December 16, 2013

THE SKED Fall Finale Review: “Once Upon A Time”


It seems that for many viewers, ONCE UPON A TIME has become too conceptual for its own good.  The ratings, so robust just 2 seasons ago, have continued to sink (down another full ratings point this season), and while Once is still relatively successful by ABC standards, it’s no longer a substantial hit.  Nevertheless, this fall mini-season was ingeniously constructed by series creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, who wrote tonight’s potent Act 1 finale, directed by Ralph Hemecker.

In terms of retaining viewers, it was probably disconcerting and thus a mistake to set the bulk of the fall season far from Storybrooke, in Neverland–it almost made the show feel like a spin-off of itself (and thinking of spin-offs, let’s not think of Once Upon A Time in Wonderland, which simply hasn’t been able to duplicate the original Once‘s appeal).  The main Kitsis/Horowitz twist, that Peter Pan (Robbie Kay) was the arc’s Big Bad (really he turned out to be Rumplestiltskin’s father… long story), was clever, but difficult to visualize, and at times it looked borderline-silly, like a really mean high school sophomore in a green leotard was scaring everyone to death.  This became an even bigger problem late in the story when Pan changed bodies with Henry (Jared Gilmore), because Gilmore simply wasn’t capable of pulling off adult-souled villainy.  Also, although Kitsis & Horowitz and their fellow writer/producers came up with plenty of obstacles and twists along the way, much of the story seemed to consist of our band of reluctant heroes trudging from one end of the Neverland forest to another, then back again.  It also has to be admitted that there were times when the parallel storylines featured in every episode felt less than essential, often flashing back to sequences whose place in the complicated overall timeline of the show’s mythology were unclear.

Whether or not it’s because the producers and network realized the show needed to move back to its original version of reality, the midseason arc will return the action to the Enchanted Forest, where all the characters lived before Regina’s (Lana Parrilla) curse created Storybrooke.  The price of stopping Pan’s version of the curse was that Storybooke would cease to exist and Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), Regina and the rest would go back with no memories of their time on Earth, only Emma (Jennifer Morrison) and Henry left to fend for themselves in New York City–although clearly there was a loophole, since the tag on the finale, setting up the midseason episodes, had Captain Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) showing up to try and restore Emma’s memory.  It’s also unclear what the status is of Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle), who sacrificed himself in Storybrooke to kill his father Pan, but who may still be alive back home.

There are definitely times when Kitsis and Horowitz seem so preoccupied with the zigs and zags of their revisionist fairy tales that those twists threaten to overwhelm the emotional heart of the series, and they go to the well of “all magic has a price” so often that it’s almost become a running joke.  The fall finale, though, had plenty of emotion, as first Rumplestiltskin and then Regina redeemed themselves with their willingness to put the interests of others before their own.  There were also effective moments along the way for Hook and Tinker-Bell (guest star Rose McIver, also seen this season as Beau Bridges’s and Allison Janney’s daughter on Masters of Sex, a memorable contrast by any measure).  The cast as a whole deserves a lot of credit for the commitment they bring to their stylized, multiple-dimension roles.

Kitsis and Horowitz come from Lost, and despite the wide success Once Upon A Time had when it started, it seems like the writers’ hearts really belong to complicated, cultier niche storytelling.  Once might have held on to its coolness quotient if it aired on cable (it also might have had a budget more equal to its ambitions–the show’s directors clearly do everything they can to stretch their resources, but sometimes the show looks cheaper than it should), rather than being seen as a mass appeal series that’s lost its mass appeal.  There’s still a high degree of inventiveness to be found in that Enchanted Forest, though, and the closing promo’s reveal that a (presumably non-singing) Wicked Witch of the West will be showing up next suggests there’s more fun in store when the series returns after its long break in early March.

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."