Channel 5 has done well out of its American imports over the last few years. Once it got over its late night sultry made-for-TV phase, it picked up with CSI, CSI New York, CSI Miami, and, to a lesser extent, Law and Order, with all of its variations. Procedural drama, as its called, is all very well, and CSI has certainly done Channel 5 proud. But the time has come for the station to spread its wings a little, and spreading its wings is into the area of updated fantasy. People who enjoyed The 10th Kingdom (come on, somebody must have enjoyed it) and the Jack and the Beanstalk update will probably have been looking forward to it. It’s called Once Upon A Time, and it does for fairy tale what Lost and Heroes did for coherent story-telling. That is to say, not a great deal.
On the other hand, or, rather, on the other channel, Homeland was looking to be the punchiest piece of post-X Files intelligence drama to have come out of the USA in… well, since the X Files. As if to underscore the point, after showing the final episode of the first series of Homeland, Channel 4 showed the X Files movie (1998), a film which simply could never be made in the post 9/11 climate, since it begins with a catastrophic bomb destroying a federal building.
Both Once Upon a Time and Homeland share some common characteristics. They’ve got a much-loved female lead: Jennifer Morrison (House, How I Met Your Mother) heads up Once Upon a Time, and Clare Danes (Romeo + Juliet, Terminator 3, Stardust) play the apparently solid but, as the story develops, unexpectedly fragile protagonists. They also share the unfortunate post-Lost/Heroes penchant for taking up the first minutes telling you what has previously happened, and the final minutes telling you what is going to happen. And they keep piling on more story problems in each episode.
Homeland Series 1 has now finished. It looked like it was going to resolve all of the problems in the final episode, and then didn’t. Series 2, as the Channel 4 announcer regretfully said, will be on the station at a later date — that is, when they’ve made it. Once Upon A Time has been going less time, and shows no signs of ever resolving any of its problems, though it does introduce more unconnected aspects from fairy-tales and Disney-tales each week.
Homeland, basically brilliant, someone spoiled by the obvious desire to keep the franchise going for a second series.
Once Upon A Time, only watchable if you really, really want to.
Homeland got going pretty quickly, and it stayed going. It connects to recent events and to real anxieties. The fragility of the female lead comes as an enormous shock, just when it looks like she’s going to sort things out. The details are authentic, at least to a viewer from this side of the pond, and the characters entrancing.
Once Upon A Time just doesn’t do the same things. First off, it suffers from a serious problem of genre-clogging. Jiminy Cricket is a Disney character, an Americanised version of the talking cricket in the original Pinocchio, a 19th century children’s book by Carlo Collodi. The premise of Once Upon A Time is that ‘all of the fairy tales you know’ are true, and the characters are trapped in an American village as a result of a curse (this isn’t a spoiler — they explain this in great detail at the start of every episode). Someone tell the producers that Pinocchio is not a fairy tale, any more than Babes in the Wood is, or Winnie the Pooh or the Jungle Book.
Second, the first rule of doing fairy-tale is that it has to be done with British accents. Everybody knows this. Whether it be the faux-fairy tale The Princess Bride or the grand Stardust (with Clare Danes, qv), even if the actors are American, the accents have to be British, or possibly indeterminate European. For some, probably connected, reason, we British are happy to accept sort-of British accents, whereas UK actors in America have to be very careful (Hugh Laurie being the exception) to make sure their native tones go undetected. The producers seem to have confused this rule with the one that says that, in any American thriller, the guy with the British accent is the bad guy, thereby giving us Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin, who has been elevated to the character equivalent of super-string theory for the purposes of.
Third, and most important, the problem which Lost ran into right the way through to its reputedly disappointing climax (I never made it that far), of just chucking in more and more complications every episode is that the viewer loses interest. If you’re bought into watching something like Lost there is probably a point at which you feel that you’ve invested so much time in watching so far that you have to watch to the end. But, you may very well not.
Fairy tales of all kinds have a shape. Archetypally, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning establishes the plot, often very quickly. The Hans Christian Andersen Tinderbox, for example, dives straight in. But if the beginning is quick, then the middle has to be reasonably uncomplicated as well. Most genuine fairy tales — by which I mean, those constructed without extensive literary artifice — really just have one big complication in the middle. The Tinderbox soldier runs out of money, and discovers the secret of the tinderbox, which leads on to the denouement. The Snow Queen, which has really headed out of fairy tale and into literary story, is more extensive, but the underlying complication is that Gerda must get to the Snow Queen’s palace. For the kind of folktale fairy tales which Andrew Lang anthologised (though he did not collect them himself) in the Blue Fairy Book and the subsequent Red, Green, Yellow and other editions through to Lilac, the beginning, middle and ending go very quickly indeed, often with just one complication to make the tale worth telling.
TV series — especially the US kind, which seem to go on for ever until cancelled, and are then either hastily wrapped up in a couple of episodes, or, as with the lamented Veronica Mars, are just left hanging — by their nature are shapeless. You can tell a story (or ‘story-arc’ as they like to call it, though, the original term ‘story’ is just as good) over a number of episodes, or even across an entire series. Babylon 5 even managed to lay out its story across four series, with one tacked on the end. But to achieve that you have to pad with comedy episodes, low-budget episodes, the episode in which none of the main character appears, and so on, taken either knowingly or accidentally from the categories set out by TVtropes.com.
One reason — I feel — why British costume dramas are as popular in the USA as they are here is that, when it’s a Dickens or Austen novel in question, you know that it is going to tell its story, and stop. Pace Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, there will not be a sequel, the main characters will not be called back to face the chief villain who, it turns out, never died after all, and the ends so neatly tied up will not turn out to have been done with those kind of nylon laces that never manage to grip, causing your shoes to come open after about half a mile.
With something as realistic as Homeland you can accept that the world is disorganised and that there will be elements of things not going to plan. That said, aside from the deliberate door-opening for the second series, Homeland was remarkably coherent. When the subject is completely fantastical, as in Lost, Heroes or Once Upon A Time, you expect a formal structure and symmetry, a story-type that you know well, which is the fairy tale, to take you in an orderly (but, one hopes, thrilling) fashion right from the start to the finish.
The Princess Bride achieves this, both in the film version and in the altogether more knowing book original. Stardust does this — more so in the film than the book, which gets a bit ragged, but satisfyingly in both. The extended tales of The Hobbit and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe do it, though, by this point, we have left fairy-tale far behind and are perhaps in faerie-tale (as Tolkien has it in Tree and Leaf). The 10th Kingdom, Lost, Heroes and Once Upon A Time don’t do it.
As I’m writing this only part way through the series, you might want to take issue and say that it might all work out in the end. I will be glad if it does, but, for me, we have already crossed the ‘episode event horizon’. Even if everything is wrapped up next week, or the characters we already have start to tackle their collective problems rather than revealing ever more back story, there is now just too much buzzing round.
To the writers of the next semi-hit US series to be ported to Channel 5 in the guise of ‘modern fantasy’: Keep it simple. If you’re going to tell a fairy tale, tell it, then stop.