Sunday, December 14, 2014

Formula Shaken, Formula Reinforced: Why Once Upon A Time Season Two Is More Average Than Magical!

The Good: Decent performances, Moments of plot progression
The Bad: The characters do not truly grow or develop
The Basics: In its second season, Once Upon A Time works hard to explain what came before and make new adversaries who cause the characters to pretty much remain in place.

Once Upon A Time has been a tougher series to stick with than I initially thought. The first season of the show (reviewed here!) presented an interesting concept: what if fairy tale characters existed here in our world, today? The first season bounced between the fairy tale world and the modern world where the same characters existed without any memories of their magical existence. The first season of Once Upon A Time illustrated well how the writers and producers were very much bound by the storytelling model they created on Lost (reviewed here!); the first season was very much a back and forth between the two worlds, much the way Lost oscillated between life on the island and the flashbacks to the characters off the island.

The second season of Once Upon A Time is saddled with an immediate conceptual problem; the first season of the show climaxed with magic returning to Storybrooke. Bringing magic into our otherwise mundane world forced a fundamental change in the series and to deal with that, the writers had to essentially undo it almost right away. But the problem with Once Upon A Time Season Two is not the way it almost entirely eliminates the real consequences of magic existing in our world, but the way it forces the characters to stagnate, as opposed to truly evolve. Regina, the villain of the first season, is given more backstory to make her more sympathetic and when her “creator” - her mother Cora - enters the narrative, Regina reverts as opposed to reforms and that is a disappointing step back. Perhaps as important, the second season of Once Upon A Time illustrates the problems of using flat fairy tale characters as their subjects; the bloated cast of characters is unable to utilize the entire group well and the show has to add more characters who are not even fairy tale characters to try to flesh out the story and sell the spin-off. In a world filled with magic, there seems to be no real need for Dr. Frankenstein, but Once Upon A Time adds him to the mix, along with Cora, Captain Hook, and Peter Pan.

With magic returned to the citizens of Storybrooke, Regina becomes targeted by everyone in town. For her protection, Regina is locked up, when a wraith summoned by Mr. Gold forces Charming and Emma to try to protect her. Using the Mad Hatter’s hat to try to banish the wraith, Snow White and Emma are teleported to the magical realm. In the magical realm from which all of Storybrooke’s residents came, Aurora is woken up by the heroic Prince Philip and Mulan before Philip is killed by a wraith. Mulan then tells Aurora the story of Neverland after Queen Regina cursed the land. In the one untouched corner of Neverland, Mulan and Philip searched for Aurora and it is to that corner of the otherwise cursed land where Mary Margaret and Emma find themselves. As Mary Margaret and Emma struggle to find their way back to Storybrooke, Charming and Henry work with Gold to find them and bring them home. Unfortunately, they fall under the machinations of Cora, Regina’s mother, who is working with Hook to get to our realm so she might get revenge upon Gold and Regina.

The inevitable return to Storybrooke does not afford Mary Margaret and Emma much of a catharsis. Almost immediately, Cora and Hook make it to the port in their cloaked ship and they begin to influence Storybrooke. Framing Regina as a killer, Cora discredits Regina and moves to eliminate Gold. But just as a stranger arrives in Storybrooke with his own agenda, Gold, Henry and Emma leave the town to search for Gold’s son who is living in the mundane world. But the stranger, Greg, and his betrothed, Tamara, have correctly divined the nature of Storybrooke and to get revenge upon Regina, they are committed to once again destroying all magic in the town!

Despite detours and repetitive machinations – it seems no matter how good Regina was originally and how much she wants to reform now for Henry’s sake, she will always revert to being the obvious, Evil Queen – the second season of Once Upon A Time follows much the same plot formula as the first season. As the new and previously unexplored residents of Storybrooke have their stories from the fairy tale realm spelled out, the residents of Storybrooke work to understand their new dual lives. Storybrooke is surrounded by a magical barrier, passing through which wipes the fairy tale characters of their fairy tale identities. As the residents adapt to magic being around, but most of them being unable to use it (Regina, for example, makes a promise to Henry not to use her magic), Emma and Snow White work their way to the magical portals that connect to Storybrooke.

What becomes problematic is how the cast is sprawled wide without utilizing all of them well. Meghan Ory’s Ruby is utilized for one major plotline wherein she is framed (because certain residents now know she is the Wolf and has a bloodlust when in that form) and Archie is only significant in the season for (apparently) being killed. In fact, when it appears that Regina has killed Archie it is almost a surprise that any of the residents of Storybrooke care; he is used so little in the season before and after that event!

Cora and Hook make for interesting-enough villains, though their plots are more predictable than they are surprising. Regina’s primary goal is to win Henry’s heart and mind, so when she seems to have killed Archie, it is not surprising that she is just being framed. In fact, Lana Parrilla’s performance in that arc is so convincing it becomes inconceivable that anyone in Storybrooke would not believe Regina.

But that sort of plot reversal is what brings about some of the disappointment in the second season of Once Upon A Time; even once it is clear that Regina has been framed, it is not so much the residents of Storybrooke who turn against her as much as it is that Regina willingly leaps back into the role of antagonist. It guts the power of her original convictions to be a better mother to Henry to so willingly become the enemy to everyone in town again.

Beyond that, the second season of Once Upon A Time continues to crowd the field of characters. Minor characters like Whale/Frankenstein get big arcs and the magic and mundane antagonists create more pull away from Snow, Emma, Charming and even Gold in terms of maintaining a coherent narrative.

Ultimately, Once Upon A Time Season Two is watchable, but hardly as original feeling as the first season.

For other shows from the 2012 – 2013 season, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Parenthood - Season 4
Veep - Season 1
Game Of Thrones - Season 3
New Girl - Season 2
Happy Endings - Season 3
The Walking Dead - Season 3
Arrested Development - Season 4
House Of Cards - Season 1
True Blood - Season 5
Revolution - Season 1
Orange Is The New Black - Season 1
The Newsroom - Season 1
Weeds - Season 8


For other television episode and season reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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