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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Once Upon a Time

I actively watch very few television shows on a regular basis. The only show I can remember setting out to watch from the pilot episode (based on the excellent marketing and Spielberg's attachment to the project) is Falling Skies, and that's been a very fun experience, although the special effects are at times cringe-worthy (which is why I avoid the SyFy channel like the plague.) But for a couple years now I've heard people talk about the show Once Upon a Time, and I've always had a mild interest in checking it out. After all, fairy tales are right up my alley! Well, my husband and I finally got Netflix and lo and behold, there was Once Upon a Time.

I watched the pilot episode and was immediately hooked. Needless to say, it's been a little bit of a productivity killer this week, BUT I can view it as research for my writing (right? Sure, why not.). The fairy tale side of the show is, truthfully, a bit cheesy, a bit tongue-in-cheek, and while I usually despise cheesiness, for some reason I don't mind it in this show. So that put me in a contemplative mood.

Why don't I mind that the evil queen is so over-the-top evil? Why don't I mind the love-at-first-sight cliches, the magical solution to every problem, and the obvious story outcomes perpetrated by over-the-top writing, acting, and costumery? I think the answer lies in the very fact that these things are what fairy tales are all about. In Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, you're not supposed to wonder who is good and who is evil. Heroes and heroines are pure of heart and ready to love, often demonstrated by dashing displays of selflessness and friendly animal companionship. Villains hate everyone and everything that doesn't further their own agenda and drive for power. They are Machiavellian to the extreme, and they relish death and destruction. Except for in fairy tale revisionist stories, there is no place for the "misunderstood" villain that is so prevalent in our postmodern society in traditional fairy tales ... and I love this! Fairy tales draw a clear distinction between good and evil, and when they are transformed into a visual medium, you can literally see it. For children, and for those of us who sometimes yearn for things to just be cut and dry from time to time, this is a beautiful thing. There is obviously also a time in fantasy (and in all literature) for a not-so-obvious distinction between good and evil. In my opinion this is only appropriate if the purpose is not to blur the lines in actuality, but to make the reader dig deeper to figure it out for themselves. In fact, this makes for much more complex forms of storytelling than one finds in the traditional fairy tale, so I'm not saying doing things one way is better than doing things the other way. Where I think the show Once Upon a Time has really hit it on the nose is that the over-the-top obvious morality of the fairy tale realm is tempered by a more subtle figure-it-out morality of the "real world" setting of Storybrooke, Maine. Where the evil queen is SO EVIL in the fairy tale realm, in Storybrooke she's much more seductive and sly; at times the viewer almost wants to feel bad for her (before she hauls off and does something wicked again to remind you who she really is). I think the end result of the show is one that shows both sides of evil - how sometimes it is obvious, and sometimes it is not, and you need to be on guard against it regardless. It engages the cerebral and the emotional centers of the brain.

Mostly, I think I love fairy tales because all fantasy literature is essentially an offshoot of traditional fairy tales. Modern fantasy authors, in using fantasy, have the same ability to draw distinct contrast between good and evil, and to do so in a way that takes the reader to the extreme moral highs and lows without it seeming out of place in the real world (because, after all, it's *just* a story!). To quote a scholar on the subject, "Fantasy literature takes us out of our world, enabling us to see moral principles more clearly... In addition, fantasy literature gives us more stark examples of heroism and villainy than realistic fiction usually does." (Cole Matson, "Is Tolkien Useless?") These stark examples can encourage us to be better people than we are. After all, who ever roots for the evil queen?

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