May 15, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Once Upon A Time”


After 5 seasons of declining success, if ONCE UPON A TIME were less synergistic for Disney/ABC (the movie studio used tonight’s 2-hour season premiere to showcase summer spectacles Alice Through The Looking Glass and The BFG), and if the rest of ABC’s non-Shonda Rhimes dramas were less mired in low ratings, series creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz would probably be charting out a plan for a dignified exit over the next season or two.  That would be the show’s most likely path to a happy ending.  But even though it’s exhausted all the familiar fairy tales that were its original substance, not to mention a large inventory of hit Disney movies (can’t wait for the Zootopia arc), Once has no finale in sight, and the series is becoming visibly tired.  Put another way:  just how many times can Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) doublecross the same small group of people, only to fool them yet again into temporarily trusting him, without the other characters looking like idiots?

Once tries to make itself a little easier for itself (and viewers) by slicing its season into a pair of arcs.  The fall story was a tricky one that combined an evil version of Savior Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) with a time-jump that only gradually filled in the details on what had happened in Camelot.  It more or less worked, although you could feel the writer/producers frantically creating and erasing curses, prophecies and talismans so that the pieces fit together.  The midseason arc, though, was something of a shambles.  Set mostly in the Underworld (which in a cost-saving measure turned out to be Storybrooke shot through a filter), its Big Bad was Hades (guest star Greg Germann), who was more or less Rumplestitskin all over again except with ludicrous CG flaming hair, making deals with our lead characters only to find an endless succession of loopholes to get out of them.  The concept allowed Kitsis & Horowitz to bring back a bunch of dead characters who really didn’t need to be resurrected, like Cruella De Vil (Victoria Smurfitt), the evil twin brother of Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), and the even more evil mother Cora (Barbara Hershey) of Storybrooke’s one-time Evil Queen, aka Regina (Lana Parrilla).  Just as Regina had reformed, her Wicked Witch sister Zelena (Rebecca Mader) was transformed into a better version of herself.  By the arc’s climax, there had been so many exceptions and footnotes to the rules of death that there didn’t seem to be any more than a random distinction between the “real” death of Robin Hood (Sean Maguire) and the temporary one of Captain Hook (Colin O’Donoghue), with the result that death as a permanent concept has little meaning in the Once universe.  (Who would even blink to see Robin somehow return again in a future arc?)

Kitsis & Horowitz may have sensed how thin it was all getting, because although they’ve often used the arc finales to provide a taste of what the next major storyline is going to be, this time they ended the Underworld saga a full 2 hours before the season’s close, using tonight’s supersized finale (Hour 1 written by Executive Producers David H. Goodman and Andrew Chambliss, and directed by Romeo Tirone; Hour 2 written by Kitsis & Horowitz, and directed by Dean White) to launch all the way into the Season 6 plot.

This one, too, feels tired, with yet another series of reversals unreversed, as Henry (Jared S Gilmore), disgusted by all that magic had done to everyone, spent the first three-quarters of the evening tracking down a way to purportedly bring it to an end–a development that remained in place for about three screen minutes, before wishes in a fountain brought it all back.  Although the arc brings in a new villain in the person of Mr. Hyde (Sam Witwer)–working with, of course, Rumplestiltskin–who by means of a convenient potion has been separated from Dr Jekyll (Hank Harris), the Big Bad is apparently none other than that Evil Queen, separated from Regina by that same potion, which effectively brings the show back very nearly to square one.  (It also squashes all the psychological dimensions both of “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” and of the original Regina/Evil Queen story.)  And although it was nice for chunks of these two hours to take place in a location other than Storybrooke or Once‘s soundstage sets, in locations that didn’t quite convincingly double for New York, the implication at the finale’s end was that we would be spending the new arc mostly back at home base.

Once Upon A Time is still rating above ABC’s drama average, but the numbers were down 30% this season (even more compared to the fall 2014 Frozen arc), and another year like that will leave it gasping for air.  It would be sad to see such an imaginative and initially well-crafted series end that way, but if its creators can’t come up with a new burst of ingenuity, and its network won’t relent, that may be its destiny–and as Once fans know, destiny is a hard thing to avoid.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."