There’s a Right Way and a Wrong Way to Fracture a Fairy Tale . . .

by | Nov 12, 2014 | Catholic Mom TV Review, Hey Watch This, Pop Culture | 28 comments

I am so, so late to jump aboard the Once Upon a Time train. Not as late as I was for Doctor Who, I guess. But still, Once Upon a Time has been on the air since 2011, and I only started watching it last month.

I had heard of it. I knew Haley liked it, but . . . even though she’s probably the coolest person I almost know, we DID have that thing about Flannery O’Connor. So, I still didn’t watch it.

I like BBC shows. All the time BBC. I don’t know why, I must have a secret British sensibility. Although I do have to watch them with subtitles, because I can NOT understand those guys when they really get going. So, first thing, I’m just wary of American network TV in general.
But more than that, I have a problem with the genre of the fractured fairy tale. It started way back in 1995 with Wicked, I guess, and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs
in 1996. And then there was Oz the Great and Powerful, in case you liked Wicked, but wished it had less singing and more James Franco. (I didn’t, really.) Most recently, there was Maleficent. It’s kind of a whole thing now. Anyway, you know the drill, they’re all the same. There’s this evil character from a well-known story, but here’s what REALLY happened. Here’s the secret backstory about all the people who wronged her and how she had NO CHOICE but to become wicked. She’s never going to let THEM hurt her again. It’s all everyone else’s fault.

It drives me nuts. I dislike the concept for two reasons. First, because the fractured fairy tale misunderstands the POINT of fairy tales themselves. They are stories for children. Children below the Grammar Stage of learning are black and white little creatures. They need to sort characters into good guys and bad guys in order to understand them, and eventually, the world around them.

Fairy tales are stories that were handed down from generation to generation to entertain and instruct. They taught children that you should really STAY OUT of the woods, and that, if you work hard and bear your burdens joyfully (and are kind to animals), you’ll probably get to live happily after. Both are important, true lessons. It doesn’t help with either lesson for kids to be told that the wolf wants to eat Little Red Riding Hood because his wolf father was mean to him, or that the Wicked Witch murders people because someone broke her heart. It’s just confusing. Fairy tales aren’t ABOUT the bad guys anyway. Bad guys are just a plot device.
I used to think I was just stuck in the grammar stage myself, and that for my own entertainment, as well as my kids,’ I just needed my good guys to be good and my bad guys to be bad and leave it at that.
But, eventually, I ran out of BBC shows I wanted to watch on Netflix. And there it was in my suggested shows. I decided to give it a try. And watching Once Upon a Time made me realize that it wasn’t that I needed bad guys to stay bad. What I didn’t like was the idea forced on us by all these villain-centered rewrites that we don’t have a choice. Bad guys HAVE to be bad, because bad things happened to them. 
That’s just not true. And it’s a disheartening concept for children and adults alike.

Bad stuff happens to people all the time. We don’t get to choose our mortifications, but we do get to choose how we respond to them. We get to choose whether our mortifications turn us in to villains or into saints.
That’s the truth.
And that’s the truth at the heart of Once Upon a Time. We get to know the bad guys. All of them. We get to see what happened to them to make them choose evil in the first place. And we get to see them fighting against it. Winning and losing, for better or worse, we see them striving. And we get to remember that our own lives are also a constant struggle against our less noble inclinations. Even if our own less noble inclinations don’t include ripping the still beating hearts out of our enemies. 
Mine are more like, “Hey, I should stay up all night binge-watching this show on Netflix streaming. The kids won’t REALLY need me to do school tomorrow morning.” Still bad. Just not as interesting cinematically.
So, here’s the breakdown.
The good:
The casting works for me. I think the actors do a good job of embodying both their storybook characters and that character’s modern counterpart. There is a child actor. He can actually act. The storybook characters wear over the top costumes and deliver delightfully cheesy lines. I love it.

The writing is clever. I watched Malificent on the plane recently, and it was the standard fractured fairy tale trope, but then it didn’t even follow The Rules. There was all this, you think you know what happened, but it didn’t actually happen like that. Not only was Maleficent a perfectly lovely girl who was the victim of a tragedy and HAD to turn evil, also the prince wasn’t ever a dashing hero, he was just a hapless, helpless boy bander who never actually saved anyone.
That’s not okay with me. If you’re going to fill in the backstory, the rules are, the front story stays put and you work from there. That’s what good writers do.
And these guys do it. They’ve taken every character from every storybook story you can think of, and some that you totally wouldn’t have thought of, and woven them together beautifully. I love it every time a new piece of the puzzle is revealed and a new relationship between characters from different storybook worlds comes out. It’s just plain clever how it’s done. Everything comes back around.
The bad:
If you only like highbrow entertainment, this might not be the show for you. It’s campy. Sherlock it is not. I’d say it’s at maybe a Doctor Who-level of cheesiness.
Mostly, the plot lines conform to an old timey storybook ethos, where good comes from good and evil comes from evil. Which is unique and refreshing in this day and age.
However, it’s not a Catholic show, so they don’t always get everything right. There is a storyline in which a character who has a True Love in the storybook world, is married to someone else in the real world. Someone who isn’t his True Love. The way it’s handled is problematic.
But, really, mostly, it’s a show in which we see the right consequences for choices. As Rumplestiltskin always says, “All magic has a price.” 
The ugly:
The CG. Argh, the CG. It makes me want to gouge out my eyes, it’s so bad. The storybook worlds in which they’re walking around look so, so, so fake. I know they can’t be expected to create a Middle Earth-caliber set for each of the story lines, but the actors look like a bunch of Renfair meteorologists standing in front of the action news accuweather map. It’s pretty bad.

Bottom line is, I think Once Upon a Time is a rare thing in this day and age: a creative, entertaining, and charming show that reflects the truth of the human condition.
It’s also pretty unique in being family entertainment that older kids and grownups could enjoy together. There is a same sex attraction storyline (in season 2, I think?) but it is VERY subtle. Like, my kids would definitely not have picked up on it. And even if they had, I think it’s handled in a truthful, appropriate way. Out of wedlock pregnancy is another storyline, but again, I think it’s handled appropriately. In season 1, the Evil Queen is having a liaison with the Huntsman, but it doesn’t work out very well for him.
I watched it on my own, but I think Betty and I might watch it through together next summer. I don’t think we’ll be able to interest the husband or Jack, and I think it’s most appropriate for ten (or even twelve) and up (not until the Logic Stage), so that just leaves me and Betty. There will be some things we’ll need to talk about, but I’m okay with that.
Really, my only hesitation in recommending it, is that they’re still making them. Which means you can blow through seasons one through three on Netflix, then you can watch the beginning of season four on the Watch ABC app, and then you end up . . . caught up. And if you’re caught up you have to wait a week between episodes like some sort of cave person. Really, I cannot deal with non-Netflix streaming TV watching.

And that’s my honest opinion. But this is a sponsored post. 😀


  1. Cristina

    This is really helpful. I had the same reservations as you did about the fractured fairy tale aspect of this show but if you say it's alright then maybe I'll give it a try! I just binge watched every season of Gilmore Girls over the course of two weeks after my daughter was born though so maybe I should not start another new series as clearly I can't be trusted with a television remote in my hand 🙂

  2. Amy

    I think Google keeps eating my comments…trying again:

    I'm not usually a fan of fractured fairy tales, but I love this show. I think it helps that I am an adoptee that reunited with my birth mother right when I was watching the first shows. The themes back then really resonated with me. I don't like this season as much – I think they upped the "campy" a bit too much for my tastes and there is less depth, like it's rushing. I actually never noticed the bad CG, but our computer screen is not the best, so I probably blamed any bad art on that. 🙂 I'll have to look more closely!

    • Kendra

      That's good to hear, Amy. A friend just asked if I thought the show would be enjoyable for an adopting family, because she had heard really opposite views on how the show handles its many adoption story lines, but (with the caveat that it's not personal for ME, so I couldn't know for sure) I told her I thought it was handled fairly and truthfully.

    • Amy

      Well *I* personally think it's handled well, but honestly I know a lot of adoptive parents that don't want to hear something so honest and painful. So it depends on the people, I guess. The adopting mom is the Evil Queen, so there's that, LOL! Not the best analogy, but she is not all bad, as you know.

  3. Amanda

    I love this show. Everything about it (except the CGI, you nailed that. And the David/MM storyline from season 1 but for me that's years ago as I watched in real time.) I love the idea of rewatching with kids someday.

    I'm so glad you liked it! I can live with disagreeing over Flannery, but I can't understand why anyone who loves good story wouldn't like Once 🙂

  4. Lizzie

    I mostly agree with you about fairy tale tropes. Although we were given "the true story of the three little pigs" and my kids think it is hilarious. To me it comes across as more of the wolf making excuses than anything else. I asked my kids after our and occasionally after that, and they say the same thing. The big bad wold is lying.
    My kids are 7 and 4, and for now, the book is allowed to stay at our house.

    • Kendra

      It gets to stay at our house, too. Probably mostly because it was mine before I was married! But that's a good point about the wolf making excuses, I also think the art is really clever.

  5. Molly Walter

    Once kept my interest for about a season and a half and then they started focusing primarily on the Disney version characters and I just didn't care anymore.

    I think I was spoiled by a series of comics/graphic novels my husband I love called Fables – it's a similar idea (fairy tale characters in the modern world trying to reclaim their fairy tale world, etc) and it's similar because a Fables TV show or miniseries was in the works with ABC for a while, then it fell through and suddenly … ONCE! In fact I'd love to see what you thoughts about Fables – it's not for kids though.

    • Kendra

      The internet consensus seems to be that the show gets unwatchable at Season 3 in Neverland, but I still liked it. I think it's mostly a function of being able to blow through it on Netflix, it makes me feel really invested. I watched ALL of Battlestar Galactica and it pretty much drove me nuts after season 2. (And was awfully racy the whole time.) When I'm trying to watch shows once a week, I tend to lose interest.

      I'm intrigued by Fables. I feel like I've been so burned by Graphic Novels, I pretty much wrote off the whole genre as misogynist and rape-obsessed after attempting to read The Walking Dead and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I just had a conversation with Jack about how I just didn't think there was much there for a young man with a healthy view of women, but maybe I've been too hasty?

    • Molly Walter

      Fables definitely isn't happy ending fairy tales and there is some violence, things of sexual nature, etc. (I don't think Jack is old enough for them yet), but I would say not to the extent of LEG or WD. While there are some "bad guy" characters that aren't so bad a lot of the bad guys are bad guys – they do awful things and hopefully get their commupence. The good guys often have to make really difficult decisions and sacrifices, but there's some great over arching themes of redemption, sacrificial love and family and even a great pro-life moment when a character after being told that she's carrying multiples and given the option to terminate some of them shoots down the idea with amazing precision and makes it very clear that it is something never to be discussed ever again.

      If you pick up the volumes I'd say dedicate to reading at least the first four or five, but if you can get to the volume called "The Good Prince" I highly recommend it, it's one of my favorite arches in the series.

      I really have no idea if you'd like it in the end, but I'd love to hear your take on it either way.

  6. October Rose

    I love this show, in all its campy glory. Loved to hear your take on it. (And I can't even remember the same-sex thing in season 2!)

  7. Alicia Copley

    I watched Once Upon A Time when the first season was on air, and I think half of the second season, but then I kind of lost track of it. I really liked it though before, so maybe I should get caught up!

  8. Virginia

    My husband mocks me endlessly for loving this show, but I can't help it!!! You named all the reasons I love it. My 12 year old is watching it as well (she wanted a show to watch on weekends with friends, which is how I started watching it since I needed to preview it). We also watch almost only BBC shows (we're on season 6 of Dr Who! Loooooove it!), but I must say I am hooked on OUAT.

  9. Danielle

    I'm with you and really like this show but couldn't put my finger on why except that it's cleverly written and scandal-less. Thanks for so eloquently showing me all the other reasons 😉

  10. Amanda

    "renfair meteorologists" bahaha! Yes, that is exactly what they look like!

    I also kinda like this show. It's a bit campy so I can't say I am totally into it but it is nice and I like that my 12 year old daughter and I can watch it together and both enjoy it.

    Also, I think you hit the nail on the head with the true problem of the popular fractured fairytales. And, saying this tentatively for fear I'll anger the Frozen fans, I think maybe this is another reason why we both couldn't love Frozen. They took a fairytale with a bad guy and made her not really bad but instead a victim of her circumstances. She didn't 'mean' to go all ice crazy and freeze everyone but… Now they redeem her in the end with love and such but they still kinda act like she couldn't help herself earlier.

  11. Nanacamille

    You make me want to start into it but being so far behind it might take a long time to catch up with it. I have had enough practice to understand British and even Scottish so don't need subtitles.
    I agree with you on Maleficent which I saw on the airplane too in not liking it.

  12. walking dot photography

    YES. So agree with all of this. I can't stand it when the writers don't leave the original story alone. Also, I don't like feeling sorry for the bad character and seeing some kind of character growth, but then they go right back to their evil ways in the next season. At that point, I'm just like WHY DID YOU MAKE ME LIKE THIS CHARACTER? If they couldn't make the CG better, I just wish they could have made the fairytale costumes look more real, rather than so glitzy and fake. That really bothers me. :p

  13. Ali

    I'm in the middle of season 2. I couldn't agree more about the CG and also don't love the portrayal of Storybrook. It has a glossy produced feel to it…. but over all I think the show is clever and very entertaining.

  14. Anna

    It's slow going watching this with the husband since there's only so much he can take of it. But we watch things together, so I can do it slowly and with some eye rolling or not at all. And I like it too much to walk away. But you're wrong about Wicked. Fabulous. Just saying 😉

    • Kendra

      Wicked: great songs, even better singing, REALLY don't love the message.

  15. karen

    sorry, slightly unrelated question, but are there any sports fans in your house and if so how do you work around, or do you just skip? I'm ready to cut cable and go with Netflix or Prime but my husband and I (especially my husband) enjoy watching sports and it's hard to do that without cable. Although it's becoming impossible to watch sports with my kids, to watch Dodger games with my kids this season, I had to do this routine of getting a buffer on the DVR so I could forward through the commercials, otherwise we were all subjected to certain Carls Jr commercials which, if you've seen, you know what I'm talking about…

    • Kendra

      Yes! I know exactly what you're talking about! From the time our oldest son was able to pay attention, we started ONLY watching sports recorded on the DVR, so we could fast forward through the commercials. My parents watch a TON of sports, and we LIKE sports and used to watch a lot, but we're so busy with our own sports schedules now, that it's harder to find the time.

      It's actually been an unexpected bonus of getting rid of cable that we have fewer sporting events to choose from now. There are two professional and about six college teams we like, but without cable, we'll only get one or two games a week we care about, which is all we can manage anyway.

      We have an HD antenna hooked up to our Tivo to get network channels, plus the computer is hooked up to the TV as well, so we sometimes watch games on We can't record the ESPN games, but we've never encountered any inappropriate commercial on there.

  16. Bonnie

    Okay, it's maybe too early for commenting. lol Let me try that again:

    I'm not a die hard fan but I have enjoyed the show.

    I agree about fairy tales – true fairy tales needing black and white good and bad. I've always appreciated these new twists aimed at older kids. I think they help illustrate and can start conversations that the Truth is no one is all bad, we are all made in the image and likeness of God, and usually the people who do bad things are really wounded. That perspective applied to real life creates in me the kind of compassion needed to be against the death penalty, to visit the prisoner, and to want to give second chances to convicts and felons.

    Have you watched Grimm? I like Grimm. Outstanding television it is not but Monroe is a great character and some of the episodes are really clever. (Though I haven't watched anything this season.)

    • Kendra

      That's a really good point, Bonnie.

      I haven't seen Grimm, it's not on Netflix streaming! Hopefully they'll get it. It's funny for me because there is a huge Catholic family at our parkday named Grimm. A third of the families are related to the Grimms. I haven't noticed them fighting evil storybook monsters.

  17. Mary

    ONCE is a treat my 13 year old daughter and I share. Occasionally my -8 year old daughter pops in, but bores her quickly. It has had some scenes we have to talk about. I do like how they try to help explain how Regina became the evil queen, exploring choices and events that mold a person are good for discussion.
    CGI is awful, just watch with rose color glasses and it's all ok.

  18. Lindsay

    I love this show! The CG is terrible sometimes, but you can only expect so much from a weekly TV show. The worst part, for me, was the Wicked Witch arc. I have no idea what any of that storyline was supposed to do besides cover Ginnifer Goodwin's real-life pregnancy and set up Frozen. The best part is the incredibly intricate world-building (which they managed despite the negatives from the Neverland arc). I've seen exactly 2 episodes of Lost, but I can tell that the creators brought those same storytelling skills over to OUAT.

    I also know how you feel about having your mind changed about your black-and-white preferences. In your case, it was moving away from "good guys must be good and bad guys must be bad." In my case, it was "any story approving of marital or romantic infidelity is trash." I still support marriage, I promise! But The End of the Affair was just so amazing. (My reasons are in my review, if you're interested.)

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

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