May 13, 2013



When a show that’s clearly been losing its way creatively suffers in the ratings, like Revenge, it’s understandable.  But ONCE UPON A TIME has run out of steam this season much faster than ABC likely anticipated.  Late last season, Once was regularly getting a 3 rating in 18-49s, but this season’s average dipped to a 2.7, and in recent weeks (2.1, 2.0, 2.2) things have turned considerably worse.  It’s still a success under current network definitions of that term (in fact, ABC just picked up a spin-off set in Wonderland), but it’s looking much less like a breakout hit.

What happened?  The plotting by series creators/showrunners Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz has been unflaggingly inventive and surprising, the show is dotted with colorful characters and (by TV standards) splashy special effects, and yet the audience has been tuning out.  Part of the problem may be network scheduling, with 22 episodes spaced out over the course of 8 months (speculation is that the Wonderland spin-off may be used to plug in the middle of the season, with Once airing uninterrupted new hours in fall and late spring.)  But the show itself is likely responsible as well.

One factor may be that Season 2 of Once has been appreciably darker, and thus less of a all-family show.  Tonight’s season 2 finale, written by Kitsis and Horowitz and directed by Dean White, set up Season 3 with the seeming revelation that its Big Bad will be a sinister, murderous Peter Pan.  The show has been known to flip its good and evils, so it could turn out that Peter isn’t as bad as he’s being painted, but for now, this isn’t exactly the Peter Pan who sings “I’ve Gotta Crow,” and parents could find that disturbing for the children who watched Season 1.  The whole tone of the show has been more adult and morally complex than it had been before–Snow White committed a coldblooded murder–which is great for those of us who are adults, but may be limiting the show’s kiddie appeal.  The Evil Queen/Regina (Lana Parrilla), Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) and Captain Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) have shifted repeatedly from evil to less evil and then more evil again over the course of the season, especially Gold, who’s constantly conflicted between the pull of magic and his feelings for his increasing number of loved ones.  This has made the characters more human and interesting than typical fairy tale figures, but not as easy for children, or even adults, to follow.

The series mythology has also grown remarkably complex, with episodes often taking place simultaneously in various timelines and dimensions; Hook is prone to particular confusion, because he tends to wear exactly the same outfit no matter what universe or period of history he happens to inhabit.  While the flashbacks to fairyland last season mostly followed a linear narrative that led to the placing of the Storybrooke curse, this year they’ve been much more self-contained, and take place at scattered times in pre-curse history.  The episodes are all beautifully constructed, in that the contradictions within the characters come together by the hour’s end and provide some enlightenment on where the person came from and why they are the way they are, but again, they require some concentration–more than last season’s relatively simple narrative.

All of this fragmentation has made for less emotional force than Season 1 was able to gather.  There are arcs of the show that are still tremendously compelling–the early section of Season 2 where Emma (Jennifer Morrison) and Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) had to make their way out of post-curse fairyland worked quite well, as did the later episodes that led up to Snow White killing Cora (Barbara Hershey)–but the season as a whole hasn’t been able to summon up the cumulative power of Season 1.  The late-season revelation that mere humans Greg (Ethan Embry) and Tamara (Sonequa Martin-Green) were, by default, the Big Bads, was underwhelming.  They never felt quite evil enough, and even though, as we discovered in the finale, there was a reason for that, since they’re apparently just henchmen of Peter Pan, it took some air out of what should have been the season’s major showdown.

The finale as a whole felt more like a set-up for Season 3 than the giant climax that Season 1’s ending had been.  The threat to destroy Storybrooke was solved pretty obviously, with Emma finally remembering (duh) that she had magic powers, and each one of the show’s ambiguous characters–Regina, Gold and Hook–predictably choosing to Do the Right Thing by the end of the episode. (It didn’t help that the night’s shipboard green screen sequences featured below-average CG.)  Season 1’s finale, with the game-changing reversal of the curse, was admittedly a high standard to live up to, but while tonight’s hour was entertaining enough, it wasn’t in the same league.

Once Upon A Time is still a superior network show, more imaginative, ambitious and snappily written than just about anything this side of cable.  It would be nice, however, to see a more cohesive Season 3.  It seems clear that the show’s third season will be somewhat different from the first two–with Emma, Snow White, Regina, Charming, Hook and Gold all on their way to Neverland to rescue Henry (Jared S. Gilmore), there won’t be much reason to spend time in Storybrooke next season.  (Although a quick scene toward the end indicated we’ll be in post-curse fairyland part of the time, since Bae (Michael Raymond-James)–son of Rumplestiltskin, ex of Emma, father of Henry–washed up there.)  It doesn’t seem likely that the show can–or should–go backwards and make itself simpler and lighter again, meaning that ABC may have to be content with a steady success rather than a smash hit.  At this point, for this network, that should be enough for a happily ever after.



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."