Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Up To Season 2.5 Review of Once Upon A Time

Okay I've been meaning to have this out for a awhile. I'm disappointed with Once Upon A Time. I wanted the series to work and for me it's failing. I want to sort out in my head why. Before I get to why it's a bit of a let down let's get to why I had such high hopes for it.

On Fantasy, Fairy Tales and Folk Tales

 The first stories I was exposed to are well folk and fairy tales, stories that have been passed down from the centuries. Those are always the ones the teacher would tell the class to gather 'round for, Robin Hood, John Henry, and even Sleeping Beauty. The cynical me is going that's probably because they're in the "public domain" but that's not my point. My point is that they sort of form the basic outlines of narrative. In my head they form a lot of the tropes, plot devices, themes, and even morals, that I like in a good story.

Now I know that we've built on those foundations and modified them for each individual story's needs, but you know what? I still like a good folk or fairy tale every now and again. Every now and again I like a story whose purpose is to evoke the feel of old stories from the oral tradition, even in a medium that's not oral.

And that is ultimately what the fantasy genre is to me. An attempt to evoke the tropes,narrative devices, plot themes and devices used in oral tradition.  Of course the problem comes in that a lot of these stories aren't being orally told. Most of the Grimm Tales that are recorded versions of those orally told stories are only a few pages long. And a lot of those old medieval ballads are only a few stanzas.  Let's face it folks it's rare for a campfire story to be more than about 10 minutes long.  It would have to have been short enough for an orator to remember.

In the age of printing, television , and film these stories are often adapted, and I think that's part of where Once Upon A Time fails. It doesn't do a good job of separating what would make those stories great for TV and what wouldn't.

On Urban Fantasy

As I think about that I realize that one of the larger criticisms of the fantasy genre is kind of true. After a while you wind up in monomyth territory, hell done wrong you get into more than monomyth. When you get to brass tacks Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are more or less the same damn story.

Urban Fantasy is nice way of spicing things up. For those who don't know Urban Fantasy is fantasy in an urban setting, taking those tropes and plot devices out of the usual feudal environment and plucking them in a modern one. It gives the story a good excuse to deconstruct and reconstruct those.. eh I've used the phrase enough you get the point.

How does the monster in the woods deal with SWAT? Does a wizard ever just say, "screw it" and use a gun? How would a monarchy work in a day and age when the world has largely said no to that type of government? In terms of social stature what is today's equivalent to the medieval farm boy? Does the chosen one get tired of it and ever just call the cops? In a society founded on saying fuck you to fatalism how does, "the prophesy" work? In a society that's been more and more skewing away from the unnatural and unexplainable how do those elements come into play? How do the weapon tropes translate? A lot of these stories were told for kids who have no sense of moral ambiguity or subtlety. How do these tropes they play out in gray crapsack world where there may not be a happily ever after? In a story that may not have had a lot of dialogue in it's original medium what type of dialogue gets written.The same goes for characterization. In a stories that may have relied on stock characters what happens when they are fleshed out?

My point is that done right urban fantasy can take what I like about fantasy and change it enough to make it sometimes more intriguing than fantasy classic.

All Myths Are True

One of the things I lament about stories is that I can't see characters from different stories interacting.  Which is sort of the point of the crossover. I think of the concept of all myths being true as a way to get a folk tale/legendary crossover. Yeah  I'm the kind of guy who would like to see King Arthur dueling Macbeth or Cuchulain for that matter thinking it would make a pretty bad ass fight. And I wonder what John Henry and Thor would talk about over a couple brews. I like watching a world where strong fleshed out characters from other stories can interact. Let's face it we've all done who would win in a fight in our head?

Season One: Adaptation Expansion

Part of my disappointment comes from the fact that I felt the first season had potential. It wasn't great but there were truly interesting things about it. Namely the characterization.

The first season was brilliant at taking the less fleshed out aspects of our favorite stories and doing something with them. Why is Jiminy so obsessed about morality? Apart from being Prince Charming, who is Prince Charming. Why was Grumpy so damn grumpy? Rumpelstiltskin tends to get only one story told about him, the one where he nearly tricks a woman into giving him her first born child to eat. What's his deal? Did he ever have kids of his own?

The series was great at providing interesting backstories for these characters. And to a decree some of that carries over to season 2 but those back stories were for a long time the point of season one. In season two they're kind of in the background.

Season One: Character Translation

The Show also did a good job of adapting the few established traits we know about these characters to the modern world. Red Riding Hood's favorite color is still red. The huntsman is the man for the job when you need to find someone lost in the woods, and Rumpelstiltskin is an antiques trader and quasi-town banker who will definitely screw you on the deal.  

Designated Protagonist Syndrome
All of this good stuff created a problem. Emma, Snow White's daughter and the protagonist of the story, as well as the antagonist, The Wicked Queen, Regina, are absolutely the least interesting characters of the show.

In almost every episode of the first half of season one the show would spend around ten minutes having the two cat fight with one another. Narratively it accomplished nothing. They would just scowl at each other and go back to their corners. I would find it annoying no matter what, but I find it particularly inexcusable because I knew the show had more entertaining stuff to fill the screen time with.

Show Grandma and Red's zingers. How about Rumpy being a magnificent bastard. Whenever he's on screen something important and interesting is going down.

And now that I think about it that's what really gets me upset about it. It's so obvious that he's the real villain of the show.  Damn near every event that occurs was planned by him, some of them years in advance. Yet he get's way less screen time than Regina, who due to her stupid evil status is doomed to failure. She graduated from the Joffery Baratheon school of leadership.

While in Rumpy's case while the other characters know he's planning to screw them they also know he tends to have expedient solutions to their problems. Which is why they're kind of hesitant to flat out sick the angry mob on him later. 

Show Don't Tell
The main problem I have with the series was in season one, but it's gotten worse. Especially in the modern portions of the show the writers don't know how to show instead of tell. For instance, for most of the first season the characters are terrified of Regina/The Wicked Queen. They have no established reason for being so afraid of her except she's the mayor. That's it. Don't get me wrong she's established well as being selfish, vain, and vindictive. But no reason is shown for why the other characters don't just ignore her, or even better recall her ass. Get the torches and pitchforks and send her out of town on a rail.  Don't  get me wrong she has a secret weapon, but the other character's don't know that. All they know is that she's kind of a bitch so why are they so afraid.

Which leads me to another problem. The show has the subtlety of a children's fairy tale. Remember how I said that somethings translate well from the oral tradition and some don't. Well this is one of them. Some of  the originals and let's face most of the adapted versions of these stories were meant for kids. But the show itself isn't. It's Sunday prime time entertainment whoose competition includes Grimm and Game of Thrones.

It's a show that's targeted for adults. The first season for all it's faults mostly got that. Second season not so much.

My point is this. Some of these stories for kids lack subtlety and moral ambiguity because it's harder for kids to understand. Furthermore part of the purpose of those stories was to instill in kids a certain type of morality.

All of that works in a kid's story, not so much in an adult one. Here's what happens when those qualities are in an adult show.

Characters are wildly and unrealistically exaggerated, and on top of that they become incredibly anvilicous to boot, becoming corny.

I've seen stories like this done better. Despite his online craziness Orson Scott Card wrote an incredibly satisfying retelling of "Sleeping Beauty". I've also read a very entertaining version of "The Six Swans". Then there is the book series whose title character is the daughter of Coyote and was raised by The Grendel. Hell this was part of the reason why Tolkien wrote Lord of The Rings, to take the battles, monsters, villains, and heroes of those stories and make them something adults could enjoy.

Actually, the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history. Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the “nursery,” as shabby orold-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused. It is not the choice of the children which decides this. Children as a class—except in a common lack of experience they are not one—neither like fairy-stories more, nor understand them better than adults do; and no more than they like many other things. They are young and growing, and normally have keen appetites, so the fairy-stories as a rule go down well enough. But in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them; and when they have it, it is not exclusive, nor even necessarily dominant. It is a taste, too, that would not appear, I think, very early in childhood without artificial stimulus; it is certainly one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.

It is true that in recent times fairy-stories have usually been written or “adapted” for children. But so may music be, or verse, or novels, or history, or scientific manuals. It is a dangerous process, even when it is necessary. It is indeed only saved from disaster by the fact that the arts and sciences are not as a whole relegated to the nursery; the nursery and schoolroom are merely given such tastes and glimpses of the adult thing as seem fit for them in adult opinion (often much mistaken). Any one of these things would, if left altogether in the nursery, become gravely impaired. So would a beautiful table, a good picture, or a useful machine (such as a microscope), be defaced or broken, if it were left long unregarded in a schoolroom. Fairy-stories banished in this way, cut off from a full adult art, would in the end be ruined; indeed in so far as they have been so banished, they have been ruined.

On Fairy Stories
J.R Tolkien

Mostly it just annoys me how the writers can't seem to show a character's emotion without stopping the show. Okay how do we show the Mary Margaret is a moma bear? Spend at least 10 minutes an episode showing her protecting Emma even when narratively it doesn't make sense. How do we show Emma and Regina hate each other. Give each a 10 minute bitch fit in every episode even when they have mutual goals and should be working together for the sake of something they both care deeply about, namely Henry. The show simply doesn't have the capacity to say we have good actors and a reasonably intelligent audience. We don't have to have the actors explain every emotion, or justify every action. If the writers and the actors did their job, the audience will pick up on it. 

But because they do.

Clunky Dialogue
Because a lot of lines are spent justifying character actions,dumping exposition, and explaining character emotions you end up with a lot of, "That makes me angry."

In fantasy and science fiction for that matter suspension of disbelief is almost always an issue. There are two obvious things to do in order mitigate the problem of people not just going with the story.

The first is having characters acting in a realistic way even if the story isn't remotely realistic. Okay this is complicated. Despite all the technological development and culture shift, people have been fairly consistent throughout their history. Despite being written nearly a millennial ago we still fall victim to the deadly seven, and the golden rule is damn near universal. Even if the setting is different human nature isn't. Having people who act like people in a story helps ground the audience.  

Part of this is having people who talk quasi-realistically. Not actually realistically, but close. It's actually rare that people verbally describe their emotional state of being. We have other ways of doing that.  Generally people don't go around declaring and justifying. They just do and feel, because people can generally pick up on when someone hates their guts and if they've been paying attention they tend to know why. Right Ronnie. 

The Power of Love
The second is world building, establishing a setting with enough detail that it's clear that it has it's own rules even those rules don't match up to reality, it's clear the writer isn't making stuff up on the fly for the sake of narrative convenience.

I'm tired of the writers using the power of love every time they write themselves into a hole.  What makes it worse is all they know how to do is have character's stare and make declarations. Back to the subtlety thing there really isn't a lot of chemistry on the show. It's rare to just have two loving characters just hanging out enjoying themselves.

The Henry Problem

In the first season arguably the most important character is Henry, Snow White's 10-year old grandson. Why? Because he is the only benevolent character who has broken the masquerade. In short he's the only one who really knows what's going on.  He is the mover and shaker of the plot. While the protagonist is his biological mother, Emma, Snow White's daughter, it's Henry who really drives her and the other good guys into action. Even when they don't believe a word he says, they'll go with it because they don't want to hurt a kid's feelings.

And it works for a variety of reasons. For the first half of season one it really is a toss up of if Henry's nuts or not. It also provides a very good explanation of why while things seem normal and fine the characters are driven to action. "Look I'm just here for the kid." It also makes him an interesting character knowing that he's the only one who can do this really important thing and how tough it's going to be, because no one believes him. Heck there are even times on screen where he actually does doubt his own sanity. Part of the reason why he believes so hard that he is right, is because he doesn't want to deal with the implications of him being wrong.

The problem is that in the first season finale the masquerade is broken taking away Henry's narrative purpose. Everyone else is now available to work as free agents solving the town's crisis. For most of season two his role is relegated to being told to sit it out. And who can blame the other characters. Henry's ten.

It becomes really annoying when it seems the writers have finally given him narrative importance again. The party's been split and Henry is the only character who can communicate with both groups. It gives him something important to do. And they take that away from both him and the audience.

I liked where they were going with it because it seemed that character had an emotional need to help. He's got stakes in this fight and was getting tired of everyone telling him to sit down. This was the pay off. After spending half the regular season on the bench after a painful knee injury he was finally back in the game.  Dangling the string just seems emotionally dissatisfying.

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