After five seasons, Once Upon a Time is still struggling to balance the myriad of characters it’s amassed over the years.
Episodes 8 and 9 of Once Upon a Time season 5 treated viewers to the return of Mulan, Ruby, and Dr. Whale, characters whom we have not seen since season 3. It was wonderful to see them again, especially the season 1 veterans who seemed to have disappeared, never to be seen again.
However, while their appearance elicits a positive response, it also raises an issue Once Upon a Time has had since season 2: There are too many characters.
It isn’t that it’s difficult to keep track of who is who. Most viewers are already familiar with many of the characters from their original stories. The problem is that it’s difficult to care about them, as oftentimes their role in the grand scheme of the story is trivial at best. They’re frivolous one-offs. They appear for a moment and are then gone, like they never mattered.
Typically, these supplementary characters are given a storyline that somehow connects to one of the main group (Emma, Regina, Snow, etc.) for an episode or two, but overall it provides little forward momentum to the main plot, and even less to the development of a main character.
Essentially, what these side characters and stories do is distract from the real story for one of two reasons: One, because Once Upon a Time just wants to throw as many fantasy characters as it can into the show; or two, because the plot is so thin they need something to fill the time. The former is irritating, while the latter is concerning.
It should be said that there are side characters who have purpose. For example, the first half of season 4 introduced Frozen characters who, though probably won’t be seen again, were integral to the main plot. Likewise, new characters Peter Pan and Wendy Darling contributed to driving the story forward for the entirety of the first volume of season 3.
Then there’s Ariel and Eric, who also first appeared in season 3, and have been absent since. But unlike Peter and Wendy, it’s difficult to discern what exactly the point of them was. Perhaps Ariel helped out once or twice, but could that help not have been given by anyone else? There’s no reason why those moments couldn’t have been written using characters that have already been introduced to the show. How about utilizing long forgotten Cinderella? What of Astrid, lover of Leroy, who hasn’t been seen or heard from since season 1? Does anyone even remember her?
Why bother introducing classic and familiar characters if they’re only on for one episode? It’s unsatisfying to see a character you love just thrown in without much development and function to the show. What was the purpose of Rapunzel, or Hansel and Gretel?
Will Scarlet, fan favorite from Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, made some appearances in season 4 of Once Upon a Time, but didn’t amount to much, and hasn’t been seen in season 5 at all. Jefferson, another fan favorite, has only appeared in Once Upon a Time twice.
What of Tink, who seemed rather important in season 3 and has had nothing since, or Archie, who has slowly been losing screen time, season by season?
It’s been ages since Anton made an appearance. Are we to assume he’s been spending the entirety of three seasons in a field growing beans? Then there’s Sidney Glass, a rather complex character who arguably is not used to his full potential. Where has he been since Ingrid restored him to human form? Is he hiding somewhere, plotting revenge against Regina?
Season 5 is also suffering from this new character overload. You can’t help but wonder what the point of Merida really is. Sure, it’s neat to see Merida in corporeal form, but ‘neat’ is not enough of a reason to put her in the show. Certainly not at the expense of plot. With the entire Camelot storyline and the introduction of those characters, the addition of Merida is overkill and wholly unnecessary.
Once Upon a Time has an abundance of Disney and fairy tale characters to choose from, but that doesn’t mean they have to use them all. Of course it’s fun to see favorite fantasy characters in live action television, but therein also lies the problem. This is a television show, not an I Spy of the fairy tale character variety.
If you take away these extraneous characters, little to nothing would change in the story. It would just be much shorter. Perhaps then, time would be filled developing characters already introduced, instead of them continually being shafted for new ones.
Of course, a number of forgotten characters’ actors have permanently or temporarily left Once Upon a Time to pursue other projects, thus are too busy to come back. But this is very much a chicken and egg story. If these actors had been given more screen time to start with, would they still have left?
It is normal for a television show to have a mix of primary, secondary, and even tertiary characters. Many shows are able to balance this vast array of characters in such a way that they don’t feel like throwaways, they come and go naturally, smoothly. Once Upon a Time is not one of those shows. After five seasons, it still can’t seem to get a grasp on how to manage the plethora of characters they have.
It is capable of it though. Zelena has been integrated well since her first appearance in season 3. Granny as well, a character brought into the show at the very beginning, has made consistent appearances throughout, instead of disappearing as if sucked into a void.
If only this consistency could be applied to the entire show, perhaps it wouldn’t feel so disjointed.