This is a long, nonsensical…musing. But there’s a etiological pleasure to claiming that television is only now getting to be really legitimate as an art form; and by television we really mean cable television, which is totally different and so we don’t have to think about Charlie Sheen or CBS. But consumers of visual media do a lot of consuming, and we’re fairly sophisticated at grasping, synthesizing, and understanding stories, regardless of their taste quality. There’s narratively complicated stuff going on not on cable, and I’ve been spending a lot of time lately dealing with two examples.
The first is extremely guilty pleasure Once Upon A Time, which is set simultaneous in parallel universes which bear varying degrees of reality to our own, with the same characters present in different forms in each, and the whole based on the fairy tales of our own universe, the knowledge of which adds a third layer of narrative coating over all the proceedings. It’s the story of Emma Swan (urg) and how she and residents of Storybrooke, Maine come to discover and deal with the fact they’re all actually from a magical world moved to a different reality by a terrible curse. The second is Princess Tutu, a Japanese anime set in Bavaria (I know, right?) and based in no small part on the events of Swan Lake. It’s the story of a duck who wants to rescue Prince Mytho from his loneliness; it’s also the story of a girl named Duck who attends ballet school and wants to see classmate Mytho smile; it’s also the story of Princess Tutu, a magical ballerina whose mission is to find the shards of The Prince’s heart and return them to him. Also, these are all the same person; this is all the same story.
I made the mistake of starting these shows at the same time, the first because I wanted to indulge a wicked Amy Acker craving (as sometimes happens), the second through the withdrawal I would risk by being unable to read a whole week’s worth of Mark Watches. While I have to state unequivocally that I LOVE the latter and am only occasionally amused by the former, both utilize interesting strategies to cultivate a relationship between all the many different levels of stories they’ve got mixing around in there.
Obviously, when you’re dealing with live-action – sets and costumes and real people actors – genre settings can be a hard sell, especially on TV, which lacks the budget, by and large, to sate the world-building ambitions of a sprawling fantasy soap opera. The more grounded setting of Storybrooke is, I think, the reason why Once Upon A Time can exist, and specifically on ABC. Once is pretty consistent about using logical matches on action (or image, or dialog), to shift from one reality to the other. It’s a more costumey version of the flash-sideways/backs/forwards , unsurprising given the creators are Lost vets Eddie Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, although the term I like most is the AV Club’s “fairybacks.” But like the troubles which beset the magical Island, the show doesn’t always do the best job of unifying its fantastic mythology with the emotional reality of its characters.Sometimes they do it really well, setting up contrasts or poignant echoes between levels, sometimes there’s no relationship between the worlds at all.
Unless you’re Game of Thrones and be so serious that you’re actually willing to kill off sizable portions of your cast, it hurts to make things super dire, and not only are the fantasy elements in Once Upon A Time presented with an impressively straight face, too many problems within the fairy world are solved by magic ex machina, which leans on the show’s lackluster special effects and production values. The relationship between the worlds, too, while justified visually, tends to favor a relationship to the plot of a given episode rather than be at all relevant to the emotional growth of the characters. This got me thinking about why it is it’s hard for me as a viewer to just up and accept some of the ridiculousness going on in Storybrooke.
Princess Tutu is a stunning argument for what makes ridiculousness work. This is a series that, after all, features multiple anamorphic characters coexisting with humans – a plot revolves around Anteaterina, a ballerina who is also an anteater, trying to make a play for Mytho’s affections by dancing and did I mention she’s a giant anteater ballerina named Anteaterina?! And no one in story thinks this is odd. The ballet school teacher, Mr. Cat, is actually a cat, who devolves into more feline behavior when he’s stressed or upset. Animation makes it possible to be so nonchalant about this concept, but what the show does with this concept is what makes it work.
Princess Tutu destroys the fourth wall with the precision and power of a Tomahawk missile. Levels of story blend into the same reality; there is no separation between The Story of the Prince and The Raven and the ballet school of Golden Crown Town. Like in Once…, the characters there are adapting to a world changed by the magic of a curse and at the out don’t quite have a grip on who they are and what their roles within the fairy tale should be. They express these things not through violence or adventure, necessarily, but through dance. Yes, that’s right, Princess Tutu solves problems and helps people by dancing with them. It’s surprisingly emotionally resonant as a device, and gives the elements of conflict in all the storylines of each episode a stage (heh) on which to be resolved.
But then the show goes further, with the presence of the character Drosselmeyer, the storyteller who’s supposed death has created a situation where in his characters are living beyond the bounds of his intended story. The series, ultimately, explores free-will and destiny through a veil of fairy tales and classic ballet while also confronting the viewer with their own position, their own participation in relation to the story. Each episode ends with Drosselmeyer, cackling and giddy, theorizing on what’s going to happen next, the main mystery becoming will the story be a tragedy (as you sense that Drosselmeyer hopes it will) or not? With the multiple ending to Swan Lake, there’s genuine suspense about this.
In other words, Once Upon A Time uses its fairy settings and audience familiarity with fairy tales to strike out a journey of characters rediscovering their ‘true’ fantasy selves and relates this to its modern setting with varying degrees of success – the focus is on the metatextual element a little more than the characters themselves. But the characters of Princess Tutu are deeply emotionally affected by the merciless wheels of the fates set out for them in the story, and brush up against, struggle with, or deal with consequences of accepting their roles even as they try to untangle them. The mechanism of the plot may draw from other sources, but the characters’ journeys are original. Both foci can work, but one works way more often than the other.