TV Reviews

TV Review: Once Upon a Time (Season 4)

Ever since season 3, Once Upon a Time has adapted a “split season” approach in order to allow a more “gap-free” airing of episodes. While this idea seemed quite good when ABC was selling it since the “momentum” of the series was sometimes broken due to random stretches without new episodes. However, 2 years of this format has shown that it does not work very well. It leaves the series feeling rather fractured and quite honestly, 11 episodes is not “long” enough to fully flesh out meaty storylines (especially with the extensive characters in the Once universe). The writers have good concepts/ideas, but all of the half-seasons have felt rather disappointing and half-baked. Season 3A (Neverland/Peter Pan) was extremely slow-paced and season 3B (Oz/Wicked Witch) was more hype than substance. What about season 4A and 4B?

Season 4A: Frozen
I adored Frozen, so I was quite ecstatic at the glimpse of Elsa during season 3B’s ending and looked forward to seeing how the Frozen characters/world would be incorporated. Overall I thought Once did a fantastic job translating the animated movie into the “real” world. Elizabeth Lail was spot-on as cute/funny Anna and she honestly had the best lines; I was less impressed with Georgina Haig as Elsa, but grew to like her. The highlight casting though was Elizabeth Mitchell as the Snow Queen; she was an absolute scene-stealer with her gripping performance. I was quite sad to see Mitchell go.

Story-line wise, season 4A was the most coherent, balanced, and well-written arc of all the half-seasons. While certain aspects of the story were rather forced/unexplained, as a whole it had plenty of surprise, fun, and excitement. It brought new life to the show and actually made it feel rather fresh again. I really liked Emma’s friendship with Elsa and it helped to develop Emma’s character into accepting her magic. The blending of the original Snow Queen fairytale with Frozen was quite creative.

The main complaint that I have is that the Frozen characters dominated too much of the screen time and I got rather tired that most flashbacks were based in Arendelle or involved Anna/Elsa. What I loved about the Once flashbacks from other seasons (as I did with LOST) was that each episode would focus on a different character/story that would tie in with “current” events, which kept things fresh.

Season 4B: Queens of Darkness/Heroes & Villains
Similar to season 3B’s Wicked promotional tactic, season 4B was full of hype for the incorporation of Maleficent, Ursula, and Cruella de Vil into the Once world. Consequently, the “Queens of Darkness” was more superfluous than anything else. I still do not understand how they originally banded together in the Enchanted Forest and they did not live up to their “threatening” name. Worse, they were all under-developed (with the exception of perhaps Ursula who at least got a “complete” story, but her end was too abrupt) and did not meet any potential. The most enjoyable “Queen” was Cruella, who had delicious zingers and Victoria Smurfit gave her great sass; her lone flashback was arguably Once‘s darkest and most chilling episode. I really hope we have not seen the last of Kristin Bauer van Straten because Maleficent’s story remains so incomplete. I was under the impression that we would see more of Aurora/Sleeping Beauty, but we only got one scene. For all of her talk, Maleficent seemed rather powerless and was always so easy to defeat that it was laughable. I also did not like her “upgraded” costume (which seemed to borrow from Angelina Jolie‘s costume from Maleficent).

I was always under the impression that the “Author” storyline was a ruse for the characters (namely Regina) to realize that there is no “magical being” that grants happy endings and life is all about choices and consequences. I thought the quest to find such an “Author” was a futile one. How disappointed I was to learn that there truly was an Author who does have the power to “change” things. Fortunately, in the end, the message of the “Author” storyline was indeed that the characters write their own stories and that the “evil Author” who had such “powers” to change fate had gone astray in his duties.

Season 4B is probably Once‘s worst writing thus far. There were too many inconsistencies, too many incredulous plot/character devices to invoke twists/shocks, lack of character development, and just felt terribly disjointed. It seemed to be an array of action rather than trying to tell a coherent story. Here are my main complaints:

– The constant “hero” and “villain” labels/speeches felt very forced and contrived. I hated it. While I understand that this has always been the underlying theme, but having it repeated over and over again was overkill. If there’s one thing the Once writers need to improve on, it’s that they need to show and not just tell.
– I did not think the “twist” with Charming and Snow carrying a deep, dark secret was needed or credible. They had interesting gray layers already! How could they reach Glinda if their hearts were not “pure” in season 3B?
– The immense “fear” that Emma would turn dark was ridiculous. Again the characters seem to act according to the plot rather than maintain their characterizations.
– There are so many phenomenal existing characters and so many unfinished/untold stories that I really don’t understand why the writers forsake them for the inclusion of even more characters. It is like they are too greedy for a large cast and end up underutilizing most of them (or they just disappear).
– Belle is the worst treated “main” character. She was so good in season 1 with her strength and she is supposed to be intelligent and “book smart”, but the writers continuously make her brainless and spineless. It is so frustrating to watch her and Emilie de Ravin‘s acting is going downhill. Also, Will & Belle were a waste of time; the fact that they were dating came out of nowhere. Are we supposed to believe Belle moved on in 6 weeks? They also had no chemistry. I am praying that season 5’s Belle will be better (and she should be with Rumple having to overcome life without any power/darkness). I really do like Belle & Rumple, but she is just so badly written as of late.
– The “villain” Hook is far more interesting than the love interest/background he has become.

While 4B was weak, the two-hour finale offered some hope.  The “alternate” world was rather fun and reminded me of LOST‘s season 6 parallel timeline.  The “Author” storyline came to a satisfying conclusion and I really liked how Snow summarized what a “villain” makes (someone who forsakes others for their own happiness). The tremendous sacrifice that Emma made to fulfill her promise to Regina of giving her a “happy ending” was so touching. The growth and strength that Regina displayed when she stopped believing in a cursed “fate” and instead faces things highlights her multi-season journey – she is the best written, most layered, and most consistent character of the show. Lana Parrilla is also the best actress on Once with her nuanced and multi-faceted performace (just see the finale where Ginnifer Goodwin seemed rather fake/stiff as Evil Snow while Parrilla was convincing as a tragic bandit). The seeds are definitely planted for some interesting storylines next season.

Overall Thoughts
Something needs to change with Once… and soon. Either they need to get rid of the half-seasons or they need to have an “end-date”. At this point, I am not sure where the series is going. While I continue to love it because of the great “core” characters and for those genuinely magical moments, the creative spark and excitement from season 1 seems to have fizzled. It has so much potential and so many seeds they can sow that I find it frustrating they pursue lesser plots. I am cautiously hopeful that season 5 can improve and am curious to see what will become of Emma being the new “Dark One” and with the new quest to find Merlin.

TV Review: Once Upon a Time in Wonderland

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland failed for several reasons back in 2013, one of which being that ABC did not stick with their original plan to air the series during the parent series’ winter hiatus. Here are the reasons why I believe so few people went “down the rabbit hole”.

Wrong Cast
The casting of Once was perfect (even in guest roles), so it’s hard to understand how they got it so wrong with Wonderland. The leading players were unknown to most viewers, but more critical was the fact that the acting felt too much like that. There was a lack of naturalness somehow. I failed to connect and thus care for them [as characters] for some time. Eventually I was “okay” with the cast, but this was more so a forced acceptance. The standout performance was Michael Socha as The Knave/Will Scarlet; he seemed to genuinely have fun with the character and this was probably why he was the only actor (thus far) brought over to the parent series.

The Once villains are probably the most compelling characters, but Wonderland‘s antagonists felt false and over-the-top. While I loved Naveen Andrews as Sayid in Lost, he was too “intentional” as Jafar; something was off and he just seemed stiff and ridiculous in most scenes. Emma Rigby‘s perpetual “duck lips” were distracting and made the Red Queen a joke; I eventually warmed up to her, especially after the revelation of her backstory as Cinderalla’s stepsister, Anastasia… But those lips!

Poor Production
Being a network television production and not a multimillion Hollywood picture, no one expects spectacular special effects, but Wonderland really fell short in making a credible world like Once was able to make the “Enchanted Forrest” look and feel “real”. It is possible that this was an impossible task because “Wonderland” is too fantastical, but the special effects were sometimes embarrassing. Consequently this detracted from the story and made it harder for the viewer to be completely immersed in the fantasy (and want to keep coming back). It was just too much unbearable green screen.

Viewer Fatigue
Thursday’s at 8:00 PM has been a “death slot” for ABC for many years (until Grey’s Anatomy in 2014), so perhaps Wonderland didn’t stand a chance with too many competition. More so, I think the novelty of Once wore off and some would-be viewers probably didn’t want to commit to another weekly series. While Once‘s ratings have been relatively stable, it has definitely corroded since the glory days of its debut. Had Wonderland just aired as a limited series in Once‘s hiatus, I think it may have done decently as the pre-existing Once fans would probably have watched while waiting for the parent series to return.

Slow Script
While Once is no speedy rabbit, Wonderland took much longer to “hook”. While there were certainly many elements of intrigue (I love the idea of Alice being admitted to a psychiatric hospital because of her “crazy stories” – so creative!), the first few episodes were kind of boring (despite them trying to have a lot of action scenes) and the special effects were such a turn-off.

Overall, Wonderland paled in comparison to Once, but in some ways it was more enjoyable than season 3A. The series found its footing after episode 5 and it was actually very good until the end. In fact, it was sometimes more dark/violent than Once (i.e. murders). Once I got over the bad special effects and my distaste for the cast, I found myself caring for the characters and intrigued by all of the mystery. The action definitely picks up in the second half for an exhilarating last few episodes. The ending is an absolutely brilliant twist and ties the series together so well. I also really love the relationship between The Knave & Red Queen (I’m praying that Once will bring Red Queen/Anastasia over!).

Once fans who missed out on Wonderland during its run should definitely watch it. Wonderland combines Alice in Wonderland with The Arabian Nights/Aladdin in wonderful twists. Non-Once fans who enjoy fantasy may want to give it a try (until at least episode 5). It is really not a bad series and I truly wish it could have done better, but I’m glad ABC aired it in its entirety; the writers definitely kept their words about it being a single-season, stand-alone series (too bad the potential for future seasons will never materialize).

How I Met Your Mother: Series Finale

A common plot device/formula that TV series (sitcoms in particular) employ is the on-again/off-again couple. They are the ones that date (sometimes get married) and break-up multiple times before (usually) reconciling for a “happily ever after”. Viewers are stringed along for years because they love the undeniable chemistry.

The most notorious on-again/off-again couple is Ross (David Schwimmer) & Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) on Friends. For 10 years, they went through periods of being together always followed by some conflict which led to separation. It was definitely a roller coaster ride. It can be frustrating to watch a couple go through such a tumultuous journey. While there is never a guaranteed “happy ending”, viewers are usually optimistic and support the couple until the end.

This year, another long-running sitcom concluded and viewers learned that it had been following the “on-again/off-again” formula, but the audience response was far from the celebratory one that Ross & Rachel received. The sitcom in reference is no other than How I Met Your Mother‘s Ted (Josh Radnor) & Robin (Cobie Smulders).

After 9 years, HIMYM concluded with Ted ending up not with the “Mother”, but with Aunt Robin. This outraged many a viewer because everyone believed the series’ premise was about Ted & the “Mother” (and their presumed happily ever after). For years, people had followed the series anxiously waiting for the “Mother”… only to find out she dies?!

Season 8 concluded with viewers actually meeting this titular “Mother”, Tracy (the perfectly cast Cristin Milioti), in an extremely surprising but satisfying reveal. I greatly looked forward to watching Tracy & Ted’s love story in season 9. Sadly, season 9 was mostly a time waster, keeping the series at a standstill and unbearably dragged out. The worst part was that it wasn’t even funny or entertaining. I skipped/half-watched the final season. Tracy and the “flash forwards” were the saving graces of season 9. Those scenes were extremely precious and had the full essence of what made HIMYM so awesome a long time ago (full of heart, wit, and often humor). Josh & Cristin had amazing chemistry and I truly felt like Tracy was the perfect match for Ted. One of my absolute favorite scene of the whole series has to be the epic moment when Ted talks to Tracy for the first time; the flawless writing and spectacular acting encapsulated so many emotions and highlighted how “fated” this couple was supposed to be and felt like the big “reward” for sticking it out for so many years to wait for the “Mother”.

As for Ted & Robin…

Despite knowing from the beginning that she wasn’t the “Mother”, I couldn’t help but be infatuated with Ted & Robin during the early seasons. I loved their chemistry! I definitely enjoyed their courtship in season 1 and their dating in season 2. After their initial big break up, I reminded myself that I knew all along they had an “expiration date” and that Ted isn’t supposed to end up with Robin. Thus I forced myself to let go of my love for this couple and continued to watch patiently for Ted’s “true love” (the elusive and mysterious “Mother”).

As the series progressed, Ted and Robin went through multiple partners. Yet, somehow they always ended up at a spot of getting back together and then not. As a closeted supporter of Ted & Robin, I felt frustrated and teased. Why let them have such amazing chemistry and be in such predicaments when they aren’t going to end up together?! I tried very hard to not root for them consequently.

As a Ted & Robin fan, I can’t exactly say I’m upset with the ending because their final pairing was what I secretly rooted for since the beginning. The main problem I have with the ending is that it negates all of the character development that occurred in later seasons. In particular, the multiple seasons-long journey of Ted letting go of Robin so that he can meet and be with the “Mother”. It feels almost pointless.

While the creators stand by the fact that they had planned out the whole story since the beginning, I can’t help but feel like their hands were tied by an ending they had filmed nearly a decade earlier (HIMYM was at risk of cancellation during its early years so I believe the creators had this pre-filmed ending in their back pocket “just in case”). The original intention was actually to not even have the “Mother” be a character in the series (save for her reveal in the final moments). Perhaps they should have stuck with that plan rather than giving us the simply adorable Tracy. I would rather not know the “Mother” at all if she was supposed to be an “insignificant” character all along.

I believe most people are upset with the ending because it makes them feel cheated and misled. It was too sudden and contradicts most of season 9. Ted & Robin would have been easier for viewers to “swallow” if the writers dedicated sufficient time to fleshing out this story. The most important aspect of effective storytelling is that the audience has to believe it. Perhaps the intention of HIMYM was to point out that life is unpredictable, but when it comes to TV watching, viewers expect a certain “script”. Twists/surprises are wonderful, but they must feel earned and credible; this is where HIMYM failed.

In the history of the “on/off couple”, Ted & Robin are probably the most frustrating and hard to accept (even though I really loved their chemistry).

Modern Family’s Wedding Event

Modern Family showcases a very unconventional extended family, but truly at its core, the show embodies traditionalism… in the sense of values and ideals of love and family. After 5 years, Cam and Mitchell joined the “married” ranks with the other main couples of Modern Family. Of course, not before some hilarious chaos ensued…

He Said
When Modern Family premiered in 2010, it was a refreshing and rather ingenious take on the “family sitcom” genre that was all the rage of former decades (such as Full House, The Brady Bunch, and Growing Pains). With a snappy pace and clever jokes, Modern Family was a hilarious comedy with a great cast. Modern Family has won the Emmy for “Outstanding Comedy Series” every year since its inception, but my love for the series waned over the years. I felt the show was growing tired, with forced, uninteresting plots and cheap jokes. There were too many “misses” in later seasons compared with “hits” and I felt it lost the freshness and wit I so enjoyed… I eventually just stopped caring to watch this season. The season 5 finale (“The Wedding” Parts 1 & 2) is reminiscent of the “magic” Modern Family used to have on a consistent basis, blending witty comedy with a meaningful undercurrent.

She Said
I must admit my puzzlement that Modern Family‘s season 5 finale is considered a historical television event (as it featured a gay wedding on primetime TV on a broadcast network). I’m baffled that marriage equality isn’t considered commonsense and its acceptance needed to wait this long. Love is love. Cam and Mitchell are arguably the strongest couple on the show. They have consistently shown resilience, understanding, and growth. Their wedding, with its untimely and hysterical out-of-this-world obstacles, only strengthened their strong commitment toward love and family. I applaud the writers for a beautiful and comical finale.

We Say
Hands down the best writing of the season. (But Nhi is still pulling for The Big Bang Theory to win at the Emmy’s.) Instead of being background noise to our dinner, Modern Family‘s season finale grabbed and held our attention from the start. The writing was crisp and the acting spot on.

Grey’s Anatomy: Farewell Cristina Yang

A decade in the making… one of the most powerful and unique characters in TV history has left. Grey’s Anatomy bid adieu to another original five M.A.G.I.C.

He Said
The problem with truly saying “goodbye” is that there’s never a “good time”. Perhaps this is why the writers tried to distract viewers with a too-busy and yet disengaging “terrorist” plot for the bulk of the season 10 finale. There was too much going on and yet not enough at the same time. For the most part, I felt like the episode was cold and boring (save for a few scenes). The final minutes do pick up and offer some intriguing story lines for next season.

Cristina Yang’s season-long exit has been crafted in a way that was almost too overly sped up and contrived. While I found the Meredith vs. Cristina “fight” in the first half of the season interesting and rather realistic, I believe it was too quickly resolved (albeit more believably than Callie & Arizona’s reconciliation) to pave the way for Cristina’s exit in a way that’s both meaningful and fitting for the character. As a whole, the writers stayed true to the character and offered Cristina a very nice “ending” and provided as much closure as they could. Her final scene dancing with Meredith was a nice call-back to the glory days of Grey’s Anatomy‘s past. I appreciate that for the first time in the history of the show, a character was not written out with death or vanished [i.e. into a parking lot]. Cristina truly got a very happy “ending”.

She Said
There were moments when it all felt very anticlimactic (terrorism plot = half-baked drama). The goodbye, the journey’s end felt contrived. The finale gave the impression that Sandra Oh needed to leave, not Cristina Yang. And yet, the season’s penultimate episode made me thrilled for Yang’s journey ahead. So what went wrong tonight? Too many distractions and too little “feels”. Even the best relationship on the show, namely the twisted sisters, gave a torpid dance party. I admit I teared up a little – but only because I was reminiscing their past memories, not because the goodbye was in anyway heartfelt. Perhaps this was purposeful for Grey stressed this isn’t the end. It is merely an exit. Indeed, the finale left the door wide ajar for Yang’s return when the time comes for the show to end. To be sure, the show has no plan on ending soon. They made that point clear when the finale left enough time to create a new plot twist and give MerDer their habitual conflict. However, this could very well be the end of the show for us. While I had appreciated Season 10’s focus on research, the show’s heart relies on drama and angst. Unfortunately, Yang’s exit also signaled the end of a very witty and brilliant era that balanced angst. While I used to attribute all those positive traits to Bailey, she has slowly become a shadow of herself. Aside from the twisted sisters, I am not invested in any other relationship on the show. It would have been wonderful if season 10 is indeed Grey’s last before this drama inevitably dies as it struggles in its new time slot against The Big Bang Theory.

We Say
Sandra Oh, a five-time Emmy nominee, gave a splendid and consistent performance throughout her 10 years with Grey’s Anatomy. She brought Yang to life – with all her quirks, arrogance, and charm. We wish her the very best in her next venture into live theatre!