Once Upon a Time’s Megara-Fail

What a wasted opportunity Sunday’s episode was.

When it was announced that the second half of this season would focus on the Underworld and Hades, I was stoked. Because I love Hercules.

Yes, in the great pantheon of Disney animated features, it doesn’t quite live up to the best. The music is all over the place and anticlimactically arranged. The only things they’ve actually taken from Greek mythology are names. Everything else is Disney mythology. But it’s filled with great moments. Hades is a brilliant villain, fast-talking, witty, and smarmy, like the older guy at the bar who keeps trying to impress you with his fancy suit and high-paying job, only to blow up when you dismiss his advances.

Hercules, in the movie, is a bit of a rube. Super naive and singularly focused, he’s not the strongest of male leads. But don’t worry – Meg makes up for it. Voiced by Susan Egan, Megara is the queen of sass, accenting her quips with a hair flip or hip sway. I love her. In the grand scheme of female leads, Belle is my hero, but Meg is me.

Meg is not an official Disney princess. But that’s part of what makes her so great. She’s a complex female with a past. She’s made mistakes. Unlike most Princesses, she’s not the result of her upbringing – overprotective parents, royalty strains, or feeling like she doesn’t belong. We don’t know anything about Meg’s family. She’s like the princess after the first movie, when it didn’t work out. We only know she made a mistake – she saved her boyfriend’s (Boyfriend?! Disney princesses do NOT have boyfriends.) life by offering her own, and then he ditched her, leaving Meg to serve out her sentence to Hades. A fact that Hades brings up for exposition’s sake, but it doesn’t feel out of character for him. Like he enjoys twisting the knife.

Film Meg doesn’t take kindly to being rescued. She fights her own battles. She plays Herc for the innocent chump that he is. She can’t believe she finds herself falling for him. She ultimately sacrifices herself to save him — the 2nd time she’s done so for love. It’s true that in the end, Herc had to save her… but she was kinda dead, so there wasn’t much she could do there. She had given everything she could. Not only did Herc bring her back from the dead, but he gave up his immortality for her.

Anyway, Once Upon a Time, a series I truly enjoy, completely sputtered when it came to representing Meg. What’s worse is that this could have been a prime theme for the entire episode – women who kick ass.

The main story here revolved around Mary Margaret and how the young Snow White became the kick ass Snow White we all know and love. It was Herc. They were teenage crushes, and Herc taught young Snow all she needed to know about being a leader and shooting an arrow. In current time, Mary Margaret is having a personal crisis, coming to terms with the fact that she’s become pretty wussy since living in Storybrooke. I like that the show has decided to confront one of the main complaints about Ginnifer Goodwin’s character — the Snow White flashbacks are always amazing. (One of her best episodes is when she meets Red Riding Hood.) But how is that person the same wispy, hope-spouting maternal soul we see in Maine?

Maybe now, the real Snow will stand up. Regardless, it was a good story about a strong female character finding her strength and acknowledging she may have lost it. It was also great to see Regina be the one to give MM a pep talk, when it could have just as easily been Charming.

Also in the strong women department, we come across the lovely Cruella De Vil, who manipulates Henry into helping her come back to life. I adore Once’s take on Cruella, a boozy socialite who was just born bad, and Victoria Smurfit does a great job. While the overall plot of the quill being a living thing seems a little too convenient, I appreciated that Cruella was wise enough to use the idea of restoring Emma’s purity to convince Henry of her plan.

So how, with all this great female interaction, how could they allow Megara to be a sad, scared little girl, who would rather stay in her cell than face Cerberus?? Even if, even if she didn’t want to leave her cell, at least make her brazen about it. Not all whimpery.

I was really hoping at the end, when Herc gave Meg his dagger to help kill the Hound of Hades, that she would turn on them, that she had been playing them the whole time, an aide to Hades, with Cerberus under her command. But sadly, that was not the case. No, instead, Meg helped defeat Cerberus, was revealed to be the girl Herc died trying to save, and together they walked hand in hand to Olympus or heaven or wherever that bridge leads.

From what I can find, it seems as though that was their only appearance. And if that’s the case, then WTF. Seriously. Maybe they’ll come back. Maybe Meg’s character will come into play later on down the road. Maybe?

Once Upon a Time likes to take elements of the Disney films we all know so well and spin them. Rarely are any of the characters identical to their Disney origins (except for Frozen, but of course),  making Pan evil and Hook a good guy, making Belle’s father a bully, etc. And that’s fine. But why make a strong female character decidedly weak? Meg’s oft-quoted anti-princess mantra is “I’m a damsel. I’m in distress. I can handle this.”

So, Once staff, what’s the deal? Will Meg be brought back and redeemed? Or did you just waste one of the strongest female characters in the Disney canon?

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The One Super Easy Fix to Save The Muppets

I adore The Muppets, who will be here out referred to as people.  I’ve loved them for as long as I can remember. And I’m certainly not alone on that one. So whenever “they” decide to bring The Muppets out – in film, TV, what have you, I’m excited. But I’m also nervous. Case in point: ABC’s The Muppets.

I was not a fan of this reincarnation of The Muppets. The humor was mismatched and it felt like they were trying to hard to make you feel like the Muppets were hip. That’s insane. The Muppets succeed because they aren’t hip. They’re real and genuine and eager. If they got big because they were cool, they wouldn’t have lasted this long. “Cool” changes. It’s ambiguous. Sincerity is well-defined. It’s constant. This is why the Muppets are legit.

So I watched, with bated breath, the “reboot” of a currently running series, which is bizarre but whatever. In short, they replaced their showrunner, since the series was bombing.

And… it’s better. It feels a little more Muppety. The plot of this first reboot was super meta, including how the show needs more joy, more Muppets, etc. The only time I felt real Muppet joy was during the impromptu Muppets Theme Song performance in the writer’s room. I also LOVED martini-swilling baby penguin Gloria Estefan and Uncle Deadly. They are my new favorite show.

But, okay. There are still problems. The biggest problem is with the format of the show. They’ve taken the loudest, most dramatic theatre folk, and stuck them in corporate. It’s the actualization of what happens to Kermit in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

But let’s go even more specific. There is ONE element to the new Muppet show that is precisely why the show doesn’t work yet. And it’s the talking heads.

Muppets are not meant for talking heads. Because they themselves are living (I know), breathing (I KNOW) talking heads. Here’s a breakdown:

The “Talking Head” shot has been super popular over the last 2+ decades, particularly in comedy. It’s become its own joke structure. A TH serves, in comedy, as a scene for a character to convince the camera, thereby the viewer, of their true feelings.

That means that what we’ve seen thus far of the character, has not been “true.” The TH serves as a “confessional,” like in the Real World days, where the character can finally say what they’ve been thinking, or maybe reaffirm their beliefs after some time to reconsider what they’ve said openly.

The other, simpler purpose of a TH is physically comedic. It relies on the actor’s delivery – tone of voice, body language, facial expressions. Clever use of these traits allow the actor to share with the camera how they actually feel – Are they being sincere and raw? Are they playing to the camera? Are they desperately trying to convince themselves? A TH with a good actor will let us know. This brings us to our first problem.

Problem 1: It’s not their strong suit for physical comedy.

I say this with love. But the Muppets do not always lend themselves well to facial expression and body language up close. Most of the Muppets are designed to emote with their mouths. The Muppeteers go to great strides to bring to life these foam creations, and for all intents and purposes, they are real. But up close, they’re boxed in. Some are lucky enough to have a second moving part – eyelids, eye brows, hands. And that works, to an extent. But it’s limiting. There’s only so much comedy that can be pulled from a Muppet in a TH shot. Attempts at physical comedy on such a minute scale feel stiff and underplayed.

Problem 2: It’s an energy-killer.

The Muppets THRIVE on energy. They’re the best when they’re interacting with each other. Even the drier characters (Sam the Eagle, I love you) are hilarious because they give their lines amidst the chaos. (Sam’s “Why am I here?” in the Muppet Family Christmas might be my favorite Muppet line ever. But it was funny because he said it surrounded by Christmas craziness. If he stared at the camera, by himself, speaking, sure it could be funny with the right timing. But not classic.)

THs are usually used as scene interrupters or buttons, intentionally placed to break up or cap energetic scenes. This works AGAINST the Muppets in every way. The Muppets are the embodiment of theatrical energy. Putting them in an office setting, under florescent lighting? Offices instantly bring with them tension. Tension is bottled energy. Talking heads are supposed to be a safe place to alleviate tension. The Muppets are not tense. They are open, honest, unbridled energy. Which leads us to…

Problem 3 – The biggest problem of them all: The Muppets have nothing to hide.

They emote openly. Whatever their feelings, whatever their attitude, there’s no shame, no fear, no protecting their reputation. They say what they mean. Every time.

This is what makes them unite as a group, as a family: Unabashedly being yourself,  speaking your mind, wearing your heart on your sleeve. Using THs implies there’s a distance now between them and us, and between the Muppets themselves. For some reason, they can’t just be themselves here.

Additionally, and along the same lines, THs make the Muppets too self-aware. Now they’re playing a game. This immediately depletes any sincerity or eagerness that made us root for them in the first place.

A well-used TH should not only be funny, but build emotional complexity. It should make characters appear more human, more relatable with lots of “That’s what I was thinking!” moments. This is just not the case with the current Muppets.

In fact, I might argue it takes away from them emotionally. In past productions, some of the most emotionally-heavy moments have been when any given Muppet (though most often Kermit, since he’s the one who bears the most responsibility) is in a scene alone or as a pair. These scenes serve as serious punctuation marks to the typically maniacal movement of the Muppets. Kermit, sitting at his big desk, in his giant chair. The camera pulls back as he looks down. He’s feeling alone. He doesn’t need to say it or explain it to anyone. We feel for him in that moment. And that heaviness, that weighty, real-world emotion is what The Muppets’ “realness” hinges on. It’s not ironic or deliberate. It’s a felt frog puppet emitting a wave of emotions without being asked to.

 

There are other issues with the new show, as well. Firstly, making Piggy the talk show host was questionable. Piggy is a diva. Divas don’t share the stage. A good talk show host shares everything. This puts Piggy in a position that in effect diminishes her character.

Denise is a problem. I know in this episode, they’re pulling her back for awhile, so we’ll see where that goes. But Denise made Kermit mean. And Kermit is not mean. He’s warm and emotional and frazzled and loyal. But he is not mean.

Ultimately, the Muppets need space. They need space to play, to run, to be free. Boxing them up, whether literally in a closed office space or figuratively in a one-shot, is the worst. It’s like keeping a Golden Retriever in a studio apartment. It’ll be fine. But it won’t be living up to its potential.*

So I say again – if a talking head is a scene where a character expresses their true feelings, either verbally or physically, to an audience, then each Muppet is a living (I know), breathing (I KNOW) talking head, living in an open world of dozens of other talking heads. Feelings and words and actions, all intermingling in a brilliant ball of buzzy optimism and fun.

Let’s ditch the talking heads, the cold, corporate environment, the sad need to be trendy. We’re the ones who must live in that world; the Muppets don’t.

We need the Muppet world more than the Muppets need ours.

Honestly – how else would a pig love a frog, a prawn and a rat be BFFs, and a Gonzo exist?

* I live in a studio apartment and desperately want a dog. This is what I tell myself every day I walk by the dog park.

 

Pilot Watch: Once Upon a Time – “Pilot”

I love Once Upon a Time.2014-07-25 22.37.03

My dad was the one who pushed me into watching ABC’s fairy tale-driven fantasy drama. I’m not sure how he stumbled onto it, but he was persistent, using the lore of my favorite Disney characters as bait. So one Christmas break, I couldn’t sleep thanks to a pesky cold, so I started watching Season 1 on Netflix. Binged the whole season in a matter of days. I couldn’t stop. Caught up by the middle of Season 2. Now well into Season 5, the series as a whole has had ups and downs. The Pan story and Frozen arc were not strong points. This season has been surprisingly fresh, thanks to the dramatic Dark Swan. But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to look at where it all began, at that very first episode —

Once upon a time…

After a few cards giving some brief exposition, the episode starts with Snow White and Prince Charming at their legendary moment, with Charming breaking the deadly spell with true love’s kiss. Which leads right into —

Their wedding, though it’s immediately interrupted by the Evil Queen. Snow quickly draws Charming’s sword – a nice move showing her strength. This isn’t your typical Disney Princess. She’s not afraid of weaponry. And that’s pretty great.

Emma’s entrance is far more modern, in a form fitting pink dress. On a “date,” she identifies as a loner, without family. It doesn’t take long for Emma’s current identity as a bailbondsman (woman) trapping a guy who skipped out. She busts him, bashing his head against his own steering wheel after he makes a crack about her lack of family.

We follow Emma back to her apartment, and can I just say I’ve always loved Emma’s apartment door, with the writing scrawled across it. A little heavy-handed? Maybe. Still love it.

At this point, the writers go to great lengths showing just how alone Emma is, seeing her big, empty apartment, blowing out a birthday candle on her little cupcake.

Enter Henry. I’d forgotten how little he was. Precocious without being obnoxious, he’s a instantly likable.

We cut back to the past to see a pregnant Snow, worrying about the witch’s curse. There’s obvious chemistry between Josh Dallas and Ginnifer Goodwin (Congrats to them on baby #2!), so watching them is a delight.

With a storytelling tactic of switching between past and present storylines a la LOST, it’s interesting in this first episode that they use the illustrations in the book to transition from real world/present to Enchanted Forest/past.

Finally we get to meet Rumplestiltskin – slimy and volatile, even locked behind bars. He makes a deal with Snow, revealing Regina’s  spell, and why Storybrooke is the way it is (hello, more exposition!), in exchange for the baby’s name.

In Rumple’s explanation, the final battle will begin when Emma returns in 28 years (guess this is one big, long, epic battle, 5 seasons later…).

Back in real-time, there are signs that Emma’s return is shaking up the town already, as the power lines spark when she slams the car door. Henry’s theory is starting to look more plausible – Archie, Henry’s therapist, advises strongly against lying. When Henry tries to tell Emma Archie’s true identity, she brushes him off — and just as quickly, we’re brought into the Enchanted Forest, with Jiminy Cricket, who has Archie’s voice, speaking to a round table of fairy tale peeps.

There’s no shortage of Easter egg-level foreshadowing here, which is bold as a pilot with no promise of a future. As Regina flips through Henry’s book, the camera pauses on illustrations of flying monkeys and Wonderland caterpillars — a great idea to entice fairy tale freaks…. like me… to keep following along.

Later, in a burst of emotion that adults usually don’t express to children, Emma confesses her traumatic childhood to Henry, who doesn’t even bat an eye, and tries to convince Emma it didn’t happen the way she thinks.

Henry’s so innocent. He’s a great age for this story – old enough to be wicked smart, young enough to be innocent and full of hope. That innocence gives the whole show a wash of genuine storytelling, free from jaded irony and bitterness. It’s so refreshing.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few quips expertly laid out. Like when the Evil Queen describes where she’s sending the cursed kingdom: “Somewhere horrible. Absolutely horrible.”

In the Enchanted Forest, the last we see of Charming before the curse takes over is dead in the arms of Snow. In Storybrooke? Turns out he wasn’t quite dead. Now he’s John Doe, an unidentified man in a coma at the hospital.

As the episode comes to a close, Emma checks into Granny’s B-n-B, Mr. Gold/Rumple appears, collecting cash from Granny. He owns that place. The town. We’re now well aware of the power Gold has, and even this early on, it’s clear he knows more than the rest of the town.

And just after Emma checks into Granny’s, the clock tower, frozen forever, ticks back to life.

The episode slowed in the middle a bit, but picked up brilliantly in the end. Emma and Regina’s confrontation, resulting in Emma deciding to stay in Storybrooke for a bit, leading to the clock tower working again, with Henry’s big smile on his face — I couldn’t contain myself; I had to keep watching. Hooked. (Get it? GET IT?) Seriously, OUAT does a great job using mystery elements encoded in common fairy tales, not only providing clues to the viewers, but letting them think they’re one step ahead, figuring out who is who and how they’re all interconnected. A great story, indeed.