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Fractured Fairy Tale: The Appeal and the Danger of 'Once Upon a Time'

Feb 17 2012
The show's emphasis on the power of love is its strength—and weakness.

ABC's big surprise hit this year doesn't feature lawyers, police officers, doctors, or any other primetime staples. It features princesses, imps, talking crickets, magic mirrors, and an evil queen.

Once Upon a Time has consistently scored high in the ratings this season with its unique mix of classic fairy tales and modern mores. The story begins with Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), a no-nonsense bounty hunter, being found by the son she had given up for adoption. Young Henry (Jared Gilmore) tells Emma that the town of Storybrooke, Maine, where he lives, is full of fairy tale characters who are under a dark spell that only she can break.

Naturally, Emma is disinclined to believe his theory. But meeting Henry's adoptive mother, Regina (Lana Parrilla), convinces her that something is wrong with his situation, and that she needs to figure out what it is. Meanwhile, flashbacks reveal to us that Henry has, in fact, stumbled upon the truth: The residents of Storybrooke are indeed enchanted fairy tale characters, most of whom have no memory of whom they really are. Regina is actually the evil queen from Snow White who, out of spite and hatred, cursed these people to a life disconnected from their true identities.

It's an intriguing premise, cleverly executed. But is that enough to account for its success? I think there may be something deeper at work here.

Many of the people of Storybrooke are unhappy with their lives for reasons they don't fully understand. The curse placed on them has ripped apart relationships and left individuals stranded without each other. Though the writers probably didn't intend it that way, it's reminiscent of another curse that Christians are familiar with—one that disrupted the life that we were meant to live, and infects our lives and relationships to this day. In this respect, Storybrooke, filled with lonely, restless, searching people, is a microcosm of our own world.

At the heart of the story are Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), who were married with a newborn daughter—Emma—when the destructive curse took effect. In Storybrooke, Snow is now Mary Margaret Blanchard, a single elementary-school teacher, and Charming is David Nolan, seemingly married to another woman—though when it comes right down to it, he can't actually remember marrying her. When Emma Swan shows up in town, neither of them realizes that she's their child. Neither of them can even remember that they have a child.

Yet Mary Margaret and David are powerfully drawn to each other. They make a lovely couple, but the moral calculus required to root for them would give Archimedes a migraine. David's married to someone else—only he really isn't—but he thinks he is—but technically, by thinking he is, he's cheating on his real wife, Snow/Mary—but he doesn't know that, so he's essentially cheating on his supposed wife … you get the picture. In the fairy tale world that we see in flashback, these two had a wonderful marriage; in the modern world, the only relationship they can have is a guilt-ridden and secretive one.

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