You know that nursery rhyme about Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater? You think that’s about a dude eating his wife? Consider. He:
- Had a wife but couldn’t keep her (because bitches be expensive, yo – needing food and shelter and shit all the time)
- He put her in a pumpkin shell (as a connoisseur of pumpkin products, I’m sure old Pete had a reliable recipe for delicious, flaky crust at the ready)
- And there he kept her very well (leftovers for like a week! Totally worth it)
These are the things I think about when I can’t sleep at night. But I had a reason, I swear. I wasn’t just contemplating spousal homicide and cannibalism to relax.
We’ve been watching Once Upon a Time. It’s cheesy, but the good (mostly) kind of cheesy. If you’re unfamiliar, a basic rundown: All the fairy tale characters you know and love are real. They live in a parallel universe to ours, called the Enchanted Forest, of course. The wicked stepmother/all-powerful witch from Snow White goes beyond her boring poisoned-apple shenanigans to get revenge, and sends all the storybook folks to populate a small town in Maine, where they don’t remember who or what they are and cannot leave. I can’t fathom a more horrible fate. Eventually, a strange young woman comes to town, ostensibly just passing through. But since no one just passes through, the witch (who is now the mayor of this weird little magical antfarm) takes notice and figures out that she’s the long-lost daughter of Snow White. Where did she come from? Where has she been? It’s a mystery, and soon turns into a battle of wills, a classic fight between good and evil, when this young lady breaks the spell that’s been holding the whole town in thrall. I don’t want to give anything away, because it’s all secrets and lies and machinations. The first season is full of fun moments when you get to figure out who’s who and what story you’re in this week. It’s pretty great. Cheesy, but great.
But I find myself having to suspend disbelief more than I normally would during a cheesy fantasy show, because I’m deconstructing the fairy tales. Once Upon a Time relies heavily on those watered-down, sanitized versions of the old stories, the ones that everyone knows because they’re squeaky clean and family friendly. I have major beef with the Disney Corporation for perpetuating that banal crap just for the sake of getting kids to buy toys. Fuck you, Walt. Could’ve been original. Could’ve stuck with Mickey and his cast of weirdo friends and done something truly innovative (like Warner Brothers did – ooh, does it burn, Walt? I hope it does). But no, you had to go and rip off a bunch of public domain shit so you wouldn’t be forced to pay a writing staff a decent wage, you cheap, anti-Semitic fucker.
Oh! And then you made up all that shit about lemmings! You’re a monster!
What was I saying? Fairy tales. So, fairy tales are the bastard children of parables, meant to be cautionary, in general, and simple enough that they could be easily spread by the illiterate masses. You know, like Buzzfeed. They’re grim and gory and I love them. For example, in Cinderella, the sisters whose feet wouldn’t fit in the slipper? They chopped off their toes, they were so desperate to bang a prince. Crazy. Delightfully batshit. The point is, you tell your kids a story about a big bad wolf and maybe they’ll stay out of the forest where there are actual wolves. There’s a reason these tales exist, and the world was scarier then in a lot of ways. On the other hand, there are more of us now. We’ve got rapists and murderers and kidnappers and human traffickers and genocide and war, still, but at least the likelihood of a small child happening upon a toothsome creature is less. Seems like, anyway. Maybe not, I don’t know. Either way the big bad wolf still applies, even if now he’s a metaphor for horror instead of a literal reality.
And that’s kind of what bothers me about Once Upon a Time. To use the cleaned-up versions of these stories takes away so much potential. It could have been so dark and so gritty. But people wouldn’t have understood. There’s always been a little murder and mayhem inherent to fairy tales, sure, but the twisted details from the original source material could have made for so much awesome. It could have ended up being awful and seemingly hamfisted, though, given that we’re so used to the Disney versions where everything always turns out happy slappy. I don’t know. Just seems like a wasted opportunity.
On a similar note, I feel like the show is a little whitewashed because of this Disneyfication. In season two, Mulan shows up. Which is fine, whatever, she’s a hardcore warrior chick and I like what they did with that character. But she’s also the only character from a non-European fairy tale. By that point in the show they had already pulled in Peter Pan and a couple of folks from Alice in Wonderland, opening up a whole world of literary characters and tropes to be used however they wish. And with the vast richness of global folklore, the possibilities are endless. But we get Mulan? Why? Because she’s the only non-white storybook princess anyone is familiar with. Because Disney. It’s infuriating. Oh, and a small agro aside here (spoiler alert, sort of) – the only two black people on the show both play bad guys. So there’s that.
Having led with all my criticisms, let me say that I do quite like the show. I like Jennifer Morrison and I lurve Robert Carlyle in everything he does. The puzzly bits, the figuring out who’s who and how they’re connected is really fun. And it’s fairy tales. Magic and monsters and twue wuv. How can you not love fairy tales? The cheese factor is high, but it’s only, say, Supernatural-level high, which is still well within the acceptable limits. So check it out. The first three seasons are on Netflix. Try to keep your ire down if you have a literature degree. And stop watching Disney movies! That shit will rot your brain.