In the television world, an arc-driven, sustainable, water-cooler show that finds ratings success is a bit of a fairytale.
ABC found the sweet spot in 2004 with “Lost,” but a worthy successor has eluded the networks since then. But if anyone has come the closest to finding that magical formula, it is ABC’s “Once Upon a Time.”
Like “Lost,” “Once Upon a Time” is what might be called “grounded fantasy” — relatable to the audience, but with enough magic and mystery to fascinate. Like “Lost,” it crafts flawed characters, secret agendas, multi-episode stories, flashbacks to a different world,and plenty of surprises. Like “Lost,” it held onto its audience after the initial curiosity waned.
Make no mistake about it, “Once Upon a Time” is more obviously aimed at the female demographic than “Lost” was. The first season centers on the battle between two mothers and a quest for true love between Snow White and Prince Charming (and their alter egos). In fact, there is a lot of questing for True Love going on.
But there’s more to it than just a soap opera. The series’ mystery and intriguing characters are enough to draw in viewers of all types. It twists familiar stories into surprising new adventures.
In the fairytale world, the series introduced an eighth dwarf, killed the apparent Prince Charming during an opening teaser, and bumped off Cinderella’s fairy godmother before the ball.
And in our world, we got mysterious motorcycle-riding strangers, secret basement dungeons and a room full of stolen hearts.
Season 1 wasn’t all about the ladies, either. It wisely focused on Rumplestiltskin, making good use of Robert Carlyle’s talent. Rumplestiltskin is a tough nut to crack, and even in the final moments of the season, he still proved to be able to surprise. His father/son story was in good company with the arrival of The Stranger and his daddy issues, the heartbroken Mad Hatter, and a heartless Huntsman.
Of course, the first season of any series has kinks to be worked out. “Once Upon a Time” has to create a believable imaginary world on a television budget. Some effects work were better than others. There have been some dodgy digital backdrops and an over-reliance on the ubiquitous British Canadian rainforest.
The premier season also dwelled a bit too long on the will-they, won’t-they dance between Mary Margaret and David. Tedium occasionally set in when this hand was overplayed. And Lana Parrilla doesn’t always pull off the Evil Queen as well as could be hoped.
The series also has woefully underused many of its peripheral characters. Characters like Ruby and her granny, Dr. Hopper, Marco, and six of the seven dwarves appear often but have yet to be granted real depth.
Guest characters have sometimes been more interesting than the primary players, as well. The arrival of August Booth halfway through the season reinvigorated things, as did the deliciously mad Mad Hatter.
But the series has a lot of potential to work with. In addition to “Lost” scribes Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, the series has already drawn some good acting and writing talent, such as Sebastian Stan and fan-favorite writer Jane Espenson.
It enjoys an almost unlimited source of fairytales to work from. It pays attention to continuity, even in those small ways that bring joy to a genre fan’s heart. And there’s payoff in the stories for diligent fans as well as casual viewers.
As the season ended, the series answered one of its most fundamental questions — “Will the Curse be broken?” — with a resounding “yes.” But in doing so, it opened itself to a whole new set of stories for Season 2. Taking a page out of the “Lost” playbook once again, “Once Upon a Time” appears to be resetting the board to keep the audience interested in the game.
The question is, will it be able to keep the magic alive next year, or will its tale just end up being relegated to “Once upon a time …”?