Pilot episodes tend to be clunky. They have to do a lot of work to establish the story, the setting, and the characters. That early on in a show’s life, the folks who work on the show often haven’t yet figured out what works and what doesn’t. Some of that spills over into the second, third, heck, even the fourth episode. Sometimes, it takes a whole season for a show to figure itself out entirely. That’s not a major cause for concern, as long one can see progress being made over the course of those episodes.

What is cause for concern, however, is when the second episode of a series takes almost everything that was wrong with the pilot, amplifies it tenfold, and then does nothing to advance the story. “The Thing You Love Most” squandered most of the potential of Once Upon a Time’s pilot, and now I’m starting to think the series might not be worth watching on a weekly basis.

Right off the bat, I have to admit one of my biases: unlike a lot of other TV viewers, I’m not a fan of extreme scenery chewing. Well-loved roles like Ross McCall on White Collar, Timothy Dalton on Chuck, and Stephen Fry on Bones don’t entertain me; they make me want to stab myself in the face. So, I wasn’t likely to enjoy an episode based around the Evil Queen, played by Lana Parrilla, whose penchant for chewing scenery is matched only by Violet Beauregarde‘s penchant for chewing gum. I didn’t think it were possible, but Parrilla managed to deliver an even hammier performance than in the pilot, so overplaying the role of bitch extraordinaire that I wondered why none of the townsfolk were punching her character in the face.

Somehow, in each of her scenes, Parrilla managed to transform what should be a quirky, enchanting show into a melodrama verging on self-parody.  The writing wasn’t helping her either, making each confrontation between the mayor and Emma seem increasingly ludicrous. And when the mayor confronted Henry’s teacher at school, I had to roll my eyes. If you consistently treat people like dirt, it doesn’t matter if you’re the mayor; you’ll get an harassment suit shoved in your face.

Also more prominent this week: the fairy tale world. I understand that it’s an integral part of the show. But it’s also the less interesting part. When I wrote about the show last week, I argued that it should use the fairy tale world as a means of illuminating what’s going on in the present day, not as a set of stories that can stand on their own. That’s because we already know the outcome of what happened in the past: the Evil Queen put a curse on the Kingdom. In this episode, the show tried diving into the Queen’s backstory, with unsuccessful results. Parrilla’s overacting and the show’s tendency to turn everything into melodrama were partially to blame. However, more importantly, everything about this story was boring, and despite the reveals about the Queen’s deal with Rumpelstiltskin and the fact that she had to murder her father in order to perform the curse, I didn’t feel as if any of it was worth my time. It was mainly a bunch of hammy monologuing from the Queen, and well, you know how I feel about scenery chewing.

This sojourn into the past might have been worthwhile if it had anything to do with what was going on in the present day. In that case, it would have helped us better understand the mayor’s actions and make her seem like more of a three-dimensional character. But the past and present-day scenes had almost nothing to do with each other, other than the fact that Parrilla’s character was a royal bitch in both settings.

However, the biggest problem with “The Thing You Love Most” was this: nothing fucking happened. You’d think that in an hour, we’d get some story progress, but this show is even more glacially paced than The Killing. Part of the problem is that Emma still doesn’t fully believe what Henry is telling her, so neither of them have really started to work on breaking the curse. But even if Once Upon a Time wants to stall the restoration of everyone’s “happy ending,” which – let’s face it – is necessary if the show wants to last beyond five episodes, wasting time with the mayor’s increasingly flimsy and ludicrous ways of getting Emma out of town isn’t the way to go about doing it. The show should take some time to let Emma get to know the townsfolk, establish some subplots, and paint a clearer portrait of Storybrooke, Maine. I talk a lot about the importance of world-building, and the best way for Once Upon a Time to keep me interested while it’s stalling is to continue drawing me into its world by revealing more and more information about it. Failing that, I won’t want to stick around much longer.

A couple of things did improve from the pilot, namely Jennifer Morrison and Ginnifer Goodwin’s performances. Morrison is really digging into the role of Emma now that she no longer has to pretend to be a tough bail bondswoman. And I take back what I said last week, when I mentioned that I hadn’t ever seen Goodwin be good in anything. She was surprisingly likable here, probably because she didn’t have to overact and play the role of Snow White this week.

But by and large, “The Thing You Love Most” was a colossal regression from the pilot. It wasn’t just a worse episode of television. That, by itself, wouldn’t be a huge cause for concern. Unfortunately, the things about the pilot that I didn’t like – the overacting, the melodramatic writing, the overuse/misuse of the fairy tale world, the lack of plot advancement – were even more prominent here. That’s a problem, because it indicates to me that those behind the show are labouring under the delusion that its faults are actually its assets. That means that in the long term, Once Upon a Time won’t work, and unless the show turns things around next week, then an overacted, sluggish, boring melodrama won’t be worth my time.

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