‘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.