ONCE UPON A TIME Redux: Why Do TV Shows Have To Break Our Heart?

One of my favorite new shows just broke everyone’s heart.  ONCE UPON A TIME is premised on the idea that Emma Swan is the key to breaking the Evil Queen’s curse and that she will bring back the “happy endings.”  But if this most recent episode is any indication, the curse is still alive and well — for Storybrooke is still a place where “happy endings” die.
Coming from the creators and writers of the episode “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter,” Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis (both former writers of LOST), ONCE UPON A TIME took a page out of the LOST-playbook and killed off a beloved principal character.  It was as if the one thing that we all dreaded the most has come back to haunt us – writers who dare to kill off characters.  In the past decade, television has become more enamored with the idea of raising-the-stakes and making TV shows more unpredictable by killing key characters.  Other shows have done it, but none more so and more heart-wrenchingly than LOST.  It was a show that we all both loved and loathed for various reasons.  But perhaps the greatest taboo that LOST ever broke was killing off beloved characters.
Alas, the lesson was not learned and Horowitz and Kitsis have brought that particular storytelling device into their new series ONCE UPON A TIME.  But this time, it may backfire even more spectacularly.  They have vastly underestimated their audience – those that watched LOST are a much different audience than those that currently watch ONCE UPON A TIME.  LOST was never a family-show, it was a sci-fi show cloaked in mystery and drama.  ONCE UPON A TIME, however, is a show that thrives off of its ability to draw in family viewers.  There is a reason it was given the plumb timeslot of 8 p.m. on Sunday nights – the traditional family hour of television – ONCE UPON A TIME promised a modern look at classic fairytales.  It is based on the idea of a young boy who goes in search of his birth mother in order to bring her to a town where time has stood still and everyone there is a fairytale character unable to remember who they really.  The concept alone is meant to target younger viewers (children) and parents.  So when you kill off one of the heroes by Episode 7, there is going to be a backlash.
If recent ratings are any indication, viewers have already become disenchanted.  They were promised a story where happy-endings would become real again, but instead have suffered from a bait-and-switch:  ONCE UPON A TIME is not giving us the “happy endings” we were hoping for. 
The first episode did reunite Henry with his birth mother Emma, and he was successful in convincing her to stay in Storybrooke giving them hope of breaking the curse.  But by the second episode we discovered that each story comes with a dark silver-lining.  In “The Thing You Love The Most,” we learned that the Evil Queen had to sacrifice her father as the price to pay for the curse she so desperately wanted.  Then in “Snow Falls,” we saw that Regina had schemed to keep Snow White and Prince Charming apart for eternity by having a long-lost wife of John Doe surface just as he revived and was falling in love with Mary-Margaret.  Then in “The Price of Gold,” we watched Emma cornered into giving Mr. Gold a promise of a future favor to save Ashley’s daughter and how in the fairy-world, Rumpelstitskin planned against a double-crossed by arranging to have Cinderella’s husband kidnapped.   Then in “That Still Small Voice” episode, we learned the disastrous fate of the couple caught in the cross-fire of Jiminy Cricket’s plan to escape his parents and how he agreed to live as a cricket to be spared any future pain.  Then in “The Shepherd,” Prince Charming was forced to make a deal to save his mother’s farm, but it meant he cannot see her anymore and became engaged to a woman he did not love – and in our world, John Doe remembered his former life in Storybrooke and returned to his wife, breaking Mary-Margaret’s heart.
All of these episodes should have prepared us for yet another heart-breaking ending, but even as it happened before our eyes, we could not truly believe it.  We never doubted that Regina would go to any lengths to preserve her “happily ever after” – but for her to kill Sheriff Graham felt devastating.  As he died in Emma’s arms, our hearts broke.  What was the point of introducing a character – a hero – that we could root for in both the real-world and the fairytale-world, and one which Emma could fall in love with, only to have him snatched away so suddenly?
Is this truly what ONCE UPON A TIME has to offer us?  Is it all about the unhappy-endings and never the happy-endings?  At least with the television series GRIMM, we knew that the stories were supposed to be dark, twisted and perhaps there will be days that evil triumphs over good.  But with ONCE UPON A TIME, we feel sucker-punched.  Isn’t the show supposed to be about the return of happy-endings?  If so, then why do all the episodes end with sad-endings?  Will we find out in the end that the curse was but illusory and that they were all dead all along?  Given the history of LOST — the very footsteps in which ONCE UPON A TIME seems to be following — it is not inconceivable.  But is that what viewers signed up for?  When we heard about a show offering a modern-spin on fairytales and offering a promise to find the lost “happy endings,” we all tuned-in.  But now that viewers are finding out that we are only being offered “unhappy endings,” viewers are slowly tuning out.  It is not the family-show of good-triumphing-over-evil that we signed up for — all ONCE UPON A TIME is really giving us is a world where evil delights in killing all that the relationships and people we love.
Let’s not have a repeat of LOST where everyone dies in the end.  We do not enjoy watching our heroes suffer.  In ONCE UPON A TIME, they are already suffering and need to be rescued.  It is time to see the promised “happy endings.”  ONCE UPON A TIME should not be a sequel to LOST wrapped in sheep’s clothing.  Be original, be bold, be the fairytale that everyone wants it to be.  Give us a “happy ending.”  (R.I.P Sheriff Graham – we are going to miss you terribly!)

Tiffany Vogt is a contributing writer to TheTVAddict. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at Tiffany_Vogt_2000@yahoo.com or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower).

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  • Carrien17

    I figured he was going to die as soon as he started to figure out the truth. That doesn’t make it any less crappy when they killed him. He was one of my favorites.

  • Jen

    I completely agree. With everything said above. I loved Graham, that gorgeous accent and it seemed there was something developing between him and Emma. WTH. I’m a bit disenchanted and annoyed, but I’ll continue watching….for now. Why couldn’t she (the Queen) cast another spell on him? At least he could have lived and we’d still have HOPE, but he’s dead and there’s no going back from that. 🙁

    Looks like happily ever after isn’t possible after all.

  • Maria

    I’ll give the show a little credit, with thisone Regina wasn’t prepared. She couldn’t just send Graham to Mr. Gold’s to make him forget a la Charming. And I guess this epi was supposed to show us that Regina in Storybrooke was just as evil as the Evil Queen?
    This just felt too soon for me, and sort of like a wasted episode. That is unless these events finally convince Emma that Henry is telling the truth, and she actually starts believing Henry now instead of all this “I don’t know” stuff.
    Makes me wonder who they’re gonna set her up with now though

  • I have now received calls from every single one of my family members and a number of friends wanting to know if Graham is gone for good and why the show made such a poor decision.  It feels unexplainable. So many broken hearts.  What were they thinking?!

  • Unfortunately, with such a huge ratings loss from 12.8 million viewers (3.9 share) to 8.9 (2.9 share), patience is the last thing “Once Upon A Time” can afford to have. With viewers tuning out so rapidly, it needs to find a way to lure back viewers ASAP.

  • Lee Anne

    Our family enjoys watching this show, but we were shocked to see Graham die at the controlling, evil hands of Regina. I had to explain to my daughters ages 13 and 11 that they did this to prove to us that she still has her powers in the modern world. I am hoping the rest of the season proves as intriguing but also a little more happily ever after too…..for my girl’s sakes.

  • sigtificant

    I just watched the last episode earlier today, and commented on the ABC network that killing off a key character wasn’t a very promising career move!

  • lee66132000

    I don’t miss Graham. I never felt the magic. The episode that featured his death was first rate. But that is the best I can say.