Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Once Upon a Time is Smarter Than People Give It Credit For

So I came across this article about Once Upon a Time and... it has a point. I don't completely agree with it (mostly because I'm having too much fun) but it's argument is firmly based upon knowledge of the series I can't argue with.

But I do have one bone to pick. The article called Once dumb. To be fair I'm only dogpiling on the article because it provides me a good opportunity to use Once as a case study for an idea that's been rolling around in my head for a good long time.

Once Upon a Time has a ridiculous premise. What if a bunch of fairy tale creatures got transported to the real world? But I love speculative fiction and one of the rules for engaging with speculative fiction is the ridiculousness of the premise is irrelevant, what matters is what a work manages to do with it. My favorite TV show amounts to what if one of the stupidest conspiracy theories of the last century was real.  One of the most thought-provoking movies I've ever seen amounts to what if we were all living in a computer program, and one of the most important books ever penned is basically what if a bunch of farm animals formed a communist society.

The silliness of the premise isn't what matters.  What matters is what the work manages to do with that premise and Once is kind of clever on that count. That's not to say the show doesn't have it's problems it has the same pitfalls as most network television with wonky pacing and at times it can feel like a Disney promo but it does have a fairly clever and consistent theme.

Fable Morality

While it's not the only reason to tell a fairytale one of the primary purposes to tell one is to communicate a simple moral truth to children who may otherwise be blind to it. The series inverts this by using the binary nature of fairytale morality to explore a deeper question of morality. What responsibility do adults, namely parents have to live up to the moral standards set by their children?

Almost every major conflict in Once Upon a Time's seven seasons either is or is the result of a parent failing to live up to their kid's moral standards and getting viciously called out on it.

The series pilot drops the gauntlet when 10-year-old Henry shows up to call his biological mother out on giving him up for adoption and running away from her responsibilities to him (Note: That's not how I feel about adoption but that is the show.) and it never lets up.

This is what the show is about.

By the way. "Manhattan" is for my money the best episode of the entire series and a distillation of what at it's best it is. If you're curious but don't think you'll be able to get over the premise I recommend watching that episode first to get your feet wet though it might lessen the impact of various plot revelations. 

Once basically makes nearly every character it casts as a fairytale villain look their kids in the eye and account for their sins and that's a genuinely clever conceit.

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