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?