It was a pretty surprising moment for the show. Not as shocking as a death or pregnancy or any of the many events that usually make up May sweeps. But still, it was very surprising when in the second season premier of Once Upon a Time, a show that had become rather formulaic by the end of its first season, actually changed from something very procedural into a more serialized narrative. And it was in that moment that it became clear that the show could probably survive into more seasons to come.
The show, built on the conceit that fairytale characters are real and that a curse has brought them into our world, relied on a flashback formula during its first season to help explain that often confusing concept. The fact that the local schoolteacher is Snow White, the mayor is the evil queen and a pawnbroker is Rumplestiltskin is much more easily explained by showing the same actors in gowns and crowns, fighting off monsters and magic. And as the show veered from the accepted versions of fairytales that everyone knows, the flashbacks helped to create a world that was unique to the show, and that had its own rules. In essence, Once Upon a Time spent half of its first season on some very glitzy exposition.
But when the curse was broken at the end of season one and suddenly everyone remembers who they all really are, the time for explaining how and why was over. The time for the past was over, as the future was so uncertain for the characters. But how to change something that had worked for a whole year?
The premier did indeed flash between the fairy tale world and the real one, only not in a way that the show had ever done before. In fairyland we see Sleeping Beauty, a brand new character, awakened by her handsome prince who is accompanied by Mulan. They encounter a hooded phantom who marks his victims with a metal disk and then sucks out their souls. Aurora’s prince is marked and dies.
It all seems a little irrelevant until the phantom appears back in the real world. Although it still seemed a little unnecessary. Introducing three new characters just to explain what the scary hooded monster did? He was scary and hooded and so logic says he probably sucked out souls. But when in the real world they get rid of the phantom by banishing him back to fairyland, and the two female leads with him, they land right next to Aurora and Mulan. It wasn’t a flashback; it was a peek into the not-so-distant future. The show had introduced three new characters to move the plot forward, not back. And suddenly a whole world of possibilities emerges.
The flashback formula was made most popular by Lost, and when you think back to the first season of that show, you can understand why it was so good. It made a high concept, serialized show more procedural, and easier to watch and understand. It kept the show from having the entire series on a beach. The audience could see how the plane crash had changed the characters. It was a great way to bring those characters together.
But in that show, and others, the brilliance of the flashbacks just didn’t last as characters joined cults, got married randomly, and got strange tattoos in Thailand. And when the flashbacks started to falter the show started flashing forward and eventually “sideways” into the increasingly absurd. These scenes weren’t telling the audience anything about the characters or the plot of the present. They were just there to be there, because that is what the show had always done.
But now Once Upon a Time is not cursed to the same fate as Lost. It doesn’t have to flashback endlessly to fairytale characters who don’t last more than one episode, or create increasingly absurd back stories for the characters. And they can continue to flashback, occasionally. It never hurts to know more about the characters, even if we think we already know everything about Snow White. But inevitably the story matters more than the procedure.
Of course the showis still struggling with the transition. A few episodes in this season have gotten a little heady, sporting three separate plots in a short forty-three minute episode: the real world, the current fairyland, and a flashback. But as the stories converge over the season and the stakes are raised, the show ultimately has dropped the flashbacks in episodes where they weren’t needed. It has chosen instead to focus on the here and now, where all of the action is happening. This is a lesson Lost never learned.