory!

  2. Great to read your thoughts on OUAT and Grimm. I think most fairy tale folk are in agreement: we like that these shows exist but are so very frustrated at the treatment of the tales, as well as the seeming ignorance of the treasure trove of hundreds of others which would be INCREDIBLE to see included.
    I also found it a little bizarre that OUAT went with literary classics when they 'ran out of fairy tales', (!) especially as there are a lot of parallels in different cultures for the ones they chose (Frankenstein has similarities to golem tales, and there are other quite different tales of body pieces being crudely assembled and brought to life both Celtic and African, while Jekyll and Hyde has a lot of tales showing the good and bad sides of people, like the Marsh King's Daughter), etc
    I think Grimm and #FolkloreThursday worked well together, and even played off each other at times, and there's definitely been a boost in public interest in all aspects of folklore, including lesser known fairy tales, including - thank goodness, beyond the 'do you know how dark that fairy tales really was?' business.
    OUAT on the other hand wasn't a genre show like Grimm. They were/are mainstream, primetime and have a larger, multi-generational demographic, and, as Adam eloquently put above, brought ideas that have been circulating in fairy tale circles for decades to the general public. I've read that for season 7 they plan to continue using myth and fairy tales, to have a 'magical element', so I'm very curious to see, with a reboot, what they tap as their sources. (I have a niggling feeling 'space' will be involved and the mythology of Star Wars will be tapped, but we'll see.)
    (continued in next comment box!)

    1. (continued from above)
      Listening to a Maria Tatar interview yesterday she mentioned part of Disney's brand is nostalgia and familiarity - one of the reasons they like using well known fairy tales (apart from the public domain aspect). So considering these things, looking at Disney's other properties is still very much going to be part of the OUAT future.
      One thing I DO like though, is that the OUAT versions of fairy tales and characters, despite inspiring stories, memes and all sorts of interaction from fans, are NOT replacing the originals, either of Disney or of classic FT lit. (By the way - the caps are not yelling - I can't figure out how to underline or use italics in comment boxes!) A new thing in society now - especially American society - is that there are multiple versions of fairy tale characters familiar to the public existing in the same conscious space, and, since Disney took over FTs in the US, that's a new thing. It doesn't matter that they both/all have the same Disney parent, unlike the animated and movie length versions, the OUAT versions are fluid and are inspire even more variants. I think that's fantastic, and this makes variants on a tale type more 'discoverable', which in turn leads to other cultures and other tales.
      It certainly wasn't part of the OUAT plan, but it's a huge bonus for fairy tale aficionados and scholars trying to communicate their research in a relevant way to the public.
      As for the legacy - I think Grimm will live on in folklore circles and have ongoing effects and spreading roots in the supernatural horror community, as well as urban legends. OUAT on the other hand is still changing the landscape for fairy tale rewrites and retellings on screen. You have to wonder if, for example, Red Riding Hood, the movie, was being made now, what would have been different? I think the fairy tale film era we went through might have been a little different had the movement/various productions started now, instead of before/right when OUAT started.
      I was super curious to see what would happen with a Fables movie with OUAT, Grimm and the success of the Fables game, but the last year or so in politics and social issues has likely killed enthusiasm on that for now again - which is a shame. There's a good chance it will rekindle with the 'fairy tales as resistance' movement though. There's definitely a new trend in how tales are being told - not for 'new/dark twists' but in seeing contemporary parallels to old stories, all the while from a different perspective. And it's media-commentary driven, rather than entertainment driven. It's fascinating!
      (You know - this would be even more fun to discuss if we could chat over a cup of tea and lots of yummy things to eat!) ;) Sorry to take over your comment-section Adam!

  3. I stopped watching this show during the half of season two, this way big disappointment for me. It's plagued with terrible CGI effects, cardboard cutout characters, slow pacing, and lots of pop culture reference. The writers/producers can't do anything right, they take the basic fundamental premises of the stories and they butchered it to death. Grimm has an intresting mythology, with it's creatures and lore. It's one of the most underrated shows ever made.