Judge Gordon Sullivan can't remember his past. Too many Jolt colas, we suspect.
Prepare to be spellbound.
When I was walking past the newsstand and saw an entire monthly magazine dedicated to Once Upon a Time I thought it was pretty silly. How could they make a monthly magazine about a single weekly TV show? Eventually I remembered that I'd actually given up on Once Upon a Time about four episodes into Season Two. I hadn't re-watched Season One, and too much happened too quickly in the first few episodes that I had trouble following the show from week to week. Thanks to Once Upon a Time: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray), I got to catch up on the second season all at once. Though I still think the first few episodes are needlessly complicated, the rest of the season redeems them, making this second season worthwhile.
Facts of the Case
When we last left the denizens of Storybrooke, Maine the curse of the Evil Queen/Mayor Regina (Lana Parrilla, Spiders) had been lifted by newcomer to the town Emma (Jennifer Morrison, House, M.D.). Now everyone remembers their past in the other world, and it's now a battle of wills between Regina and Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle, Trainspotting), with the rest of the world caught in the middle. This season opens with the new status quo, but in the first episode Emma and Mary Margaret are sent back to the Enchanted Forest to find the old world changed. They struggle to get back while those left behind try to deal with the Mayor.
I'm not gonna lie: I wish Once Upon a Time had been a one-and-done kind of show. The conceit of a sleepy little town full of storybook characters who can't remember their past is a clever one. Using each episode as a reason to explore one character's backstory while furthering the mystery of the town itself was smart. Once the curse was broken, I was skeptical about what the show could do to keep interest. Initially, my skepticism was reinforced. Putting Emma and Mary Margaret in the Enchanted Forest sounds like a good idea on paper, but in execution it falls flat as it doesn't really help us resolve the major problems, which are all in the town. However, I don't think it's much of a spoiler to suggest that Emma and Mary Margaret eventually make it back to Storybrooke, and from there things improve markedly.
Two things really make this season of Once Upon a Time worth watching. The first is Robert Carlyle and his portrayal of Mr. Gold/Rumpelstiltskin. It's a bit ironic, because the show is mainly about women and especially the mother/child relationship, but that's exactly why Mr. Gold gets to stand out: Regina is basically a one-note baddy for most of the show, Mary Margaret is a one-note goody-two-shoes, and Emma is basically Snow White with a sketchy past. We know their motivations and how they're going to react to just about everything. This season (admirably) tries to stretch things a bit, but Mr. Gold is there all along, throwing wrenches into everything. He's not just evil, and he's not just good, but a complex, sometimes sympathetic character who gets to develop in ways that the other characters can't even dream of. Just as importantly, Robert Carlyle can sell even the most inane dialogue of the show (which has some serious zingers). He brings a gravity to the show that its fairytale plot needs desperately.
The other genius behind the show is Jane Espenson. She learned her craft on a show all about strong women, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and has honed her craft ever since. All of the best episodes of this season, all of the episodes that really flesh out the back story in emotionally satisfying ways (especially for Regina) are credited to Espenson. As long as she and Robert Carlyle are associated with the show, it'll probably be worth watching.
Otherwise, the structure of the show stays relatively unchanged. There are still background stories on individual characters that take us back to the past and the Enchanted Forest, there's still a need to save Storybrooke from the Evil Queen, and there's even a new "mysterious stranger" who comes to town to shake things up. The big addition to the cast this season is Captain Hook, who appears with regularity in various stories throughout the season. Unsurprisingly he's involved with the bad guys, but his addition to the cast is a pretty positive one.
Once Upon a Time: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray) is pretty excellent as well. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfers included here are excellent. The show's CGI is goofy, but looks pristine here. The combination of CG and flesh-and-blood actors doesn't always look great (including a bit of noise and flatness), but that's almost certainly the fault of the source and not this transfer. Elements in Storybrooke fare much better. Fine detail is great, from clothing to the forested vistas surrounding the town. Color saturation is spot-on, and there aren't any serious compression issues to note. The DTS-HD 5.1 tracks are equally impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear, and there is near-constant surround activity to establish both the Storybrooke and Enchanted Forest locations.
Extras start with six audio commentaries featuring a combo of creative and actors. They're informative and pretty fun for the most part. More helpful is "A Fractured Family Tree," which takes seven minutes to lead viewers through all the relationships the show established in the first season. It's a helpful refresher, and a Blu-ray exclusive. Another featurette looks at the ladies of Storybrooke, featuring in interviews with the women who populate Storybrooke. Another featurette interviews the series' most prominent newcomer, Colin O'Donoghue as Captain Hook. There's also a fake morning show for Storybrooke that features some goofy appearances by "celebrity guests." We also get eight deleted scenes and a gag reel.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I felt like the CGI budget got better and the dialogue budget got worse for this season. The sets look better and less obvious, while there are simply some total clunkers in the scripts. That's survivable, though, and the real problem with this season is that the cast list has just become too unwieldy. Even watching over just a couple of days it's difficult to keep all the relationships straight. Even worse, otherwise excellent character/actor combos get reduced to walk-ons with sad regularity. There's just so much going on that something is always in danger of being lost or forgotten. For fans of the main story the side trips with minor characters can be a bore, while those who find themselves invested in someone like Ruby get disappointed that she doesn't have more to do.
Once Upon a Time raises the stakes from the previous season admirably. Though viewers may struggle through the first few episodes as these major arcs are established, they pay off with deeper characterizations of Mr. Gold and Regina, and in the world of fairytales the villains are always more interesting. Once Upon a Time: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray) is excellent and offers near-pristine audiovisual presentation alongside some decent extras. Definitely worthwhile for fans of the show.
Not guilty, but could probably use a fairytale ending.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ABC Studios
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