With the possible exception of superheroes, no genre has been as thoroughly deconstructed as fairy tales. From Disney’s Enchanted to Sondheim’s Into the Woods, writers just can’t seem to get enough of Princesses and Evil Witches interacting in some way with the real world. ABC’s Once Upon a Time is the latest in a long line of such attempts, but thanks to some modern trends in television, it has the potential to take this old idea to some interesting new places.
Once upon a Time opens with the closing scene of the classic tale of Snow White – the Prince arrives to find the glass coffin, and awakens Snow White with a kiss. But just as the two are about to be married and achieve their happily ever after, the Evil Queen intervenes. She will place a terrible curse on the kingdom, she says, and everyone will be transported to a place where there are no happy endings. We all see where this is going – the other realm is our world, in the small town of Storybrook, ME, where all the fairy tale characters lose their memories and are trapped for ever in dead-end jobs and unhappy marriages.
The plot centers around bail bondswoman (think high-tech bounty hunter) Emma Swan, who finds herself embroiled in a conflict with the Queen, now the mayor of Storybrook, when she makes contact with the son she abandoned as a teenager. Emma is the perfect foil to the fairy tale world – not only is she incredibly cynical, having been raised in the foster care system, but her job puts her constantly in contact with the worst society has to offer. Her son Henry is believable as a child just young enough to still believe in magic, but jaded enough to realize that the grown-ups won’t believe him.
Like all fairy tale deconstructions, Once Upon a Time draws frequent comparisons between the fantasies we create for ourselves and the real lives we live. But rather than placing fairy tale characters alongside real people, as has been done quite skillfully in Enchanted and NBC’s The Tenth Kingdom, Once Upon a Time sets up a world where everyone belongs to both worlds. In a sense, each character has a built-in foil in their fairy tale personas.
Once Upon a Time uses the flashback technique popularized by shows like Heroes and Lost - each episode features a subplot set in the fairy tale world before the curse took effect. This works surprisingly well, as the fairy tale characters receive more depth and realism than we normally associate with them. As of the third episode, we are starting to see that while the characters in Storybrook may be familiar, their stories didn’t necessarily unfold in the way we remember them. This world’s Snow White, for example, doesn’t go straight to the dwarves after being spared by the Queen’s huntsman. Instead, she becomes a badass forest warrior, robbing the Queen’s carriages and consorting with evil fairies and trolls.
This allows each for multiple levels of subversion – just from the first episode, it appears that the “happily ever after” made not have been so happy after all. At the beginning of the third episode Snow, in the real world as elementary school teacher Ms. Blanchard, comments that true love isn’t easy, but implies that she believes it to be possible. Later in the same episode, Snow first meets her Prince Charming in the forest and tells him there’s no such thing as true love. So even though it appears that there is a “good” reality and a “bad” one, cynicism and idealism actually coexist in both worlds, sometimes even within the same individual.
While the show sets up our world as a place with no happy endings, the real message of the show is that we have to create our happy endings for ourselves. Though darker and more dramatic than many fairy tales, I think it has the potential to be that much more uplifting.