I really wanted to like Once Upon a Time. It should hit me right in my happy place: fairytales mixed with the real world? Do you know how many times I've read Ella Enchanted? But while the show has emerged as ABC's new big hit, it has not lived up to its own storytelling potential. I keep tuning in, hoping to find the show I was looking forward to last spring, and instead I keep finding a flat, CGI mess.
But that doesn't mean it can't be fixed. I have some ideas:
1. Kill the Kid: I know this sounds cruel, and I'm also fully aware that this is not a show that's going to kill off its adorable moppet, but I can think of several reasons it would be a good idea. Henry serves two roles on the show: 1) he's the catalyst. He left Storybrooke to track Emma down and he brought her back to help with Operation Cobra. If he hadn't, nothing ever would have changed and everyone would have gone on living under Regina's thumb. 2) He's the believer, the one person in Storybrooke who is certain that its residents are straight out of fairytales. And as a child, he's given more allowance for this belief. If Mary Margaret or Archie walked around town claiming to be Snow White or Jiminy Cricket, they wouldn't be allowed near young minds, but because Henry is only ten he's just treated as an oddity and his belief is humored by most of the people who know about it.
But now imagine if Henry died, not at Regina's hand, but some other fairyland baddie. Here you have a brand new catalyst: Regina might seek to avenge his death (the show consistently implies that Regina wants a child, but fails to show that in her behavior. Maybe losing Henry is what she needs to finally blossom into a nuanced character) and Emma might find herself working "Operation Cobra" without him, finally showing an interest in the project out of a duty to her dead son. And we might not have to hear the words "Operation Cobra" so often. (The quality of the show's performances would rise significantly as well.)
This is starting to sound dangerously like fanfiction, so let's move on to:
2. Quit it with the Lost references: We get it, there's a shared family tree here, and Lost was a really good show, but Once Upon a Time's constant reminders only leave me wishing I were watching Lost instead. If you insist on your Apollo candy bars and your MacCutcheon whisky, your numbers and your patriarchal bad guys played by Alan Dale then leave them as set decoration. Don't let the camera linger on them, taunting your audience with reminders of a show you aren't living up to.
3. Employ a little subtlety: No one doubts that the Evil Queen/Regina is evil. It's in her name. Plus, she spends all of her time manipulating people into killing her family members and pruning a tree full of shiny red apples. She is not a good person. But there are plenty of ways to show us just how bad she is that don't require her to stalk about interrogating strangers and looking angry.
Go take a look at the third season of Buffy (I know the you're familiar, some of your writers wrote for the third season of Buffy). Look at that mayor, just as if not more evil than Regina. He's a family man, afraid of germs and foul language. If he weren't trying to kill our heroine and ascend to giant snakedom his manners would be impeccable. But you never doubt that he's evil or dangerous. He's sweet and silly and undeniably terrifying. Regina is none of these things. She's just kind of...malicious.
But the subtlety issue doesn't just apply to Regina. Whether it's lines like "I need my pain. It makes me who I am. It makes me Grumpy," or an insistence on framing every shot of Sydney Glass in a mirror, there's a constant sense that you want to be clever, and that you want the audience to know just how clever you're being. And it comes across as smarmy and insulting.
4. Give the CGI a rest: I know you want to create a rich, magical fairyland, but your budget isn't really making that happen. Instead, everything looks flat and cheap and fake. The best scenes in the fairybacks are the ones filmed in real places, whether they're grassy farms or river banks. I believe the setting. There must be a way to work off of more existing sets, I'm sure there are bits of castles and cabins and the like in LA, left-overs from old movies and tv shows. And I suspect it would improve the caliber of the acting in the fairybacks, having the actors work on real sets instead of green screens. Save the money for the magic and the big, sweeping establishing shots.
5. Let someone remember who they are...and live: I think this may be the most important step. Having Graham remember who he was a few weeks ago could have been great. He could have been another voice, this time an adult voice, a more reasonable voice, telling Emma that this whole Fairyland thing is for real. Instead he died seconds later, taking what he knew with him.
If one person remembers who they are--and I'm thinking it should be Mary Margaret or Archie, someone Emma is more likely to believe--then that's forward momentum for a story that's been inching along since the pilot. This is a show that could learn something from Vampire Diaries rapidfire plotting and crazy shenanigans.
And boy would it help if you got rid of the kid.