American TV constructs the family as the ultimate value. You can mistreat people, maim them and kill them, but once you get in touch with your inner parent you are redeemed and you’re just one step away from being a good person. Family is the sacred that cleanses of all evil or moral weakness. It provides the meaning and stability the person needs thus making her complete. Nowhere is more evident than in Once Upon a Time. In the series, characters from fairy tales are trapped in a village somewhere in the north east of the US without knowing their true identity. This is the result of a curse cast by the Evil Queen (Snow White’s stepmother), which is lifted by the savior and her child. It belongs to the fantasy genre, what with the savior being a 25-year-old girl with no proper job, a past in foster care and prison but a massive apartment in Manhattan. The (thankfully few) scenes in the ‘real world’ are totally implausible. This contrasts with some nice re-writing of classic stories, including Red Riding Hood, who is, in fact, the wolf. That comes in useful when they need to fight off bad guys.
The cynic might remark that many of the actors are there for their good looks rather than acting abilities (I do like Lana Parilla’s Evil Queen and Robert Carlyle‘s Rumpelstiltskin), yet on the whole they are good enough and the first series, in particular, is sufficiently well scripted. They keep on resetting new curses to milk the cow, which is rather tiresome, but as it is more about action than character development or plot, it’s bearable (just about). There are three crucial themes running through the three seasons: family, self-fulfillment, and responsibility. These often coincide. It is interesting to have magic as the vehicle for finding oneself and self-fulfillment, but also learning responsibility. As they are keen to remind us, “all magic comes with a price”. It cannot just be an easy fix because you must be willing to pay that price.
Sadly, magic is elicited not by studious application and commitment, but by having a talent/gift and being in touch with one’s ‘true’ emotions. The Evil Queen is perhaps the only one who actually put some effort into learning magic from Rumpelstiltskin (a fun Robert Carlyle). She also makes the ultimate sacrifice in giving up the person she loves most, her father, in order to cast the curse. The curse allows her to live in the town and adopt a child. It is her love for the (rather annoying) child who redeems her time and time again, just as much as Rumpelstiltskin is redeemed by his love for his son. The sugar levels are kept more or less in check by the reappearing of the dark side of both the Evil Queen and Rumpelstiltskin.
For the ‘goodies’, magic is just a means to be in touch with oneself (which is just one’s emotions) and to find fulfillment, but it is through love for one’s offspring or parent/s that the person is truly made whole. It is often the child who reminds the parent who he/she is and what he/she is supposed to do. Characters learn, more often than not, from their children to live up to expectations by acting responsibly. Self-fulfillment is therefore understood within a moral framework. This works well for the ‘baddies’ who through trials and tribulations ‘find themselves’ and mature morally, although they might take the occasional step backward to continue the series. The ‘goodies’, on the other hand, have far too very few weaknesses, which makes them inevitably boring characters.