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Once Upon a Time: The Complete Fifth Season

(2011) ** 1/2 Unrated
989 min. ABC. Directors: Ron Underwood, Romeo Tirone, Ralph Hemecker, Alrick Riley, Eagle Egilsson, Geofrey Hildrew, Gwyneth Horder-Payton, Billy Geirhart, Steve Pearlman, Eriq La Salle, Craig Powell, Dean White. Cast: Jennifer Morrison, Lana Parrilla, Jared Gilmore, Ginnifer Goodwin, Josh Dallas, Robert Carlyle, Emilie De Ravin, Colin O'Donoghue, Rebecca Mader, Sean Maguire, Lee Arenberg, Robbie Kay, Giancarlo Esposito, David Anders, Barbara Hershey, Jamie Chung, Greg Germann, Sam Witwer, Keegan Connor Tracy, Meghan Ory, Costas Mandylor.

/content/films/4946/2.jpgWith time, what's great about ABC's storybook serial Once Upon a Time has come into greater relief, even as it remains frustratingly lackluster in some respects. Now, in the show's fifth season, I have new appreciation for the show's consistent quality as the plots get trickier and trickier to knot and unknot, given the show's advancing age. And in a pop-culture universe increasingly skewed toward Peter Pans and away from actual children, it's comforting to know Once Upon a Time is there as an entertainment families can rally around, and one that will challenge them thematically as much as it panders by playing in the Disney sandbox.

ABC is, of course, the Disney-owned Big Three network, and Once Upon a Time remains both highly rated (as network TV goes these days) and a highly valuable brand extension for Disney. Season Four went especially wild in the latter regard, playing out a long Frozen-centric arc before a back-end arc that teamed up Maleficent, Cruella de Vil and Ursula, and played with the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Season Five is a bit more subtle in this regard. Creators/executive producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz bring on Brave's Merida, but she comes to the fore relatively rarely. The more emphatic legend in the front end of Season Five is Arthurian, and though it's brought in with a wink and a nod to Disney's animated The Sword in the Stone, the legend is obviously quite a bit bigger than that 1963 film; the back end of Season Five brings in Hades, the Underworld and, briefly, young Herc—ostensibly from 1997's Hercules—but again, this is ancient mythology that transcends its Disney-animated treatment. Weirdly, the Underworld storyline recalls Supernatural, though Once Upon a Time's conception of the Underworld doesn't live up to the spine-tingling Mr. Gold monologue that previews it: it turns out to be basically Storybrooke with a basement dungeon guarded by Cerberus and assorted spirits.

The season hits fertile ground running, playing out the twist that heroic central protagonist Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) has become "The Dark Swan," a.k.a. the new Dark One. Cleverly, the writers cast the evil voice in her head as a dissociative-identity-disorder version of Rumplestilskin (Robert Carlyle). Although Carlyle remains the show's dazzling M.V.P., Morrison proves how underestimated she's been. Until now, she's proven adept at drama and arguably the show's best go-to for subtle comedy, but she gets to show off impressive range by going dark. The plotline also plays right into one of the show's forefront themes: the human struggle to vanquish our demons and embrace the better angels of our natures.

That theme, in particular, shows something important about Once Upon a Time: that, while it may be tempting to dismiss the show as an old-fashioned "Wonderful World of Disney" live-action adventure, Once Upon a Time has a bit more sophistication than that, with moral lessons for a world more attuned to political and social complexity. Like, say, Star Trek, Once Upon a Time is more or less unabashedly liberal: primarily in its deconstruction of villains as creations of pain, strivers who have their reasons, and redeemable heroes in the making; and secondarily in depicting complex modern families (like Henry's loving connection to his birth mother Emma and his adoptive mother, retired "Evil Queen" Regina); while also carving out a corner of its sprawling universe casually to acknowledge the existence of homosexuality (a Season Five episode spins a lesbian romance between Red Riding Hood and Dorothy of Oz—see what they did there?).

/content/films/4946/1.jpgThe Season Four finale kicked off with a salute to the dawn of color TV, and Once Upon a Time still feels like a concept that would have fit comfortably, albeit in a toothless form, into '60s TV. There's an element of self-aware corny camp that plays well with children, and the color and magnificent costumes likewise evoke the age of Batman. Wed that merry adventure with the drama around Dark Ones fighting for their souls, add soap-operatic theatrics and multiple long-form romance-novel plots, top it with Comic-Con era genre fan service in the forms of professional cosplay and bizarre fan fiction like Merida meets Mulan, and you begin to understand the show's high degree of difficulty and the unique and loony pleasures it offers, as well as why it has four-quadrant appeal to women, men, girls, and boys.

That said, Once Upon a Time's remarkable consistency in its fifth season does cut both ways. Even while expanding the show's universe—primarily this year to the Underworld (where Greg Germann's Hades makes a fine cut-rate-James-Woods villain), and ultimately to something called the Land of Untold Stories, where Mr. Hyde (Sam Witwer) threatens Dr. Jekyll (Hank Harris) and, well, everyone they meet—the writers fall back on tried-and-true tropes from earlier seasons. The flashback structure successfully ported over from lost means the occasional "whoops, did we never mention that?" stories (okay, let's call them unearthed secrets) and yet another memory-wipe curse (Snow White speaks for the audience when she whines, "Again?"). Presumably looking out for kids (while also padding each story and the whole 23-episode season to length), the writers also pen discussions that—worse than the requisite "remember that from last week?" exposition—make for downright dull repetition of character motivations and emotional beats.

As such, Once Upon a Time will probably never lend itself to binge-watching. It's just not that kind of show. But as a weekly portal to magical realms, the series remains a valuable and more-or-less uniquely broad-appealing commmodity. The characters and the actors who play them have become important to audiences, with villains as endearing as the heroes amongst the deep-bench cast of regulars: Morrison and Carlyle, Lana Parrilla as Regina and Rebecca Mader as her Wicked Witch sis Zelena, Emilie de Ravin as Rumple's loyally lovelorn Belle and Sean Maguire as Regina's love interest Robin Hood, real-life marrieds Gennifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas as Snow White and Prince Charming, Jared S. Gilmore as now mildly-teen-angsty Henry and Colin O'Donoghue's heart-of-gold rogue Captain Hook. With recurring players numbering at two dozen (including Barbara Hershey's Queen of Hearts and Giancarlo Esposito's Magic Mirro) and umpteen guest stars, it's hard to get too bored with this show.

With scoring by feature-vet Mark Isham, visually impressive production values on a weekly budget (enabled by virtual sets), and plenty of public-domain and Disney-owned stories yet to exploit, Once Upon a Time may well double the hundred-episode milestone reached in Season Five. And, lest we forget, all of the show's micro-reimaginings inside, the macro-concept is a new franchise. One day, this show will no doubt be rebooted, but for now, it's magic still has enough freshness of characterization and world-rebuilding mashups to keep audiences in wonder.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 5

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 8/16/2016

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Like the show itself, Disney's Blu-ray releases of Once Upon a Time show a comforting consistency in terms of quality and our expectations. Having watched some of the show on Netflix recently, under resolution that rather shockingly compromised the green-screen scenes, I cannot take the outstanding Blu-ray picture quality for granted. Colors are precise and appealing (well, maybe not quite so appealing in red-hued "Underbrooke," but you know what I mean), detail is excellent (and textures quite fine, especially in highlighting the costumes), and the image shows a constant stability, never unduly distracting from the scenes playing out on digital sets. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes have some of the most robust LFE around, with regular Lost-esque soundtrack thrums and bursts of magic. The magic scenes are also the ones most likely to play out in the surround channels, but ambient immersion discernably helps to establish different settings, whether the Enchanted Forest, Storybrooke's main drag, or the vicinities of Hades' lair and the river Styx. Mark Isham's score comes through with full-bodied impact, and dialogue is always properly prioritized.

Bonus features begin with a "The Dark Swan" commentary with co-creators/executive producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz & actor Jennifer Morrison; a "Birth" commentary with executive producer/writer David H. Goodman, producer/writer Jerome Schwartz and actor Colin O'Donoghue; and an "Only You" commentary with Goodman & fellow executive producer/writer Andrew Chambliss, all of which thoughtfully come with spoiler alerts for those who haven't yet finished the season.

"Tales from the Underworld: A Knight with Cruella" (4:19, HD) is a witty short pairing Cruella De Vil with Sir Mordred (James Marsters).

The featurette "Merida in Storybrooke" (8:00, HD) includes comments from Amy Manson, primarily—as well as Liam Garrigan, assistant propsmaster Kevin Santarossa, Jamie Chung, Meghan Ory, and Glenn Keogh—as we get behind-the-scenes looks at make-up and hair and production.

"The Fairest Bloopers of Them All" (5:57, HD) may indeed be the most-epic-yet gag reel for the series. These reliably convince that, while the TV show must be one of the most challenging to produce, the cast keeps a healthy sense of humor about it all. They sure seem to be having a lot of fun with each other.

Eighteen "Deleted Scenes" (23:53, HD) come with a "Play All" option.

"Once Celebrates One Hundred" (1:45, HD) is a quick promo marking the series' 100th Episode Celebration with a rapid series of cast, crew, and ABC executive talking heads.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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