Carol’s in the living room watching an episode of the ABC series “Once Upon a Time” as I write this. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s the story of characters from mostly European fairy-tales who were cursed by an Evil Queen so that they have to live out their lives in the modern world, losing all their “happily ever afters” and their memories of who they are.
As premises go, it’s not bad. There are interesting characters, the acting isn’t bad, and I like the fairy-tale background stories that are usually shown as flashbacks in each episode. For a fantasist and someone just interested in modern interpretations of fairy and folk tales, there’s a lot to like there, and it occurs to me that I should like the series quite a bit. I should, but I don’t. That’s why I’m sitting here writing this rather than watching the latest episode. And, after some weeks, I think I finally realize why.
It’s The Fugitive syndrome.
For those who don’t recognize the allusion, it’s from a TV series from the 1960’s. An innocent man, Dr. Richard Kimble, is charged with the murder of his wife, escapes custody, and spends the rest of the series searching for the “one armed man” who he knows is the real killer. It was fairly popular at the time. So here’s the thing about “The Fugitive” and the one-armed man—it is by nature episodic, which fits with one approach to making a tv series. You’ve got your framework and motivation, which is the poor schmuck’s efforts to clear himself by finding the “one-armed man.” Which means that, no matter how close he gets, or how logical it seems that THIS time, no doubt, our hero has caught up with his wife’s killer, you can be sure he hasn’t, and he can’t. Why? Because as soon as he does, the show’s over. And the point of any series is not to be over, but to last and sell advertising for as long as humanly possible. TV has used this structure in various guises almost from the beginning.
So what has this got to do with “Once Upon a Time”? Everything. In this series, the “one-armed man” is the Evil Queen. Only two–ok, maybe three, it’s uncertain–characters at the moment, other than the Evil Queen herself, know that she IS the Evil Queen, and know what’s really going on. Their efforts are to thwart, and somehow eventually take down the Evil Queen and restore the fairy-tale characters to their memories and their rightful places. Naturally it doesn’t happen, and plots thicken and twists occur, but in every one the Evil Queen survives to darken another day. Will our heroes ever succeed?
Ain’t gonna happen. For the same reason that Richard Kimble didn’t find the one armed-man until the series ended. In fairness, the producers of “The Fugitive” did it right, and the last episode was well-planned and a true ending to the series. The problem is that, these days, TV shows run until someone who can decide does decide to cancel them, and often the production company itself doesn’t know that the series is over until the end of the season, when it’s far too late to try and tie things up. Which means no “Final Episode,” no finale, no closure. Just an abrupt termination. That’s what I expect to happen to “Once Upon a Time.” If they’d done it as a mini-series with a determined story-arc that would have been different, but no, this one shows every sign of being ongoing, and thus the odds are that it will end abruptly and forever incomplete, like a story whose last page is forever lost, an old book whose last chapter is ripped out. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they’ll do it right. But I don’t trust them, and emtionally I can’t take the chance.
That’s what I said–emotionally. One reason I’m a writer in the first place is that I understand and appreciate the power of a good story. When I’ve written a really good one I know it, because it has the the same effect on me that I hope it will have on my readers, and it works with other people’s stories, too. When I read or watch someone else’s story, once I’m emotionally invested, I’m there. Committed, as it were. We’re shown just how evil the Evil Queen is. She’s killed people we’ve come to care about for no more reason than spite or convenience. She’s done despicable things without number for no more reason than it suits her whim. Now all I want is for the Evil Queen to get what’s coming to her and her victims to be freed, and in the context of a fairy-tale, I’m right to expect that. And if she doesn’t, if the series ends with the situation unchanged, then my emotional investment, my expectations, are all for nothing. What I really expect is that it will be for nothing. And so I stay out of it.
A failure in me, perhaps. Certainly a failure in trust, but TV series in general have lost my trust over the years. It’s one reason I watch very little regular television these days. It’s the same thing as with a writer who has disappointed you once too often. Once trust is gone, you don’t get it back.
Naturally you want the Evil Queen to be properlly identified and punished–Fini! We ALL want this in life, everything all solved and wrapped up neatly. HOWEVER, I think life–and good fiction mimicking and expanding on our life experiences–is more like Danny Adams describes–something bigger and better behind all the good little stuff and something bigger and badder behind the bad little stuff. This life–and fiction addressing any part of it–is a journey. Keep traveling,Richard. So glad you decided to write this post instead of watch TV!
I don’t think it’s a failure on your part, and in fact there are plenty of examples out there of stories that solve what you could call the Quest, only to find out there’s something else beyond it–often something bigger and badder. The TV show Chuck comes to mind–some people find it too campy, but what it does really well is solving these “quests” by the end of each season (sometimes sooner) and then going in deeper, instead of replaying the exact same formula over and over.
This sounds like the graphic comic series Fables. Have you read them?
I’ve read one in the series, but I thought that everyone in Fable knew who they were and where. Still, it doesn’t surprise me that there are precedents and parallels. TV is about as derivative a medium as there is.