Once Upon A Time: A Work of Creative Genius or a Tangled Mess?

Once Upon a Time

Beginning in 2011, writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz made viewers think about familiar fairytales in a new way with Once Upon a Time. Their premise was deceptively simple: what if every fairytale character you think you know is real and has been cursed to live in our world with no memory of their identities? Five seasons later, the hit show has gone through a multitude of characters, arcs, and worlds. It currently has 4.6 million viewers, and was second only to The Simpsons in its time slot a few months ago.

Despite these statistics, some former viewers feel Once Upon a Time has jumped the shark. They call its plotlines repetitive and its universes too complicated. With this in mind, are Kitsis and Horowitz creative geniuses or has their show finally become contrived garbage? The answer may lie between the two extremes.

Diverse Characters

Characters are one of the main reasons people invest in a television series. From the start, Once Upon a Time gives us a protagonist worth investing in: Emma Swan. At first, Emma looks like a typical prime time television character – a jaded, single New Yorker going on a date. We soon learn, however, that she’s a bail bondsperson who has no qualms about telling her quarry exactly when he’s busted, and chasing him down if necessary. Yet just as Emma Swan is not the typical modern single woman, she’s also not the typical tough-as-nails bondsperson. She’s celebrating her birthday alone, and though she doesn’t say it, viewers see she secretly longs for family, love, and a home.

This type of complex character profile keeps popping up throughout the show. The more characters we meet, the more nuances we encounter. Regina Mills, for instance, is supposed to be the Evil Queen from the Snow White fairytale. In the original story, this meant she was completely evil and unredeemable. In the Storybrooke universe, Regina is a high-powered but hurting woman who lost her true love and turned to darkness because she felt she had no choice. Regina’s son Henry looks like a typical innocent ten-year-old. As early as the first episode, we find this is far from true.  He’s fairly guileless but isn’t above disobeying authority or cutting corners to get what he wants or feels other characters need.

As Once Upon a Time has expanded, so has its cast of characters. In five seasons, we’ve met everyone from an abandoned young boy who became a Dark One (Rumplestiltskin), to a waitress with an identity crisis (Ruby), to a naval officer who turned pirate to avenge his brother (Hook). These characters give us a myriad of insights into human nature, but at this point there may be too many of them. The core group seems to change from one season to another, leaving certain characters with interesting arcs behind. Characters who were once established as protagonists now seem almost forgotten. Henry may be the biggest example, although Snow, Charming, and even Regina took back seats in seasons four and five. This progression might be natural as some characters get older, or as their arcs seem to resolve. However, Once Upon a Time might do better if it spent more time with its original protagonists, or stuck to a core group for more than a handful of episodes.

Many Worlds – Perhaps Too Many

During its run, Once Upon a Time has introduced viewers to many worlds. Its center lies in Storybrooke, Maine, but its characters constantly leave to deal with conflicts in other places. The Enchanted Forest, Neverland, Oz, Arendelle, and the Underworld have all made appearances. Each half or full season focuses on one world, giving viewers time to learn its layout and rules, and invest in its characters. Worlds are interconnected but can be self-contained when necessary.

The worlds’ interconnectedness has several advantages. Within Once, every story originated from fairytales or mythology, but each story becomes much bigger than its original form. This gives every character, no matter how minor, the opportunity for a backstory and expanded purpose. A viewer who finds Tinkerbell fascinating might not be satisfied with Disney’s version of her. In contrast, Once‘s Tinkerbell interacts with citizens of the Enchanted Forest and Neverland, and each interaction helps her develop as a character. Belle is not confined to a French village; she experiences adventure in her hometown, Arendelle, and the Underworld. Even the villains get to expand their journeys and evil repertoires. Rumplestiltskin, for example, changes the life of almost every character for good or ill.

Another advantage of so many interconnected worlds is the potentially endless supply of plotlines. The main antagonist in Oz is of course the Wicked Witch of the West, or Zelena in the Once universe. Once she is vanquished, viewers might expect to be done with Oz. Yet because Zelena’s life has touched so many other lives, she may never truly be vanquished. With every character she meets, she gets to choose light or dark; after that, she has to live with the consequences. Similarly, Snow White is a main Enchanted Forest protagonist, but Once delves into who she was before and after her time as a beloved leader. Thus, viewers get to see each event that shaped her. They get to see whether those events will influence who she chooses to interact with in the present, and how.

However, some viewers find so many interconnected worlds tiring and confusing. Keeping up with who is who and what happened when is a challenge. Iin DVD commentaries, the show’s writers admit they have a timeline mounted outside their writing room that has grown over 20 feet long. Aside from that, the many locations can work against the plotline supply. While unique, each world operates on rules. New plots happen when those rules are broken, our heroes must circumvent them, or something external threatens the rules or heroes. Viewers begin to wonder how many times they can watch magic be destroyed and resurrected. They ask themselves if they want to see another soul try to escape the Underworld and Hades. They worry the heroes are running out of original perils to fight.

As with Once Upon a Time’s diverse characters, there may be a simple solution to this problem. Kitsis and Horowitz have already proven they can create worlds and capture our imaginations. If the show continues for a seventh or eighth season, they would do well to choose one world to focus on. Instead of working so hard to bring in other threads, Kitsis and Horowitz could explore several simpler stories and let them come to complete endings, like standalone novels or short stories. The writers also need to refocus on the original, one-sentence plotline of their show: a woman from our world is summoned to bring happy endings back to fairytale world. There is no shortage of happy endings, and viewers don’t necessarily need a plot more complex than string theory to reach them.

What Type of Story Are We Telling?

Once Upon a Time began as a show that expanded fairytales and made them real to people who lived in our world. Those roots still exist, but they’re hard to find lately. Many viewers say Once has broken its own rules too many times, and they have a point. In seasons one and two, the rules seemed to be, “Focus on a plotline viewers are comfortable with, and then surprise them.” In interviews, Kitsis and Horowitz have said viewers expected the Dark Curse to go unbroken until the end of the entire series. Breaking it at the end of season one was the big surprise. It left viewers wondering what would, or could, happen next. In season two, the big surprise was Regina’s failsafe device and the fact that Storybrooke itself could be destroyed. Viewers wanted to see Storybrooke saved, and they didn’t know how that would happen.

Season three seemed to follow that pattern, but veered off course. The problem – rescuing Henry from Neverland and getting everyone home to Storybrooke – was riveting, but comfortable. Viewers could easily get behind the plights of a kidnapped child and his distraught family members. Once our main characters reached Neverland though, the main plot started focusing on other problems, such as who Baelfire really was and how Hook became a pirate. These threads were interesting, but they pulled viewers’ focus away from the main mission. We forgot to care about Henry because we were too busy with secondary characters’ unanswered questions.

With seasons four and five, Once focused even less on telling a story and more on world-building. There was no main mission in season four; the focus shifted from unfreezing Storybrooke, to finding Anna, to finding the author so Regina could get her happy ending. Bits of genres like gothic novel and science fiction were thrown in at will. Incongruent time periods were now okay, too. Cruella De Vil’s story arc yanked viewers right out of fairytale world and inexplicably into 1920s England.

By the time we reached season 5, it seemed the rules were completely out the window. Viewers were given yet another new locale in the Underworld. The heroes’ stated mission was to help departed souls move on, but that became tangled with defeating Hades. The overall storyline switched genres as well. Instead of fairytales, the writers were now exploring Greek mythology. While fairytales and mythology are related, they are not the same thing. One could argue they aren’t closely enough related to justify season five’s trip to the Underworld.

Currently, loss of focus might be why so many viewers think the show is a mess. However, like the curses in the show, this problem can be defeated. The “true love’s kiss” for Once Upon a Time may be stating one mission per season and sticking with it. Surprises are great, but if a surprise or plot twist doesn’t fit the mission, it should be thrown out. Additionally, the show must return to its fairytale roots. It should stop forcing other genres such as myth, mystery, or gothic novel to fit into the fairytale world. That may mean ending it sooner than writers or viewers would like; while there are thousands of fairytales, there are only so many ways to tell them. If the telling is coherent, however, fans will be satisfied when their favorite series does end. They’ll also be eager to revisit it.

Is Once Upon a Time a work of creative genius? Perhaps it was, once. Right now, it has many problems to overcome. Yet overcoming is possible, partly because many people truly love it. As characters have said throughout the show, true love can break any curse.

Works Cited

Porter, Rick. “TV Ratings Sunday: ‘Once Upon a Time’ Rises, Debate Outpaces NFL.” Neilsen Ratings, October 2016.

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  1. Well thought out and expressed! I lost interest because the storyline became too confusing and honestly, I want happy endings and success along the way, not just at the end of the season. I love a well written good vs. evil story but does it have to be SO dark? And when Hook AND Robin Hood died, well, there goes Emma and Regina’s happy endings so that was it for me. They might be resurrected by now but I didn’t stick around to see. Maybe I’ll catch back up on Netflix…

    • Stephanie M.

      Sheila: The show has definitely gotten darker in the past couple of seasons. Some of that darkness I’m okay with and some was a little much (Season 5, looking at you). I’m not going to spoil anything, but let’s just say Emma and Regina still have shots at happy endings. I just don’t know that the writers are going in good directions to get there.

  2. I enjoy everything about this show, and I hope it will get many more seasons.

  3. It is also intriguing when they add a new character to the cast. The way each character interacts with them is different, and I think that is parallel to the dynamic of people’s relationships in the real world.

  4. The actor who plays Henry is so bad, every time he has a scene that is supposed to be emotional is just hysterical. By now, you’d think they would have sprung for some acting lessons.

    • Stephanie M.

      Nap: I definitely liked him better at age ten. Personally, I’d have made it so Henry didn’t age either, even if it meant replacing him every couple of seasons, but I guess that would be an unpopular decision.

  5. Johansen

    I like this show. Robert Carlyle! He’s my favorite character.

  6. mikkele

    Started out as a very creative and very enjoyable show… well… It seems like the creators are running out of ideas, always bringing in new and new characters, adding more than one main story line to each season, just shows how the show has become very strained. I always have a feeling that there is too much going on but nothing is actually happening, problems are being solved too fast, we keep seeing flashbacks, to be honest, I really doubt that at this point anyone can really follow how the story ended up being where it is.

  7. Great article. This show makes me so happy! all the characters and the stories are so amazing! I cannot say enough good things about this show.

  8. Fairy Tales are the new fixation following vampires and zombies being done to death.

    In other words the next area of supernatural/scifi/fantasy to mine for profit in reaching a new audience.

    Recolourings of the Sandman comic for re-release, Fables, Soulfire

    Not that it is all bad, Gaiman and Willingham for example are great writers.

    My misery perhaps is that little is new and for an old fogie like me that is inevitably disappointing.

  9. It’s enjoyable fluff, like Harry Potter.

  10. Stephanie M.

    I don’t know if it’s “fluff”; it feels too complex to be fluff. But yes to the commenters who say the creators could do the complexities better. I feel like in books, you can get away with intense complexity because it’s easy to go back to a previous book and find where all the threads go. With TV, you can’t necessarily do that, which makes the writers’ jobs harder.

    Yes, fairytales are being done to death…but as someone who always liked them, and who was never into vampires and zombies, I say go ahead and mine what you can. When you run out of ideas though, just admit it.

  11. Ok I’m not all excited about it but ok?

  12. holanag

    I think a lot of people focus too much on ships, and that’s all they see. Also, this is not a soap or one of the usual TV dramas. We are not used to non-linear storytelling anymore. They also have a very rich layer of subtext (btw, gay is not the only form of subtext), which lies under each episode. This show deals heavily in metaphors, and real- world/real life comparisons just do not work.

  13. I have watched this show from the moment season 1 aired, and I only like it better as time moves on.

  14. I used to love this show, it’s a great mix of action and drama, old nostalgic fairy tale stories, and modern day life.

  15. Margurite

    It’s a fantastic twist on the usual fairy tales that we know.

  16. Lorriane Pak

    I watched this show for the first time in August 2014 and have been hooked ever since.

  17. Terresa

    This series started out great. But each season has gotten worse. Each season has weirdly, catered more toward kids in special effects and story lines, while keeping adult themes present (like the romance angles).

  18. Watched the first two seasons and I love the show. Lana Parilla is deliciously evil as Regina, but I do like the hints of vulnerability she shows.

  19. I make no apologies for LOVING this programme! Long may it continue.

    • Stephanie M.

      Keen: I absolutely agree, despite the fact that I had to be objective. Just because a show has problems doesn’t mean it can’t continue or that those problems can’t be fixed. I’ve seen much worse shows go on for 8-10 seasons or longer. Actually, I think that’s how a lot of good shows like OUAT get the shaft. People give up on them too soon.

  20. Jim Walsh

    This started off as must-watch family-time TV in our house, but the as the kids get older it fails to grab them. I’ve stuck with it hoping for a return to form, BUT, I just don’t LIKE the main protagonists. There’s little to differentiate good from bad, both sides of the coin seem to wrestle equally with the same types of moral conundrum and while they inevitably return to type the outcomes always seem to involve the same level of moral and ethical ambiguity and no one really “wins”.

    It’s hard to like characters who are whiney and entitled and all suffer from performance anxiety, irrespective of which world they come from and which “side” they are supposed to on.

  21. Santo Woo

    The best actors, by far, are the ones who play Regina and Rumplestiltskin; the ‘main’ character, Emma, is more wooden than Pinocchio.

  22. I love my HBO/Showtime/AMC/FX dramas, but there is definitely a place for shows the whole family can watch. Once Upon A Time serves as a US counterpart to the BBC1 Saturday night tea time family fare like Doctor Who and Merlin, and it is better than Merlin was.

  23. Stephanie M.

    I’ve been meaning to become a Whovian, but haven’t gotten around to it. I actually didn’t start watching OUAT until a couple years ago. It premiered when I was in grad school and had zip time for television. Now I’m wondering why I didn’t make time for it sooner.

  24. skylarjay

    Once Upon a Time is one of my favorite shows–at least it started that way. I agree that Once has gotten WAY too complicated, and don’t even get me started on the awkward family tree. (Literally everyone is related somehow…) But some of my favorite characters have been left behind or forgotten. The plot is spindling out of control. I would prefer to see the show peacefully end sooner than later rather than witnessing its inevitable crash-and-burn in the near future. Stop while you’re ahead, Once. We’ll appreciate you more because of it.

  25. I stopped watching this show when season 5 rolled around. It became too repetitive for my liking. I may try it one more time when the latest season comes to Netflix. Does anyone have any idea how many more seasons they think the show is going to last?

  26. Stephanie M.

    No idea. I’m hoping for 8, which to me feels like a good round number and a place to stop. But at this rate, I don’t see that happening. 🙁

  27. I definitely think the show lost a lot of focus in the plot trying to tackle every backstory for every character. I found a lot of those characters interesting, but I couldn’t keep track of the story overall while also trying to remember who was whose secret relative from which universe. The show had repetitive twists, but they just seemed to change the setting and characters.

  28. Jonathan Judd

    Good criticism, I like how you sift through all the issues and lay out the pros and cons. Ultimately, it does sound like the show has become a tangled mess, it would be interesting to explore further the links between shifting ratings and the different plot twists.

  29. Stephanie M.

    I hear that if OUAT lasts for a seventh season, they’re going to retool the show and keep just Emma, Hook, Gold, and Regina. A part of me hates that idea because it means losing a lot of characters I enjoyed. But another part says yes, it’s time for some people to go because their plots are resolved or they aren’t contributing. For example, I love Snow, Charming, and Henry. Right now though, they’re dead weight.

  30. well, this story shows remarkable work of mind by the author. It translates psychic world into reality but leaving the scenario up in the air and try to set into another viewpoints would make the viewer tired and eventually will not buy this kind of story.

  31. Alex Bato

    Absolutely one of the best!! My GF and I actually love this show. The author is brilliant how he depicts one scene from several different points of views.

  32. Alex Bato

    Absolutely one of the best!! My GF and I actually love this show. The author is in brilliant how he depicts one scene from several different points of views.

  33. I have never liked this show. To me it feels like it’s piggybacking off the success of other stories. The mixing of all the worlds could work, but it’s not done well in Once Upon a Time.

  34. LilyaRider

    Excellent article! I must say, I’m very interested in how they’ll take the show now that Emma, Snow, Charming, and Belle have decided that they’re done. If they do it right, it could be worth following, but the writers will have to tread very carefully to keep their fanbase happy.

  35. Rebecca

    I liked this show for the first few seasons but I found that it got confusing and I would miss an episode (because the channel they aired on changed it all the time) and not know what was going on until a new story arc started. I might have to try and watch it again but I’m not as keen as I’m so many seasons behind.

  36. I lost interest in this show after the mid-season finale of Season 6. But my best friend told me all the characters are leaving except Regina and Hook, and that Henry is getting replaced because he’s no longer a teenager. I think it’s good Snow and Charming are leaving because I got sick of them to be honest. It will be very interesting to see how they do Season 7.
    Excellent article by the way!

  37. Stephanie M.

    Thank you. 😊

  38. I quite enjoyed this article. I found it easy to relate to and I thought the opinion was balanced. I just really like the perspective and analysis.

  39. I quite enjoyed this article. I found it easy to relate, because I’ve watched the show a lot. I also thought the opinion was balanced. I just really liked analysis.

  40. I agree completely with the analysis in the article. I have watched most of the seasons (and have read recaps for the rest) and found the show veered off a bit too much in the later seasons. Hopefully, the changes planned for the new season will solve some of their issues.

  41. In all honesty, I stopped watching on the eve of the Frozen plot line for the exact reasons outlined above (funny how they chose to go with an adaptation of the classic fairytale ‘The Snow Queen’ rather than the original story itself). I could not agree more with the resolution reached in this article about sticking to one main narrative per season, it would certainly make thinks more coherent at the very least.
    An excellently constructed argument and article to say the least 😀

  42. giorginamckay

    Great argument. I myself only watched the pilot of the show, and never got back around to watching anymore episodes. But from what I’ve heard, the show had a great concept in the beginning, but has since lost sight of it in the past few seasons. I think that if they re-evaluate themselves then they may be able to save the show, otherwise it would be best for them not to renew another season.

  43. You nailed it with the problems this show is facing… I loved the first two seasons but stopped after that and got a bad feeling when they started introducing so many new characters, seemingly focusing a lot on hype instead of keeping a solid group of characters and running them through a single plotline that would allow them and the show to develop. Hopefully OUAT can revive the essence of what made it so good in the beginning and go back to simplicity before the series’ end.

  44. Once Upon a Time used to be a show I loved to watch, with my all-time favourite otp being Mulan/Aurora. There were so many interesting characters, with my favourites being Emma, Mulan, Belle, Aurora, Elsa, Neal/Baelfire, Ruby. I loved some of the villains like Peter Pan and Rumplestiltskin. I absolutely loved how dark and ominous the tone was with Neverland. My engagement in watching the show faltered due to the show becoming less interesting. Another negative was my otps perishing like Mulan/Aurora and Emma/Neal.

  45. Because the show is on ABC, a network overseen by Disney, I can’t help but think that the writers feel pressured to include as many characters from the extended canon of Disney films as they can. Tiana from Princess And The Frog has been added to season 7.
    And the Frozen Arc in season 4, that came around the time of the release of the multi billion dollar movie.

    I feel the same about it as in the article, that it would be nicer to have more focused stories for our core group of characters but I fear because of the involvement of the house of mouse that this might not happen.

  46. I don’t think that the stories connecting like they are is a bad thing. It’s creating chaos for a reason. Not to metion that they could be interconnecting these stories because they are characters that come from a realm of story. So technically, all stories can connect if you find the right pathways. I think they are doing an awesome job with the show and I’m excited for the newest season.

  47. Stephanie M.

    I tend to agree. I’m not entirely on board with what they did with Hook (won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it). But if the story built *around* that is believable, or fits into the overall arc, then I’m fine with it. I think the biggest thing detractors of OUAT forget is, the show takes place largely in magical universes. As in, fantasy. As in, the rules are much more fluid than in the real world. Now of course, that fluidity can get wearing, as you know from the article. But in my opinion, the realms in which a show operates is no reason to say the whole show is garbage.

  48. Lost interest just as the Frozen storyline started. The arc completely derailed the main storyline and once that happened, I was out. It’s not to hate on Frozen, I do like it, and I understand the want to take advantage of a hot property like that, but that point was the start of a lot of abandonment of familiar characters for me. The writers pick up new characters but just….abandon others, with no ending implied or in sight. And the problem is, a lot of popular shows go on just bc they’re popular, even if their stories should’ve been done way earlier than it’s gone for.

  49. Stephanie M.

    Yes, the abandonment of characters has always been one thing I didn’t like about the show. It’s kind of unavoidable when you have such a huge cast, but as I said, that just shows how badly Kitsis and Horowitz needed to stick to certain people and plots as much as possible.

  50. I would have to argue that these different views, backstories, and worlds were what made Once Upon a Time so fascinating. It expanded on the short Disney fairytales we grew up with, made them a little rough around the edges, and blew our imaginations. Personally, when watching a season or segments of a season when new characters were introduced I just grouped them to the fairytale they belonged to. For example, in the beginning we were focused on Snow White, in Neverland it made sense for Hook’s backstory because Tinkerbell, Peter Pan and him all belonged to the same. I can definitely understand the confusion of following the flashbacks and jumps from different worlds but in the case of this argument I would say the shows writers are genius!

  51. The “mess” is what makes Once Upon a Time more than just a fairy tale. We have been fed these happy endings and life goes smoothly notions, but that’s not true. For a child who is watching the animated story of snow white who’s life seems perfect, the basic happy endings will do. For an adult who has everyday “mess” with twist and turns, this show is great.

  52. To me, Regina’s character changed the way I view villains in film or television. It’s not that I excuse their violent actions, but something about their backgrounds that lead them to becoming an evil person helps me to understand how evil is created. Even though Regina committed many horrible crimes in her prime, all she ever wanted was love. It took her a while to learn from her mistakes but she, nevertheless, chose to learn from her mistakes and chose to forgive people who have hurt her in the past. Her character is hands down one of the best characters in television history, because it gave us a different perspective on what makes us human. Also, I related to her on so many emotional levels that I could not help but to feel as though her journey to finding happiness was my journey as well.

  53. Zahra Arshad

    I loved once upon a time, sorry I have nothing bad to say about the program I thought it was great. I’m a huge lover of fairytales and the show was just really good

  54. For an analysis of whether a television show is great, a big clue can be whether a show is remembered by many. Of course this tends to require the benifit of time, but the fact that it is rarely discussed even four years on should say quite a bit.

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