By Melissa Crawley
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A few years ago, I wrote a review of “Once Upon a Time” feeling pretty sure that a show about fairytale characters who are transported to a small town in Maine by an evil queen’s curse would not make it past a season. Here’s the part where I tell you that sometimes, TV critics get it wrong. (While I’m confessing, I was also wrong about this season’s new comedy “Selfie.” It’s been cancelled. I said it was a must-see.) I still think “Selfie” was funny, but my thoughts on “Once Upon a Time” didn’t anticipate the reception the show has received. Not only is it in its fourth season, it’s also a consistent ratings winner for ABC. Clearly, audiences enjoy the misadventures of Snow White and company.
I have tuned in to the series here and there since the pilot but I recently watched the first nine episodes of the current season over one weekend. Thematically, things haven’t changed that much in Storybrooke — it’s still about finding a “happy ending.” But what has and continues to change are the characters themselves. This is the mark of a well-written series and the main reason spending an hour with a cast of fairytale characters every week isn’t as lame as it sounds.
This isn’t to argue that the show takes itself too seriously. Last season, Peter Pan (Robbie Kay) was depicted as a wicked and slightly demented leader of the Lost Boys. This season Bo Peep (Robin Weigert) is a nasty landlord who shakes down farmers for money and uses her shepherd’s staff to magically ensure indentured servitude. Turning historically likeable children’s storybook characters into bullies is a twisted bit of fun but it’s the core cast of characters who make the show worth watching.
In four seasons, the actors have an easy chemistry, and the central mysteries have not been allowed to grow stale. Rather than spend multiple seasons for example, on Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) not accepting her identity as Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming’s (Josh Dallas) daughter, she does so in a believable space of time. Yet it’s the characters’ emotional development that makes the show stand out. All the core characters have evolved with two having the most impact. Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) fights (a mostly losing battle) to keep the temptations of his dark nature from destroying his capacity to love while Regina (Lana Parilla) is no longer solely defined as the evil queen. They’re still somewhere between good and bad but that’s the point.
This season the show takes advantage of the phenomenon that is “Frozen” by building the central plot around the film’s main characters. For me, not being a small child who knows the words to “Let It Go” by heart, the inclusion of Elsa (Georgina Haig) isn’t exciting. However, Elsa’s plot does introduce another layer to Emma’s story that touches on the impact she feels from spending her childhood in foster care. It’s a good example of what “Once Upon a Time” does best — making sure there’s just enough reality in fantasy.
“Once Upon a Time” is on Sundays at 8 p.m. EDT on ABC.
Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.
Stay Tuned: Returning to ‘Once Upon a Time’
By Melissa Crawley