Once upon a time, in the the late '90s—an era marked by cheap-yet-convincing computer effects, an excellent economy, and the blissful innocence of a pre-9/11 America—many TV networks churned out several fantasy miniseries, the most memorable of which was The 10th Kingdom. Budgeted at $44 million, The 10th Kingdom was a completely original story about a father and daughter from New York who were transported into a fairytale world through a magic mirror. There, they discovered that the stories they considered to be "fairytales" were actually the historical accounts of nine kingdoms, each one ruled by the descendants of classic storybook characters (Cinderella, Snow White, etc.). The father (Tony) and daughter (Virginia) were led by a prince (Wendell, a descendant of Snow White) who'd been transformed into a dog by the Evil Queen; he'd broken out of her prison with the help of a Troll King. The Queen was in possession of the prince's body, which was inhabited by the soul of her dog (man-dog soul switch, natch)—she intended to install him/it as her puppet king.
Tony and Virginia were more concerned with getting back to NYC then they were with helping Prince Wendell until they learned that the Evil Queen was actually Virginia's mother and Tony's wife, who abandoned them when Virginia was a little girl. Furthermore (SPOILERS!), Virginia recovered a long-suppressed memory that her mother had tried to drown her in the bathtub before slipping off into this alternate fairytale universe. The Queen violently denied her real-world life, but it was obviously true. Then the Queen poisoned a giant ballroom full of people, Jonestown-style, and Virginia was forced to knowingly kill her own mother in order to save her father/everybody and set things right. As the Queen/Virginia's mother died (of MURDER!) she at last remembered Virginia, smiled, patted Virginia's cheek, and called her "my little girl."
And that was a bare-bones description, if you can believe it. The 10th Kingdom was dense with very detailed, self-contained episode arcs. One episode involved a murder trial where the jury was made up of sheep and the defendant was the Wolf. Rutger Hauer played a Huntsman and ran around murdering people while dressed like a hippie woman. Various characters won a fortune at a fairytale casino and did mushrooms in a swamp. And the series' tone was even more varied than its content. There was a trio of trolls who seemed to have filmed a great deal of their material separate from the rest of the cast, and with a children's theater feel that really brought down their scenes (they mercifully disappeared a couple hours in). The dialogue was unapologetically silly and often weirdly sexual or sinister. There were absurdist flights of humor and hilarious contrasts when pop-culture references were suddenly brought into the fairytale setting. The Wolf and Virginia had an erotically charged relationship that frequently skittered beyond the boundaries of PG-13.
There was also a lot of heavy stuff. As Tony, Jon Larroquette gave the performance of his life, doing several comedic stints and also an emotional turn when he broke his back and convinced Virginia to leave him to die (Snow White's ghost helped out). There was a lot of discussion of how Virginia had never gotten over being abandoned as a child; there was even a scene told from Virginia's point-of-view where her pre-Evil Queen mom frantically tried to drown her in the bathtub before her husband got home. It was the darkest, weirdest stuff I've ever seen on TV, and it was all accompanied by sparkle effects.
Now, there are clear departures between The 10th Kingdom and Once Upon A Time—which just debuted on ABC last week—but so far there are also enough parallels that I think we can make some thematic comparisons and perhaps cook up a few predictions about where the new series might be headed. So let's gaze into the magic mirror of The 10th Kingdom and see what we can divine.
So, the Wolf was one of The 10th Kingdom's best characters. At times he was broad and hilarious, at others he was seriously smoldering. Scott Cohen's performance actually launched some of the first fan pages on the web, and any television actor could learn from how deftly he transitioned from Broadway-level theatrical virtuosity to a more subtle, intense style that resonated on the screen. Wolf was secretly in league with the Evil Queen, but when he fell in love with Virginia, his loyalty changed and he ended up saving the day.
Now, if I had to find an analog in last week's Once Upon a Time premiere, I would point to the police chief, who we first met at Regina's house. I have a hunch that Sheriff Graham is the wolf who ran Emma off the road, and that as the wolf he serves the Queen/Regina. I'll place my bets: The Sheriff will eventually become Emma's love interest and, in a similar arc, their relationship will shift his loyalties and be constantly threatened by whether she can or cannot trust him. Ladies like bad-boy loner types—especially ones with stubble.
Birds delivering messages, information, and the lay of the land to heroes is a fairytale trope (birds are the smartphones of olden times), and talking birds were used to great affect in The 10th Kingdom. In the Once Upon a Time pilot, Snow White was shown with birds twice, and Prince Charming mentioned that the animals were "abuzz" over the Queen's curse. While I assume animals won't talk in the modern-day storyline, I fully expect to see a chatty bluebird in the fairytale plot and then a reveal that in the real-world town of Storybrooke, said bluebird is a house pet in a key location.
Thanks to its huge budget, The 10th Kingdom was filmed on-location around castles in Austria, France, England, Germany; part of the joy of the series was getting to see so much idyllic countryside and so many authentic exteriors. We're working in a different economy now, and I don't blame Once Upon a Time for its heavy use of green screen, but hopefully once the show's popularity stabilizes and earns it a heftier allowance, the cast (and audience) will get to spend some time in and around brick-and-mortar castles, even if only the ones in San Bernadino.
The 10th Kingdom's Evil Queen escaped into the fairytale world and promptly suppressed her real life. The opposite is true in Once Upon a Time: Regina is the only one aware of the curse, and she's suppressing the memories of those around her. She clearly prefers the real world and her mayoral duties. As Once Upon a Time progresses, I'm guessing that a signifier of how much a character is in league with the Queen will be how much that person remembers or pretends to not remember. Suspicions will abound!
KILLER MOM MYTHOS:
Like Once Upon A Time, The 10th Kingdom centered on the story of Snow White (played by no lesser a personage than Camryn Manheim). Snow White's story is a particularly disturbing one because it involves a surrogate mother figure who tries to kill the titular heroine, a psychological violation that The 10th Kingdom's Virginia shared (her mom tried to drown her) and had mirror in order to serve justice (she in turn killed her mom), despite the fact she kind of longed to know her mother her whole life.
As a parallel, Emma is Snow White's daughter, and Snow White was forced to abandon her. Emma, in turn, had to give up her own kid—and he's being raised by the Evil Queen. All this abandonment angst! All of these mother figures who have to be defeated! In Once Upon a Time's case, the analog is not between Virginia and Emma, but instead between Virginia and Henry. In bringing Emma to Storybrooke and kicking off the central battle of good and evil, I think Henry is eventually going to have a lethal moment with Regina. To really break the social more of what a son owes his mom and vice versa, she's going to have to make some kind of attempt on his life (it's dark, I know.) It's interesting that in most fairytales, the central conflict occurs between an older woman and a younger one, as if we're trying to teach different generations of women not to trust each other, but to take a passive stance and look to men as arbiters of social justice. Since Henry is a boy, he breaks that chain of woman-to-woman conflict—unless Regina steps over him and gets into conflict exclusively with Emma. If that happens, we'll have a direct contest not just between good and evil, but between the idealized mother and the demonized mother. Women's Studies majors, take note: I just gave you a thesis topic.
Both Once Upon a Time and The 10th Kingdom touch on the most important aspect of their fairytale roots: that folklore has primal, psychological truths at its core and that these stories reinforce the societal balance between what is civilized, right, and true, and what is deceptive, wrong, and barbaric. The 10th Kingdom stayed rooted in the world of the fairytale, while Once Upon A Time approaches its larger issues through the lens of the real world, which is clearly an easier way to make viewers relate. Hopefully this will give Once Upon A Time the commercial appeal that The 10th Kingdom apparently lacked. Either way, the parallels between the two are undeniable, and we'll see if Once Upon A Time ends up mirroring The 10th Kingdom as much as i suspect it might.
… Do you agree/disagree with any of my predictions? Am I seriously losing my mind?
… What was your favorite mini-plot in The 10th Kingdom? (I loved the sleeping swamp.)
… Did you ever crush on Wolf hardcore/start a fan site?
… What elements will Once Upon A Time be forced to introduce in order to sustain the show's premise for several seasons?
… Why is Snow White the predominant fairytale in modern storytelling?