Back when it first launched, I called ABC’s Once Upon A Time “the first piece of post-Lost genre drama on mainstream television.” Hyperbole, perhaps, but as the show reaches the finale of its first season tomorrow night, there’s no denying that the show may have been my favorite guilty pleasure of the television year.
Throughout the twists and turns of the show’s first season, Once Upon A Time has felt like a magpie of a show, built from bits and pieces of other shows and other genres, all stitched together into something shameless and shamelessly appealing. The scheduling of the show just before Desperate Housewives each Sunday doesn’t feel like a mistake considering the soapy goodness of many of the show’s more traditional plots (“Will Mary Margaret and David get together?” “Who killed Kathryn?” and so on), and Lana Parrilla’s pantomime villain Regina has proven to be one of television’s most enjoyably watchable big bads with her continually over-the-top portrayal filled with snarling, smouldering and sneaking wherever necessary. In more ways than perhaps initially intended, Regina is the heart of the show; if you can’t get over her hamming it up on a weekly basis – There’ll always be at least one scene each episode where you’re convinced that, had she a moustache, she’d be twirling it while sneering at the camera – then the show is likely to be a dud for you, because Regina embodies the camp appeal of the show in a way that few characters ever manage to fully sum up their respective stories. I am not believable, but I am fun, Regina says (without ever coming out and saying it, of course), But this isn’t meant to be realistic. This is a fairy tale, just like the title says.
(That’s something else that’s fascinating about the show: it’s a funny show, but not in a quippy or obvious way. There’s a sly humor at play in the show that’s not the broadness of something like Lost‘s attempts at comedy nor Whedonesque snark and reference-laden shout-outs, but something quieter and more of an in-joke for those in the know. Everyone who wants to take the show semi-seriously doesn’t have to avoid characters breaking into jokes every two minutes.)
Looking back, I suspect that calling the show “post-Lost” was jumping the gun in some ways. After all, OUAT hewed a little too closely to the Lost format, with its dual storylines every episode that had a thematic/plot connection that was sometimes a little too on the nose, as well as its fondness for the “big reveal” and wildly improbable plot twists (My favorite was probably the undoing of Kathryn’s death, despite her heart having been found in a box weeks before she reappeared; even with the get-out-clause of “Mr. Gold is behind it, so there’s probably magic involved somewhere,” that one was kind of too much for me, but as I said: This is a show that doesn’t really want you to think about it too much: The Anti-Lost, perhaps, then…?). But nonetheless, I remain impressed that it went an entire season without revealing that there was a bigger mystery behind the one that we already knew the answer to from the pilot episode.
Not that the show didn’t find itself filled with smaller mysteries to keep viewers hooked; the first season had a steady stream of smaller questions that demanded answers, a new one popping into prominence just as the last one was answered: Who is August? What happened to Kathryn? Will Emma believe? And so on. The trick to Once Upon A Time‘s compulsive watchability, maybe, was that it managed to have its secret cake and eat it: Viewers always knew more than the (majority of the) characters, but there was always some unknown that we had to keep watching to uncover.
And so, I find myself awaiting tomorrow’s season finale with the kind of excitement and anticipation that normally comes from shows that I’ve got more of an emotional attachment to (Doctor Who) or are, well, just better (Mad Men). It’s not just that I want to know what happens when Emma finally confronts Regina – although I do – or that I’m particularly invested in the fate of any of the characters – Sadly, they could kill off Henry and I wouldn’t be that upset – but because I can rest assured that the hour I spend getting the answers to my questions is also likely to be the most unashamedly entertaining hour of the television week. Sometimes, it’s fun to just watch well-made popcorn, don’t you think…?
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