If you have been watching ABC this season, you probably have heard of one of their most original new series, Once Upon A Time. In the series, Snow White’s evil stepmother curses all who live in the fairytale realms into “somewhere horrible,” a place where they have no knowledge of who they are or the lives they have lived before: Storybrooke, Maine. A series of flashbacks reveals to the audience the previous life that our “normal” townsfolk are typically incapable of remembering. Yet upon the arrival of Emma Swan (the daughter born to Prince (James) Charming and Snow White right before the release of the curse), things start to change. On either conscious or unconscious levels, many of the characters start reforming the same attachments and animosities they held before the curse. It is a series with constant plot twists and constant suspense and therefore one of the most captivating new series on television.
For me, as I am sure holds for many other viewers, much of the attraction to this series comes from the flashbacks that hallmark its stories. These stories often include interesting plot twists which are absent from the versions we are most familiar with. The freed genie of Aladdin’s lamp becomes the wise advisor to the evil queen, trapped in her mirror after he makes a wish he thinks will help in a crisis. This story, as with nearly every flashback story in Once Upon A Time holds one important lesson: magic has consequences, often unforeseen consequences that inflict some sort of suffering. In this series, the consequences for using magic are rarely truly positive. When it is positive, it carries a catch, a price.
This lesson creates a critical dramatic undercurrent for the series, but it also carries practical value for all who watch the series. “There are no shortcuts” this series teaches. Wishes may come true, but never without unforeseen consequences. Happily ever after is never completely happy-or free. Each character finds herself or himself having to give something up in order to receive what s/he thinks will bring happiness. As with real life, there are trade-offs for every choice we make, and no short-cuts to life. A prayer is answered-but never in the expected way.
The fairytales in Once Upon A Time are therefore more real, more true to the way that life really works. How many of us have expected the original version of Cinderella-finding and marrying “Prince Charming” makes everything perfect in life ever after-only to discover that life after marriage is not perfect? It is perhaps far better to unlearn the original versions of these stories and come to understand, as these characters do, that life involves consequences for everything we do.