I’m going to try to keep this only mildly spoiler-y, but considering people nowadays call “Spoiler!” over things that are in trailers (newsflash: that’s what trailers are, they tease you with spoilers so you’ll watch) I’m going to say; there may or may not be spoilers ahead.
I absolutely love Once Upon a Time. I remember when I first tried to watch the premiere in 2011, I thought it was really gimmicky and decided not to continue watching the series. Thanks to the amazing advent of Netflix bingeing, though, when Once Upon a Time was put on Netflix I sat and watched the first episode again. On second viewing of the premiere, more than the tale of Snow White and Prince Charming, I got sucked into the story of Emma and Henry.
The series is based around the idea that every fairy tale character we are familiar with is actually real and lived in another land called the Enchanted Forest. But the inhabitants were cursed by the Evil Queen and are now stuck in a town called Storybrooke, Maine without magic, frozen in time, essentially living Groundhog Day. Nobody knows they’re a fairy tale character, except for the Evil Queen, but the Mayor’s adopted son Henry gets suspicious after he is given a book of fairy tales. And the characters in the drawings look an awful lot like the people he knows in town. So he decides to track down his birth mother, Emma, believing her to be the Chosen One who can break the curse. The Chosen One is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, the product of true love, who was put through a magical, teleporting wardrobe to save her from the curse.
Beyond the first episode, which feels a little too Disney in the way it handles the fairy tale bits of story, the series picks up and takes the fairy tales we all know and turns them twisted and darker- which I love. One of the interesting things about the first season is the little hints the audience is given that Henry is correct about the town, and how much we see Emma still fight the idea that she could be a hero and save people when she has barely been able to save herself her whole life.
The acting on the show is phenomenal. The entire thing could have come off as hokey and forced if it didn’t have strong actors and writers to carry it. Lana Parilla plays the Evil Queen amazingly, making her the sympathetic evil villain you love to hate (and secretly want to give a blanket and cup of tea to). Her story arc is one of the best handled, and she is one of the series’ strongest characters. Robert Carlyle almost steals the show the first few seasons as Rumpelstiltskin, though, and the episode Skin Deep from season 1 that portrays him as the Beast from Beauty and the Beast is one of my all time favorite episodes.
Jennifer Morrison and Jared Gilmore have fantastic chemistry as the leads, two lost souls each trying to make peace with their version of orphanhood. Watching Jennifer Morrison turn into an intense Mama Bear over the little boy she gave up for adoption is one of the winning features of the show. It’s possibly the reason the show has lasted for so long; Emma isn’t saving the town again and again because she’s The Chosen One, she’s saving it because she’s finally found her family, and will fight for that forever. She’s the best anti-hero I’ve seen on TV in a long time, and she is beautifully written and acted. I think that’s why I love the show; it isn’t just fairy tales, it deals with some heavy stuff (loss, adoption from every angle, sacrifice, and the grey shades of morality) without coming off preachy or overly sentimental.
I will say that halfway through the third season and most of the fourth, I was less than motivated to continue watching. But Netflix kept asking me if I wanted to watch another episode, and I did, and it paid off even if some of the stories seemed a bit lost and convoluted. The two part finale of season 4 and season 5 (the current season) have been superb, and I would say they have taken the story back to being compelling. They actually did what I kept musing they should do, which is turn Emma dark and see where that takes the show. It has not disappointed.