Major spoilers ahead – proceed at own risk
Television today is riddled with asinine reality shows and poorly written situational comedies. There is a lot of trash out there – a lot – so much that I have friends that have, understandably, decided to exclude television from their lives altogether. However, I don’t have that kind of self-discipline. I am a television junkie.
After I’d exhausted every episode of the American version of “The Office,” and (disappointingly) got caught up on all available episodes of “Parks and Recreation” and “The Big Bang Theory,” I found myself searching for something else to amuse myself with.
I stumbled upon “Once Upon a Time” through the modern technological miracle that is Netflix. I didn’t expect to like it – it seemed cheesy (and it is). The writing isn’t always great, the special effects are mostly horrible, and the plot (while delightfully twisty) is filled to the brim with tropes and loopholes and deus ex machinas.
It is also perhaps the only modern show that, without being overtly religious or spiritual in nature, doesn’t really create conflict with my Christian worldview.
This may seem like a stretch – the show, after all, is riddled with witches and curses and spells. There is literally no mention made of God or Jesus or religion of any kind, at least none that I have noticed. For goodness’ sake, one of the main characters is referred to as the Dark One. Evil design lurks around every corner, and those who are good to their core struggle tirelessly – and oftentimes in vain – against the vileness that seemingly permeates every facet of existence instead of caving in because it is the right thing to do. Because good, in the end, always wins.
Oh, wait. That actually sounds really familiar, right? Kind of like: “You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved” (Matthew 10:22). Or “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).
I realize that declaring Once Upon a Time as the great televised Christian epic of our time may be a bit of a stretch, but I’m still willing to do it, on the Internet no less. And here’s why:
For one thing, it’s remarkably clean.
This show is not marketed towards children. It may be centered around fairy tales and include childhood favorites like Cinderella and Peter Pan, but it is not charming and carefree. There is way too much heart-ripping for it to be charming and carefree.
Seriously, y’all. What is it with the heart-ripping?
But even though it’s pretty clear the target audience is adults, the producers don’t feel the need to spice up the language. Sure, there are a few stray damns and hells every now and then, but there has never been anything excessive. Anything that would make me blush were I to watch it with my grandmother.
Oh – and sex is practically non-existent in the show. It isn’t ignored, but simply alluded to subtly. And the one time that the audience is overtly exposed to sex, it happens to be between a very loving married couple. And it’s so modestly and innocently done you can barely call it a sex scene.
For another, none of the characters is beyond reproach.
Emma Swan is repeatedly called the savior due to her unique ability to break the dark curse, but you’re not once led to believe that she is supposed to be some sort of Christ analog. She is hard-hearted, selfish, and stubborn, and her stint in prison definitely doesn’t make the viewer have warm-fuzzies. She’s also willing to resort to using dark magic when it seems to be the only way to accomplish her goals. And even when she learns the true story of her birth – that her parents did not abandon her, but actually saved her – she can’t get over her commitment and abandonment issues. She is admirable, yes, but she is also cripplingly flawed.
As is literally every other character.
Even Snow White and Prince Charming, who are obviously the characters intended to be viewed as the ultimate good, have irredeemable qualities. Snow White cannot see the forest for the trees sometimes, choosing to wallow in her emotions instead of taking necessary action, and seems not to understand the concept of justice (re her hand in Cora’s death) while Charming often resorts to lying in order to protect his family or to instill confidence in Snow (please tell me that I was not the only person to feel more than a little miffed about what I’m calling the Dreamshade Incident).
These flaws show themselves in times of crisis over and over again, but what brings them together and gives them the strength to overcome their obstacles every time is their will for the victory of good over evil. Kind of like the Church.
Finally – the show exemplifies how seductive and corrupting evil can be.
I’m pretty sure that fans of the show like to think of themselves as real-world versions of Emma or Snow – imperfect people doing the best that they can to combat the mundane forms of evil that occasionally crop up in our lives. Maybe that is true for some people – after all, we are all in different stages of rebirth and renewal through Christ – but I know that for me, the character I most honestly relate to is…Regina.
Don’t worry – I don’t have a vault full of hearts and I’m not out for anyone’s blood. I don’t sympathize with her in that regard.
But I do understand why she has such a hard time giving up dark magic, even though it started getting in the way of every chance that she could find happiness and love again, with someone besides Daniel. Even though it was the reason that she lost Daniel in the first place. Even though it was the reason that she could not even begin to love her mother. Even when it required her to murder her father in cold blood. Even when her adopted son begged her to please, please stop. Even when she wants to put it behind her and stop using the dark arts to get her way, she can’t find the willpower to desert her old ways.
It’s the same reason that I struggle with the sins that I struggle with: gluttony, pettiness, passive-aggressiveness (traits that I find despicable and unbearable in other people).
It’s the same reason that Paul penned the following words in his letter to the Romans: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate” (Romans 7:!5).
Perhaps that is why we catch ourselves wishing for Regina to be redeemed, and find ourselves so heartbroken when she relapses back into her default acts of evil. It’s because we are Regina. For that matter, we are Rumpelstiltskin, too. We are so filled with fear and self-serving ambition, and it can only lead to destruction…unless we replace that fear and self-serving ambition with love.
There are other lessons to be learned here, other allusions to be drawn (like how the relationship that develops between Belle and Rumpelstiltskin is the best example of failed missionary dating I’ve ever seen), but those are for another day. For now, I submit my little ramblings to those who take the time to read them. If you’re looking for something to watch, consider this show. It is cheesy, it is at times poorly written, and often causes emotional turmoil. But I promise, it’s worth it.