Sometimes, when a show reports on a new story line or some other upcoming event, I get really confused by certain fan reactions. Their reactions just don’t make any sense to me. It’s almost like they’re watching a completely different show from me or maybe they just have no idea how story telling works.
Once Upon a Time is one of those shows. I feel like this happens constantly. Every time the show announces a new fairy tale or story book they’re exploring and all the characters they’re looking to bring in, hoards of people flock to comment sections of these posts to whine and complain about new characters. They want no new characters. The show has enough already. And I just…I don’t understand.
While Once Upon a Time is built around a fairly stable core group of characters – Emma, Regina, Gold, Snow, Charming, and Henry – the driving force of the show, the actual story telling, has very rarely come from within that group. This show has always been, and always will be, a very external show. By that, I mean there’s not going to be a story arc solely about what’s happening within these core characters – no handful of episodes devoted to the development of the Charming Family dynamic or Regina and Robin Hood trying to raise Zelena’s baby. That’s just not what the show is about.
That’s not to say those developments won’t come about. We have seen the evolution of the Charming Family, and the struggle for Emma to understand what that means to her, but those developments – and the developments of any of the other characters – are not the driving force of the show. That will always, always come from the external struggle of whatever adventure they’re having today. And that, in turn, requires more characters. Always more characters. How do you quest into a new land without meeting new people? How does a new threat to Storybrooke materialize without meeting new people?
The part of that “no new characters!” complaint that always throws me the most when it comes to Once Upon a Time is the fact that this is how this story has been told since literally day one. Every single season – and starting with Season Three it was every half-season – a new fairy tale or story book has been focused on, with that particular story’s cast of characters – and a few others thrown in for variety’s sake – taking center stage. Season One is was “Snow White”, featuring Snow White, Charming, the Evil Queen, the Huntsman, the Magic Mirror, and the Dwarves. Season Two we expanded into the Enchanted Forest picking up Sleeping Beauty, Prince Phillip, Mulan, Captain Hook, and Cora. Season Three took us to Neverland where we met Peter Pan and Tinker Bell and the Lost Boys and Wendy, then onto Oz with the Wicked Witch and Glinda and the Winged Monkeys. Season Four brought us to Arendelle with Elsa and Anna and the Snow Queen, and then we expanded our Rogues Gallery with Cruella De Vil and Ursula. And now finally we’re here at Season Five where we’re traveling to Camelot in search of Merlin.
The show, as it is and as it always has been, literally can’t move forward without adding new people. But the thing to remember is very few of those characters actually stick around for too long. Sure, we may have picked up a few regulars here and there (Hook, Robin Hood, Zelena), but they take the place of those we’ve lost along the way (Graham, Ruby, Jiminy Cricket). Personally, I would like to occasionally see some of the new characters and new adventures actually be Storybrooke based instead of always coming from a different land. Maybe Tiana, for example, owns a competing restaurant to Granny and finds some kind of dark magical object in the back of her kitchen. Or maybe Ichabod Crane is a co-worker of Mary Margaret’s at the school and starts having visions of Headless Horsemen coming to terrorize the town. Maybe Hades stole something from Belle a long time ago and she needs Hercules to help her get it back. Or maybe Tarzan and his adopted son Mowgli have their own quest to fulfill. Though so many of them do, not everyone we meet needs to disappear from the lives of our core characters so completely after a few weeks time.
I will say this in defense of some of the people who are wary of new characters: Season Four had a lot of issues in that regard, especially the Frozen section. Personally, I think the show is at its best when it’s creative with its characters, instead of copying them so directly from the Disney films. For example, I absolutely loved what they did with Bo Peep, and the characters who embody more than one figure (like Rumpelstiltskin being both the Beast and the Crocodile or Peter Pan being the Pied Piper) feel so clever. Which is why Anna and Elsa, lifted so completely from Frozen, felt so flat. Also, their story was so wholly their own instead of being incorporated into the stories of those characters we’re already invested in. Ingrid – bran new and so connected to Emma – was excellent. The others? Not so much.
Once Upon a Time is a fairy tale. It will always be a fairy tale, and that requires fairy tale stories to be told: quests and curses and magic and heroes. The internal stories – the ones about family and friendship and love and community – those get told in the midst of the adventure. But it’s those adventures – and all the new people those adventures bring – that shape this particular show. Without them…well, you’re watching something else. As for me? I’m ready for Camelot.