Once Upon a Time - LOST's Heir Apparent

Robert Carlyle is a huge reason to watch Once Upon a Time
In just one and a half seasons, the earnest ABC fantasy serial Once Upon a Time has transcended my mediocre expectations. It is not a great show, but a lovable one. It's not deep, but it's clever. It has fostered a tender, balanced relationship between its writers, actors and audience resembling something fluid, like a collective fan fiction experiment. It knows and loves its audience and understands its own quirky brand well enough to keep that audience. For a number of reasons, Once Upon a Time mirrors another hugely popular ABC show from a few years ago. That's no accident.

Right after LOST ended, Once (which languished in dev limbo for a decade while its writers cut their teeth on LOST and other shows) was pitched as a successor at the right time. Post-apocalyptic snooze-fests like Terra Nova, Flashforward, Alcatraz and Revolution were also unveiled in the post-LOST scramble to fill that void. They were all pitched as ambitious ensemble serials that would gradually establish cool mythologies and mysteries. Unfortunately, in the desperate struggle to emulate LOST's success before viewers tuned out, most of these shows ran too fast too soon, choking and tripping on their own wheel-spinning bloat. Writers of these big budget epic shows spent too much time shoving characters and mysteries down viewers' throats in as few episodes as possible. As a result, these LOST copycats (Flashforward in particular) became deadly boring, unfocused disasters almost immediately.

Of all these post-LOST shows, Once Upon a Time is the one, had you asked me then, that I'd have pegged to fail first. Now, 1.5 seasons later, I'm eating crow. It's the best of all of LOST's successors, and the one most deserving of praise. It's far from a masterpiece, heck - it's not great television like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire, or House of Cards. But it's so damned lovable that none of that matters.

Once concerns a wide ensemble of broadly drawn characters inhabiting - or rather trapped in - a fictitious place and coming to grips with their former identities. Sound familiar? It should. Once's creators (and main writers) Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis came up with the idea before writing and producing many episodes of LOST. A third Once writer, Jane Espenson, is known for her contributions to Ronald G. Moore's updated (now with Angels! edition of) Battlestar Galactica, and cult faves Dollhouse and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These guys know a thing or do about establishing mythology.

Once did not grab me at first. It began on such shaky wheels that I couldn't help but roll my eyes. Plot summary: an earnest young kid, clutching a book of fairy tales, tracks down his cynical long lost Mom (House's Jennifer Morrison) and brings her to a small Maine town to help her believe in magic. I know, right? Horowitz and the other writers, though, possess a keen talent: their understanding of stamping workable internal logic onto even the most ridiculous premises. Specifically, there are several tricks that Once has used from the beginning that have kept it from collapsing under its own weight.

The first step is to make character come first. LOST did this to great effect. Each episode focuses around a specific character, rather than throwing everything at you at once (exempting seasons premieres and season finales, which are usually crafted to showcase all the show has to offer). Even at its outset, several of Once's characters bored me. But sure enough, as the Season creaked to life, I suspected the writers were bored, too, and they shifted things up, making it up as they went along. Normally this would be anathema to good television, but these seasoned writers have a way of using every stray detail from earlier in the season to creative effect. While the CW sees fit to just invent new refuse out of thin air, Once's writers take old scraps from early on and recycle them in creative ways. They move the waste aside without creating too much garbage. It is this economical but flexible approach to storytelling, and a willingness to jettison what doesn't work that has endeared me to Once. Why cling to a character or subplot in service a grand mythology if all it does it bore?

This title sequence changes in subtle ways for each episode, which is neat.
Once's other most successful ingredient, also cribbed from LOST, is its episode structure. Each episode begins with the same title screen, but changes it up for each episode in a way that showcases that episode's theme with a different visual. This is brilliant marketing. Additionally, the program itself takes place over two separate worlds (much like LOST). First, the 'real world,' a place where fairy tale characters live out the lives of small town humans. The second world is the big, CGI-enhanced world of fantasy. Each episode isn't moored to time or place, but rather, character. Writers choose a character theme, then oscillate between the two worlds in an expression of that theme. Ideally, by the end of that episode, we're a step closer to understanding that character's motivations. Each episode, therefore, becomes a puzzle in a well mounted tableau. Lost did this brilliantly, and while Once doesn't possess the same seriousness and gravitas as its predecessor, it does a good job.

The next step for writers is to apply the LOST rule of laying out shifting rules and logic through character interrogations. Such big shows often paint themselves into a corner and wreck their own internal consistency as ideas about the show evolve. Clever writers, however, find ways to retcon these inconsistencies through little exchanges between characters. LOST increasingly used this device as its mythology became more complex. For instance, are viewers confused about why ______ didn't just ______? No worries. A character is about to ask that same question on the air. The one who answers also winks slyly at the audience as if to say "we are working out the same logical problems in our writers rooms as you are in your living rooms. We're all in this together."

I'm not normally a fan of this self conscious style of writing. On a show like Breaking Bad or The Wire, it would be embarrassing. But on Once, such ridiculousness is part of the charm. There is no pretense that this is a show about higher things. It's a goofy fantasy show that dabbles in themes like faith and legacy, just as LOST did. It's not high art, but it's not remotely trying to be. Even LOST was a much better program when it clung unashamed to its serial roots, and the moment it decided it wanted to be an extension of co-creator Carlton Cuse's religiosity and Damon Lindelof's obsession with unknowable mysteries, the bottom dropped right out from underneath it.

Once has no such pretensions, at least not yet. It's a show about fairy tale characters - Rumpelstiltskin, Jack and the Giant, Mad Hatter and the Queen, Snow White and the Dwarves, Prince Charming and Captain Hook, and a dozen more. They're all swirled into a completely nonsensical rebuke to their source material. That is, perhaps, why I think the show works. It's not trying to please pedants and purists. It's making its own thing and cashing in on its parent company's legendary cache of characters in the process. Horowitz has expressed his intentionally freewheeling, impressionistic vision of these classic characters, and I think it opens up the creativity on the show. Without a doubt, the show's greatest asset, from the very beginning, is its humility about changing itself up and its sly humor about not giving a shit as it does so.

The success of Once is also reflected in its impressive roster of actors. Robert Carlyle is a treasure as the fey, wicked Rumple and his 'real world' counterpart, a pawn shop owner with a gold cane, an agenda, and David Cassidy hair. Carlyle's considerable scenery chewing is worthy of some kind of Razzie/Emmy hybrid (his Rumple accent is so over the top it's almost hypnotic). The writers must have seen watched Carlyle's heartbreaking turn as the cowardly husband and father in 28 Weeks Later, because Rumple is essentially the same character, only with magical powers.

A lonely, sensitive outcast. Yep, it's still Hurley.
The always likable Jorge Garcia (Hurley from LOST) very recently joined the cast straight off the failed Alcatraz, playing a giant that looks and acts exactly like Hurley. Not content to let him languish in his abandoned castle in the sky, the writers shifted him down to size and let him join the rest of the cast in just his second episode. LOST's Emilie de Ravin plays Belle, a character, like LOST's Claire, suffering from attachment to a troubled soul and temporary bouts of crazed amnesia. Lastly, LOST's Alan Dale (the most ubiquitous presence on ABC next to the ABC logo itself) is no less than an evil king. I still expect to see LOST actor and Lord of the Rings hobbit Dominic Monaghan appear as a dwarf at some point. My point here is, for all the broad strokes and hokey characterizations, Once isn't a show that squanders what opportunities it has to gain viewers and give them what they want. Unlike a host of other serials (including most CW trash), one gets the sense that the writers aren't in a bubble, simply serving up what they think works.

It's clear that, for some viewers (me included), Once Upon a Time is a program for LOST fans who didn't want LOST to end. Once's world is like the alternate dimension to the alternate dimension on LOST, a place where beloved actors now work in service of what makes them so good. It's also a sincere place, a place where even the most wicked characters fall back on hokey sentiment when the need arises. Once crept up on me in service of getting me to care, in spite of my instinct to wave it off, in fairy tales again. Despite my instinct to call it out on its corniness and hokey sentiment, I find I am ensnared all the same.


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