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ABC’s Once Upon a Time initially managed to lure in audiences thanks to its plot, which featured a slew of fairytale characters stuck in our present-day world without any idea of who they were or where they came from. In Season 1, the sheer scope of the series was impressive—not only was there massive attention to detail in each of the green screen sets, the interlocking storytelling, split between today’s world and the former lives of all the fairytale characters in their world, focused on the characters and relationships, as well as a few great moments of villainy.
With a strong cast, some great guest stars and a totally unique premise, Once Upon a Time should have everything going for it. So, why don’t I feel that way, anymore?
Season 2 has gone a little bit off the rails in terms of plots and premises. When magic was brought into Storybrooke at the end of Season 1, I thought it was a pretty gutsy move for the series to so swiftly cut ties with the original storytelling mold of the show. However, this has led to a slew of complications thus far in Season 2, complications Once Upon a Time’s writers have yet to find an agreeable solution for. Following are my biggest issues with Season 2 thus far, and my hopes for a more successful future. Beware: if you aren't caught up on the series, there are a few plot spoilers!
1. Too Many Nonessential Characters
In Season 1, determining which fairytale character people from Ruby to Archie Hopper had been in their previous existence was pretty endearing. That the writers then found ways to implement the side characters into various scenes to remind us they were still around was the sign of a great ensemble cast. Now, the writers have given newcomers more screen time than their veteran cast, and it’s wearing thin extremely quickly.
Last night’s episode is a great example of this. Viewers got one plot involving a Frankenstein-storyline with a character, Dr. Whale, we’ve barely seen before and are unlikely to see in such a large capacity again. Fans also were privy to a second plot that focused on newcomer Captain Hook. Snow, Charming, Emma, and Gold—our main characters—barely popped up onscreen, and Regina was the only member of the regular cast to be truly involved in the storyline. Ruby and Belle didn’t show up at all, but apparently Jefferson and Mulan were good enough cast members this week to make the cut. Once Upon a Time has already created an army’s worth of great characters, and all they need to do, now, is help audiences to care about the characters, again. And for chrissakes, stop giving new characters full-episode plotlines.
2. The plot goes in too many directions
Once Upon a Time has always implemented a storyline where the cast lives in Storybrooke and happenings occur, as well as a separate set of flashback plots that explain who our characters were prior to being banished to the United States. Due to separate settings and telling wardrobe changes, it was fairly easy to follow these plotlines, despite the flashbacks jumping all willy nilly around in time.
In Season 2, the writers have added a whole third timeline, which pits two of our heroes (Emma and Snow) back into the fairytale land, this time in the present day. In theory, the added complication is a nice way to bridge the gap between our world and the world with magic, but in practice it comes off like a confused mess. The storyline is too spread out, none of the three plots each week get enough screen time, and occasionally it is even difficult to keep track of which storyline we are in. Eventually, I knew the present day magical world would have to come into play, but I was hoping that would occur well after the days of flashbacks were past.
3. What ever happened to the villains?
Once Upon a Time has hindered its biggest strength: its villains. Lana Parrilla’s Regina and Robert Carlyle’s Mr. Gold have always been creepy and a little sadistic, selfish and bold. They pull out hearts and make deals they couldn’t possibly lose. They twist people’s words and meddle in people’s lives and livelihoods. They are as vindictive in the present as they were in the fairytale land. Until suddenly, it has all stopped.
Sure, when the show steps into the past, Regina is more than willing to pull out a heart or two and Gold is up to his old tricks. However, in the present, Gold has found himself tied to all things good by the beautiful Belle. In order to be a compelling bad guy, you can’t really have kind and gentle baggage, and, at some point, Gold is going to have to choose. Until then, it’s not particularly exciting to watch the man waffling. Regina, on the other hand, is going through some sort of midlife crisis to return to her roots as a gentle princess. She wants to try to make amends with her son Henry, and she seems to want to try to confront her problems. She’s even going to therapy. By hindering it’s villains, the conflict in the show has to focus more on monsters and supernatural creatures. It’s a slippery slope, and I'm willing to bet it feels like a slap in the face to Parrilla and Carlyle.
Where do we go from here?
The holiday break is coming up in a little over a month, and Once Upon a Time will have some space to retool and rethink some of the major decisions made in Season 2. A little streamlining of the plot and its characters could go a long way, and a little innovation with the reasons for introducing new characters and the ways those characters are brought into the plot could go even farther. I may have spent the last few paragraphs bitching, but I want to be clear: I'm still on board with ABC's sophomore drama. I just want the show to shape up before it's too late.
Has Once Upon a Time fallen into a hopeless trap? No, but it will need more than a bean stalk, a magical compass, and a ragtag group of warriors to get it back on track again.