Once Upon a Time will get reconstructive surgery, but it's not the first show to go under the knife
After her memorable portrayal of the earnest and refreshingly relatable Baby Houseman in the original Dirty Dancing (not to be confused with the atrocious remake that will appear on ABC this week), actress Jennifer Grey seemed destined for a long and glorious Hollywood career. And then she went and got a nose job.
Though her talent agents undoubtedly praised her new appearance as being more in line with the American Beauty Standards of the day, Grey and her new nose no longer resembled the strong-willed teen that nobody was allowed to “put in a corner.” The surgery nearly ended her career. And though the actress does occasionally appear on TV and in film (most recently as the real estate agent mother of the main character in the Amazon series Red Oaks), one can’t help but wonder what might have been had she refused Hollywood pressure to go under the knife.
TV series are a bit like Jennifer Grey’s face, I think. Over time, they’re naturally going to age and evolve as seasons pass. But if they change too much, or too quickly, from what made fans like them in the first place, those changes will undoubtedly result in the series’ demise.
This past week, in a two-hour season finale that I wasn’t able to recap in a timely manner because I was overseas, Once Upon a Time closed the storybook on its sixth season. It was an episode that could have functioned as a series finale, had the show not been picked up for a seventh. Emma Swan, the series’ main protagonist, fulfilled the Prophecy of Saviors by sacrificing her own life to protect goodness against evil, only to have her life restored at the last minute by the ever-abused Plot Band-Aid that is “True Love’s Kiss.” Rumple, the series’ on-again, off-again (but mostly on-again) peripheral baddie, took grand steps toward redemption by killing his own mother, the Black Fairy, who also so happened to be the Big Bad of the Season. In doing so, Rumple (1) broke the curse that his mommy placed on the town, (2) reunited with the love of his life, the much put-upon and criminally underutilized Belle, and (3) got a second chance to raise his son Gideon, who was conveniently reverted from troubled 28-year-old man with a perma-scowl to baby boy following the final battle.
The show even went as far as to add a series-ending-esque musical montage epilogue to the finale, which depicted each of the main characters experiencing their so-called happy ending, by returning to their respective loved ones and resuming “business as usual” in the much-abused town of Storybrooke.
Had Once Upon a Time ended with its sixth season, it would have been a respectable run for the series by any stretch of the imagination. At 133 episodes (22 to 23 per season, which is almost unheard of in this current culture of “sexy” 9-to-10 episode truncated season runs), Once is now 12 episodes longer than the uber-successful and generally beloved (except for maybe its series finale) Lost, another ABC series that coincidentally featured much of the same writing team as Once.
The series is also well over the “age limit” generally required for syndication (four seasons). This means that, after Once ends, it’s pretty much guaranteed a second life in reruns and re-airings, both in the US and overseas.
Up until a few weeks ago, at least, a six-season run seemed precisely where Once Upon a Time was headed. This seemed particularly true in the wake of news that nearly three-quarters of the original cast (most notably, Jennifer Morrison who plays main protagonist Emma, and stars Josh Dallas and Ginnifer Goodwin, who play Prince Charming and Snow White) would not be returning to the show for future seasons. In addition to a truncated cast, the show was also struggling hard in the ratings department. Having garnered a respectable average of around 11 million viewers per episode in its first season, by its sixth, the show averaged less than 3 million. To add insult to injury, ABC had recently announced plans to move the series from its six-year home on Sunday nights to the dreaded Friday night death slot.
And yet, despite all this, Once Upon a Time was renewed, and its showrunners decided to continue the saga for an unlikely seventh season. With virtually none of its original cast returning, the showrunners pitched the season as a reboot of sorts. The plot would now focus on Emma’s son Henry (now grown and played by an older, and much more attractive actor) and his scrappy daughter.
Cast veterans Lana Parilla (who plays the Evil Queen), Collin O’Donohue (who plays Captain Hook), and Robert Carlyle (who plays Rumplestiltskin) would reportedly continue on with the series, though their prominence in this restructured show, at least at this point, is uncertain.
It wouldn’t be the first time that a long-running show was forced to shift gears in later seasons as a result of cast member departures and/or flagging ratings. Medical drama ER (which lasted for a whopping 15 seasons) and its contemporary Hot Doc Show Grey’s Anatomy (still going strong after an impressive 13 seasons) have both made a point of casually introducing new cast members each season by cycling through classes of medical interns. This is a clever way for a show to test out the likability of new cast members on a smaller scale, and if they pass the ratings test, gradually increase their roles on the show so that they can eventually take the place of primary cast members, should they eventually decide to depart from the series. To date, only four of the original Grey’s Anatomy cast members still remain on the show.
Perhaps no series has been more successful at cycling through cast members than the Degrassi franchise, a Canadian (junior) high school drama which has been on the air in some form since 1979! Using a similar model to Grey’s and ER, Degrassi is known for introducing a new class of freshman students each year and gradually shifting focus toward those students as older characters graduate from high school. In fact, Degrassi has been shuffling cast members for so long that some of its original cast members now play the middle-aged parents of characters who recently graduated from college and subsequently were married to one another. And you know what that means: Degrassi Grandparents aren’t out of the realm of possibility in seasons to come.
Other series have been forced to make abrupt changes in their main cast as a result of the sudden departures of series’ protagonists. Pitched as a family drama revolving around a father raising teenage daughters and based on a book with the same name, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter had to switch some pretty serious gears after its first season following the untimely death of John Ritter, who played the show’s patriarch. David Spade and James Garner were brought on for the show’s final two seasons as family members of the main characters.
Spin City, a sitcom about the goings on in NYC local government, lost its star Michael J. Fox after four seasons as a result of the increased severity of his Parkinson’s disease. Fox was replaced by Charlie Sheen, who played a different character, naturally, for the series’ final two seasons.
Sheen went on to star alongside John Cryer on Two and a Half Men, which lasted for 12 seasons. Coincidentally, this time it was Sheen’s turn to depart a successful series, as a result of his own misbehavior and issues with substance abuse, around season 8. Sheen was replaced by Ashton Kutcher, whose tenure lasted four seasons and ended only when the series was cancelled in 2015.
The aforementioned series are all examples of moderately to majorly successful cast member replacements. And it was these examples the showrunners of Once Upon a Time undoubtedly cited in the writers’ room when they were pitching the idea of continuing their series without most of the original cast.
However, unlike Grey’s and Degrassi, Once has not had the opportunity to gradually introduce or test out its new leading cast members, Andrew J. West of The Walking Dead and Alison Fernandez of Jane the Virgin. (Though both characters were featured in the series finale, they had a combined screen time of less than five minutes.) And while three of the original cast members still plan to continue on with the series in order to provide some consistency and appease loyal fans, the veterans’ chemistry with the new additions remains a question mark, as the two newbies appeared in scenes only with one another.
Nonetheless, the showrunners of Once remain cautiously optimistic about the new direction in which the show is headed in its seventh season. “It’s like a new book. So, we’re starting with new stories. Although it’s going to have some of the people that we’ve loved for six years at the center of it, we are going to meet new people and new worlds,” executive producer Adam Horowitz explained in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly.
New people. New worlds. New time slot. New cast members. In fact, the series name will be just about the only thing Once Upon a Time will retain this fall from its first six seasons. But new and different doesn’t always mean better, as Jennifer Grey’s nose will most certainly confirm. And so Once Upon a Time has entered hiatus, leaving fans with the greatest cliffhanger of all. Will this series will be able to survive its forced reconstructive surgery and obtain its long-awaited Happily Ever After in Syndication Land? Only time will tell…