Monday, October 31, 2011

Sometimes I Just Want To Gush: 'Once Upon A Time' Edition...

Usually when a show hits episode three, I consider doing a "second look" review. It's the least I can do, I figure, since my initial series reviews are based solely on the pilot episodes, and let's face it, that's not always entirely fair, let alone indicative of the show that unfolds later. So those I gave less than mediocre reviews get a second chance to make me fall in love with them since I firmly believe you have to get to know something-- anything-- before you can actually love it. But sometimes when a show wins me over immediately from its pilot, I still want to give it a second look. Not necessarily because I think it can go downhill so fast but because it's often hard to put into words just why I fell for it at first sight. Once Upon A Time was one such series. I gave the pilot five stars and watched it no less than six times prior to it even hitting the ABC airwaves. I had such high hopes for it, I selected it as my favorite new show for fall. And since just last year the show I had put in such a prestigious slot was canceled by episode three, I had a lot riding on this one. I didn't want to be considered a jinx!

And the thing is, I know Once Upon a Time is not a show designed for everyone, but it is a show I believe everyone needs to watch at least one episode of-- even if only to indulge your inner child. There are enough sword-fights and on horseback battles to interest the so-called "manly men," while there are the relationship dramas between true loves torn apart, as well as unconventional families, for the more romantic of viewers. There are grand, sweeping sequences full of magic and power and beauty, and there are simpler, more subtle mind game moments between characters, as well. Each hour-long episode takes you on a ride. I've seen the first three episodes three times each now, and they're still hard for me to put into words because while watching, I get so swept up in what's on-screen I forget I'm supposed to be turning a critical eye; I just want to be a part of their world.

[Side note: In the "I knew I liked you" department, both Jennifer Morrison and Ginnifer Goodwin named Ariel the Little Mermaid as a character they, too, hope to see pop up soon on Once Upon a Time. The show may not be for everyone, but it is most certainly for me.]

The true mark of quality entertainment has always been, especially for me, it's ability to transport. Whether or not it is reflecting a world that mirrors your own, if it can take you out of your own for even a fraction of time, it is doing something right. But these days, with our increasing distractions, that seems increasingly harder to do and therefore rare. Networks are outright encouraging viewers to not engage fully in watching a show but to divide time by logging onto their official website or onto Twitter and joining in a conversation with other viewers about what they are watching. Once Upon a Time has hosted live Tweet-a-longs already, having only aired two episodes to date, and while that can work to make fans feel involved for some, for others, the multitasking proves too difficult and causes them to miss important plot points or inter-character moments. But Once Upon a Time is a show that does best with a second viewing anyway-- giving you ample time to not only relish in the world but also take a closer look at the details you may have missed-- the details which many in Storybrooke may be missing about who they really are.

I honestly believe we will never see another show like Once Upon a Time on television ever again. Nor should we want to humor copycats or knockoffs of any kind. I was more than a little bummed to learn as a member of the media I wasn't getting an advance copy of episode two because the visual effects were so great, it simply wasn't going to be done in time to send. That upset me as already a fan who just wanted more, more, more, but it also upset me as someone who feels FX tend to distract from, rather than enhance, the story. But when episode two "The Thing You Love Most" finally aired, it all clicked perfectly into place. As with the complicated characters, epic love story, tense rivalries, and dark and disturbing adversaries, the visual effects are just another piece of the puzzle Once Upon a Time needs to be the best it can be. I honestly can't imagine what the show would be without the snarled trees around the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) or puffs of black smoke when Snow (Ginnifer Goodwin) uses fairy dust against trolls. Even the seemingly simple establishing shots of the castle on the hill in perfect, gleaming daylight wouldn't be the stuff of picture books (or fairy-tales) without the extra light beams put in in post. Every week, Once Upon a Time makes a mini-movie. Now I'm just waiting for the merchandising to kick in!

Once Upon a Time is without a doubt a mythology show. It plays with time and universes and versions of characters. There are mysterious elements that weave in and out of each episode, answering a little here, only to open a door to a bigger question there. It is, of course, thanks to the cleverness of the writers-- show creators and runners Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, as well as staff writers like Liz Tigelaar and Jane Espenson-- that this doesn't scare the audience off. But it should be noted that it is because of the network itself, ABC, that the series gets to tap into such richness in the first place. Fairy-tale characters were always pretty one-note in the tales we heard told as kids, but that is because we were only allowed to know one very small piece of their story. It would be easy for a network (as we are seeing being done with NBC's Grimm, by the way) to take interesting characters and just plunk them into an already existing formula, relying on their surface differences to be a gimmick used to hook viewers into watching but never paying off the complexities or intrigue underneath. That is not what Kitsis, Horowitz, or ABC are about, though, and what we get is a thickly layered character drama we eagerly follow deeper into the woods.

When the ratings for the premiere of Once Upon A Time came in so strong (a 4 share, which is practically unheard of with DVR culture what it is!), I didn't pat myself on the back, though a little part of me felt extremely vindicated. We may sit alone in our homes sometimes while watching TV, but knowing that so many others out there like what you (or I) like is instant community. It gave me hope that audiences are eager for smart television-- television that you have to immerse yourself in fully in order to understand fully-- television that was still escapist television but which makes you think. And when there was no drop-off to the second episode-- ratings wise, but also quality of writing wise-- the proof was right there: this was no fluke; Once Upon a Time truly is magical television.

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