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What Makes Once Upon A Time A Different Type of Mystery Show – And Why That’s Good

So, I admit it; I watched Once Upon A Time last night, and really enjoyed it. It’s not for everyone – Anyone who has a problem with the idea of turning fairy tales into what is essentially supernatural soap opera, this really isn’t the show for you – but there was something in particular about the show that made me think that it could be the Next Big Thing to influence genre TV to come… and that, weirdly enough, it may be the first piece of post-Lost genre drama on mainstream television.

I say “weirdly enough,” because a lot has been made about the fact that this show comes from two Lost writers – Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, although I think everyone needs to admit that Bill Willingham’s Fables comic, once optioned for television by ABC Studios, the same studio behind this show, bears some responsibility in the creation – but, watching the pilot, I kept thinking about how this is a rare show in that it’s really not trying to emulate the long-running ABC show, but instead learning (the right) lessons from it, and going in the opposite direction. What do I mean? Well, it’s really very simple: Once Upon A Time isn’t trying to make its audience guess the secret behind everything.

Oh, sure, there are secrets and mysteries in the first episode, of course (What, exactly, did the Evil Queen do to transform Storybrook? Why is Rumplestiltskin in charge in the new version? Is Emma really Snow White’s daughter? What happens when everyone finds out who and what they really are?), but it’s not a show that’s wholly centered around those mysteries, like Lost was… or FlashForward, or The Event, or Battlestar Galactica for that reason, or any one of a number of shows that followed in the wake of Lost‘s success. What makes Once Upon A Time special – and what, I think, we’ll see other shows borrowing as a concept in the near future – is let the viewer in on the big secret that the cast doesn’t know yet (Well, apart from Henry), which has two big benefits. Firstly, it gives the audience a reason to hang around (What will happen when everyone finds out?), and secondly, it removes the potential for the eventual reveal to disappoint viewers, and ruin the show retrospectively.

By showing its cards in the very first episode, Once Upon A Time removes the chance that it’ll disappoint viewers in any way other than execution, and that’s a really big deal these days, considering the reactions to finales of Lost and BSG, or cancellations of FlashForward and The Event (or Happy Town – hey, remember Happy Town? – or any other countless shows that didn’t make it past season one) that meant stories were never properly revealed. Instead, it does exactly what a pilot should do, in the best possible sense: Say “This is what we’re about. Want to come along?”

It’s possible that it took the experience of working on Lost to make Horowitz and Kitsis decide to reveal the secret of Storybrook to the audience right off the bat; maybe they didn’t want to be yelled at down the road, or realized that the only thing that would make this show stand out apart from Happy Town or The Gates or whatever would be the big reveal, and they knew they only had one chance to convince viewers. Whatever the reason, I’m glad they did it this way – Not insulting the viewers’ intelligence, but not exhausting their patience, either – and I really hope that this is the model for this kind of show in the future. After all, if your show can’t stand up to its secrets being revealed, what kind of show do you really have in the longterm, anyway?


  • Anonymous

    I thought it was ok and i will watch it again.

  • Brian Middleton Jr

    I think the pilot was a decent episode.  My wife certainly enjoyed it.  I think it’s more telling about television as a whole though, and less so about the show itself, that Once Upon A Time revealed the secret right from the start.  I think they would be hard pressed to reap the benefits of having the fairy tale characters while also keeping the premise of the show a secret.  I do feel that they are doing a lot of a good things so far, as far as advertising goes, as well as the storytelling points that you have mentioned.  Several shows have boasted about being the next Lost, but this one actual has Lost alum on it.  They are practically coming out and saying, “These guys have done it right before, you don’t have to worry about being let done.”  All in all, the packaging has been well done so far.  I’m interested to see it going forward.

  • Talnyc

    I have to agree with what was written.  I enjoyed that we knew what the secret was.  The progress was just right.  I’m def looking forward to what happens next week.

  • james

    I’m sorry but this show was terrible. The acting was like something you’d find in a made for tv SyFy movie.

  • Chris_Hunter

    How can they do this, especially considering Willingham’s FABLES series? Surely he has enough grounds to sue for this?

  • Erikgalston

    not really, if you actually watch the show, which clearly you didn’t, the only thing it shares with Fables is using fairy tale characters in modern times.  That’s it.  

  • Chris_Hunter

    Watching it now, Erik. Not finished yet. Also, in case you weren’t aware, there have been suits for even less from creators for even much less in common.

  • Erikgalston

    but can someone really sue for someone else using public domain characters?? its not like Willingham created any of the characters in fables, sure he created how they act in the book, but he doesn’t own Snow White and company. 

  • Chris_Hunter

    True, but the intellectual property can be trademarked and owned, similar to what Willingham has done with FABLES. There have been all kinds of suits in the past for even slight similarities to similar concepts and properties. Just seems like Willingham was wronged in this whole situation to me is all.

  • Eric

    You can sue anyone for anything. It’s a matter of whether or not it’s worth it.

    DC/Willingham would say “it’s got Fables in the modern day!  Snow White is a main character!”

    OUAT would say “yeah, but she’s not the main character, which is her daughter.  Here fables don’t know they’re Fables.  They don’t live in a high rise in NYC where they keep their secret at all costs.  They weren’t chased here by the Emperor, they were forced here and don’t know how or why.  There’s no detective wolf. There’s no business office, no pesky rebel sister, no opportunistic Jack.  Prince Charming here is Snow’s actual true love, not a playboy.”

  • ATK

    I have no problem with the premise or the story, I have a problem with being bored.

  • Ghost

    I do think you’ve hit on something with the ‘reveal the secret right away’ idea and why that paradigm is important in genre television as we go forward.   The more important mystery for the audience should be “What happens next?”, not “Why is all this going on?”.

    That said, I think you’re overstating the use of that philosophy with this show.  While we know the big ‘why’ (and to a certain extent, we HAVE to, or the show simply doesn’t work – I can’t imagine anyone wanting to watch a show where somehow all everyone in town has a fairy tale counterpart but nobody knows this except one person and nobody has any idea how it happened), it still looks like a show built on long drawn out mysteries, in the vein of the OTHER part of Lost… where we’re left wondering for years “what was Kate’s crime?” or things like that.  In OUAT, it’ll probably be a steady stream of “Who was this character in the other world and how did it change in the real world?” mysteries getting brought up and solved (adding up to one big ‘who was everybody?’ mystery that persists), but I forsee a lot of intrigue about specifics, characters who seem to be good guys but actually were working with the Evil Queen, etc.  There are also still potential for some big ongoing mysteries, like where Happily Ever After-land actually came from, the rules it operates on and how it relates to the real world.

    It’s also, unfortunately, judging by the first episode, not a very good show at all in terms of acting and writing and the cheese factor is way too high.

  • Kyle

    Actually, I believe the Sheriff is in fact the Big Bad Wolf here, as well. 

  • Eric

    The article has it backwards.  Saying they “revealed the secret” by letting the audience know they’re fables is like saying Lost “revealed the secret” by letting the audience know the characters are on an island.  In fact, most of Lost’s “secrets” weren’t even suggested until well into the show’s run.  This show will, if it lasts long enough, come up with its own big secrets.

  • Erikgalston

    or you know it could also be the huntsman that the queen sent after snow white in the actual fairy tale. 

  •!/ David R. Schmitt

    So you could actually look past the amateurish acting and dull character portrayals? Good for you. My money is on Grimm however.

  • Kevint40

    Pilot was just okay, but the emotional damage and conflict that is revealed in episodes 2 and 3 really started to click for me.  The Queen is a real bitch who killed her daddy to get what she wanted! We think we know what’s driving them but there are clearly more secrets, and everyone is taking this PERSONALLY.  I’m really starting to dig it

  • Kristimcshane

    I like this show more then Son’s of Anarchy and Breaking Bad… I never thought that was going to happen! 

  • Kristimcshane

    I like this show more then Son’s of Anarchy and Breaking Bad… I never thought that was going to happen! 

  • Kristimcshane

    I like this show more then Son’s of Anarchy and Breaking Bad… I never thought that was going to happen!