When Once Upon A Time first aired in 2011, it was going toe-to-toe with Grimm, a gritty show about a cop who bridged the worlds of humans and the creatures that birthed all our favorite fairy tales. Being the bastion of insecure masculinity that I was in 2011, I eschewed OUAT for the kickassery of Grimm‘s etiological police procedural despite all indications that I should do otherwise.
Nine years later, OUAT has made the jump to Disney+, and I was coerced into giving the first season a shot (largely because everything else on our favorite streaming services is mostly garbage).
If you were looking for a reason to dive back into OUAT or looking for a sign to try it for the first time, consider this your reason.
The show was created by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who are probably best known for their work on LOST, the greatest show to ever grace network television.
Many of the things that made LOST so great are prevalent in OUAT, thanks to their influence. Non-linear storytelling, intriguing character reveals, subtle foreshadowing and season-long foresight make OUAT truly compelling.
The first season follows Emma Swan as she navigates the cursed town of Storybrooke, Maine, where all your favorite storybook characters have been imprisoned by an evil queen, sans their memories of their fairy tale lives.
Swan, the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, is the key to breaking the curse and freeing the inhabitants of Storybrooke, and she spends almost all of the first season believing that the curse is the delusion of her 10-year-old son Henry.
The show often flashes back to the characters’ magical lives pre-Storybrooke, providing explanation for their real-world motivations and filling in the gaps as to how they wound up under the evil queen’s thumb.
The storytelling is artfully done. Every reveal and explanation comes exactly when it would be the most impactful to the story, and not a moment earlier.
Robert Carlyle, man. Robert fucking Carlyle. Carlyle plays Rumplestiltskin and his Land-without-magic counterpart, Mr. Gold. Carlyle is a power hitter here, and it’s frankly criminal that he never received Emmy consideration for his role.
While many of the characters on the show are buoyed by their writing (I’m looking at you, David Nolan/Prince Charming), Carlyle may be the only one who elevates his writing instead of the other way around.
The Rumplestiltskin arc is a masterclass in character development, and Carlyle portrays the journey from coward to monster to filthy capitalist with a flair that engenders very real sympathy.
Lana Parrilla also deserves laudation for her portrayal as Regina Mills/Evil Queen. Parrilla works magic (heh) with her character’s arguably weak motivation. Throughout the first season, Parrilla’s work as the Undefeatable Enemy is as convincing as it is frustrating for her on-screen opponents.
The Mixed Bag
A lot of the show’s dialogue is grin-inducingly clever. Like, seriously, seriously good.
But when it’s not letter-perfect, it’s hot garbage. The characters very often punctuate heavy conversations with hard stares and cliches or predictable one-liners. Yes, one could argue that they’re storybook characters and thus would speak predictably because they’re age-old stories, but that’s a poor excuse for poor writing.
Kitsis and Horowitz are fantastic at big-picture storytelling. But when it comes to the details and in-world logic, questionable decisions are made.
Why do the back windows of the cop car roll down? Why did Emma kissing Graham restore his memories? Why would David Nolan ever have dinner with Mayor Mills and why did that meaningless scene even happen? Why would every fairy in existence owe Grumpy a favor for not running away with Nova? Why does it take Emma 30 minutes to try true-love’s kiss in the season one finale?
I have a million questions like these, and I wish I had written down half of them. Funny enough, these feel like some of the inconsistencies and questions that felt like important pieces of LOST that never got resolved or answered. Like Walt’s ability to… summon animals?
Frankly, I’m sad I chose Grimm over OUAT in 2011. The big-picture storytelling and individually powerful performances gave OUAT a staying power it deserved.
Once Upon A Time, for all its quirks and questions, is Worth A Binge. You may find yourself pointing at the tv once an episode with a “why the fuck did they do that” on your lips, but I guarantee you’ll be willing to overlook that in time.
All seven seasons of Once Upon A Time are now streaming on Disney+.