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Deconstructing “Once Upon A Time” the TV Series

Editor’s Note: This is a review of season one of Once Upon A Time. It contains spoilers for the entire first season. Read with caution if you haven’t seen all the episodes.

Once Upon A Time - TitleCertainly a runaway hit for ABC, Once Upon A Time ended its debut season with a mind-bending cliff-hanger, true to the form of the Lost series producers, Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. The popularity of Once makes me curious about two things: the design of the plot over the past season; and from the finale, where season two will take viewers.

The plot, as defined by the basic premise of fantasy, will ultimately permit an outcome where good will triumph over evil. According to classic plot design, the main character was first introduced in a likeable manner. We bonded with Emma Swan enough to root for her in the adventures to come. The series quickly reached what is called the First Plot Point, where the main character is at a turning point with everything changing and threatening routine life. Emma soon became intertwined into the community of Storybrook. She couldn’t turn away from that town once she engaged for the first time with her son, Henry, who she had previously given up for adoption. Becoming active in his world, her life was changed.

Once Upon A Time - Snow WhiteHenry struggled persistently to show Emma the truth about the underlying fairytale which had brought all of the townspeople to live there after a curse was set upon them by the Evil Queen, Regina. Week after week, snippets of Grimm’s fairytales were employed to give back story for all the characters. That proved to be an effective device, drawing upon viewers’ memories of childhood readings. To enhance the intriguing effect, the classic tales were twirled into a jigsaw fit with all the others—a grand theme, linking all the characters.

Still, despite all of Henry’s attempts, Emma didn’t believe the tale or her destiny to be the “savior” who could break the curse. At the culmination of the season, the series revealed what is termed the Midpoint in plot design, when the main character receives new information that allows him or her a plan of attack. They stop floundering and form a clear path. In the series, Emma became a believer, but at a horrible cost. Unable to convince her any other way, Henry took a bite of the torte Regina had made from her last evil magic apple, a dessert intended for Emma. When Henry fell into a coma-like state from the black magic, Emma could no longer refute his theory about the residents of Storybrook. Enraged, she accepted her special abilities as the “savior” in order to save her son’s life. In doing so, she broke the evil curse over the entire community. At that important midpoint turn, Emma was empowered. She goes forward as a warrior, attacking the opposition.

Admittedly, throughout the season, I was baffled why the writers didn’t allow much gain for the good faction. Now, with closure of the last two episodes, I see the design beginning to unfold in an expected, tried-and-true pattern. This is something of a surprise to me to see a pattern, considering the producers of Lost never followed classic plot design with that series.

Once Upon A Time - QueenWhat lies ahead is an interesting question. The manipulative anti-hero character of Rumpelstiltskin (in the fairytale world)/ Mr. Gold (in the real world setting) unleashes magic into the environment of Storybrook where they have all been transplanted. This will certainly shift the rules on the battle field. Just prior to his unusual action, evil had taken a hit when Emma broke the curse. Regina went into hiding in her home, expecting the worst when townspeople realized she had been responsible for the curse that changed everyone’s lives. The remainder of her black magic was spent in her last attempt to block Emma. She was helpless. Now, with tools of magic in hand once again, Regina is renewed—the battle begins anew. But this time it will be with Emma empowered by her awareness, her belief in her own abilities and responsibilities to the community. In coming shows, she will need to learn fast how to wield the magic that is now at her disposal but unfamiliar to her. She will persevere since she now has purpose. According to accepted plot design, the struggle will go back and forth at an increasingly accelerated pace. The characters will face greater and greater risks until they reach a scene where Emma will be cornered by evil, in despair and at the precipice of giving up. At that moment, the Second Plot Point will occur; a new tool/power/knowledge will turn the battle in favor of good. She will swiftly overcome evil.

Since a clear textbook midpoint was reached at this season’s end, we are lead to expect that the finale of the second will bring closure and the triumph of good. However, this is television, and much of what progresses is affected by ratings. The real question may be—how long can the writers of Once Upon A Time expand the battles prior to the exciting Second Plot Point that we all are looking forward to?

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Rating: 8.6/10 (9 votes cast)
Deconstructing “Once Upon A Time” the TV Series, 8.6 out of 10 based on 9 ratings
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3 Comments

  1. Larik says:

    Honestly. The show, Grimm, in my opinion is much better. It makes use of the fairy tails, but uses them as they were originally intended to be: moral lessons as well as tales of horror to scare your kids into submission. The last part, of course, will make parents cringe and say: “WE WOULD NEVER!” but we all know the truth, so we might as well just say it. Once Upon A Time just doesn’t have much originality to me, and I expected more from the producers of Lost, seeing as how one of the producers/directors/creators (J.J. Abrams) has managed some pretty great shows. Fringe is amazing, Nikita is great, Person of Interest is epic, so I was disappointed by the story of Once Upon A Time.

  2. Cindy says:

    II have to say that my favorite part of the series is the character development. This is the best example I have seen in a very long time of well rounded characters. Evil is never all evil and good has some definite problems.

  3. Excellent breakdown and good comparison to LOST. I am following ONCE UPON A TIME and have mentioned it a few times on #scifichat. I don’t recall when or where, but I did blog about this PREMISE they are using, that this real world of ours is the place where Happily Ever After can’t happen.

    My thesis in my writing craft posts on http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com where I post on Tuesdays is that this real world of ours is exactly where HAPPILY EVER AFTER can and does happen — in fact, is inevitable under certain circumstances.

    My novels are mostly Love Stories, though I did win a Romantic Times Award for one book, DUSHAU. The premise behind everything I write is that life is rigged to favor the Happily Ever After ending in our real reality. It’s only in fiction that it’s possible to make things look as if that’s not possible.

    What I find most fascinating about ONCE UPON A TIME is how it speaks to such a broad swatch of the general public that is firmly convinced that this Earth of our everyday existence is the place where Happily Ever After can’t happen. So far, I haven’t seen the writers plant harbingers of a way to change that, but it would be the natural direction of the plot for the series.

    You are correct, though, that they are keeping to the classic “beats” for this script.

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