Rebooting a TV series after six seasons is not only somewhat revolutionary—it’s also a dangerous and potentially unwise move that could sink a show faster than the Titanic. Of course, if said show is already suffering from low ratings and has written itself into a corner, a total reset could be a last-ditch attempt to breathe life into what’s become a tiresome and exasperating hour of viewing. It’s hard to say which of these two outcomes we’ll be faced with when Once Upon A Time’s seventh season debuts this week, but perhaps cautious optimism is a good approach.
On the plus side, ABC has somehow managed to maintain two of its biggest assets in Lana Parrilla (Regina Mills/Evil Queen) and Robert Carlyle (Rumplestiltskin). Their always nuanced and often brilliant performances have been many viewers’ sole reason for sticking with the show through Once’s numerous slumps over the years, so their continued presence is a good thing. Those who were in it for the Captain Swan eye candy will be pleased that Colin O’Donoghue (Killian Jones/Captain Hook) is still on board as well, though integrating him as a three-dimensional character in his own right now that Jennifer Morrison (Emma Swan) is out should be an interesting feat.
Perhaps the most exciting elements of Once’s upcoming season are the new setting and characters. Rightly criticized for years for its treatment of people of color roles were short-lived and generally relegated to criminals, damsels in distress and murder victims—showrunners Eddie Kitsis and Adam Horowitz have finally decided to ramp up the show’s diversity. Adding Dania Ramirez as Cinderella, Mekia Cox as Tiana and Alison Fernandez as Henry’s (Andrew J. West) daughter, Lucy, among other new characters, is a step in the right direction. We’re also moving out of the Evil Queen’s curse-created town of Storybrooke, Maine to Seattle, Washington, where a new curse has given our characters new names and identities. How they’ll break it and rediscover their true selves is the premise upon which the show was originally based, and it will form the crux of the new season. It’s also sure to include plenty of flashbacks to the Enchanted Forest, Wonderland and other fairy tale lands as we discover just what’s happened in the decade or so separating the Season Six finale and the Season Seven premiere.
If that all seems like a lot to unpack, that’s because it is. While anthology series like True Detective and American Horror Story treat each season as more or less separate, with new characters and storylines, it’s questionable at best and downright insane at worst to spend six years doing some pretty strong world building only to tear it all down and start from scratch when you decide it’s not working anymore. It’s the ultimate deus ex machina that’s usually employed early in a series’ run—AMC’s Preacher is a good example of the decision to hit the reset button actually working—but this far in, when many questioned whether Once would even be renewed for the 2017-2018 season, you have to wonder what they were thinking.
Of course, Once’s risk is ABC’s and the industry’s potential gain. Such a bold move will no doubt be watched by other networks and series that also find themselves in need of a fresh start, and should Once succeed in its new incarnation, it could pave the way for other shows to follow suit. The possibility of increased ratings, and therefore increased ad revenue, can only be a good thing from a financial standpoint, and in an industry where money (or the lack thereof) can determine an average-performing series’ fate, this is a big deal.
There’s also the hope of ushering in a new batch of fans who may have previously felt too intimidated by the endless characters and storylines on Once to jump in late in the game. After all, even original viewers began dropping off by Season Four due to Once’s confusing and often pointless plots, and it was hard to blame them. The good thing is that if you can grasp the basics going into Season Seven—there’s a dark curse and no one is who they really are anymore but good will somehow triumph over evil in the end—then you’re in with a shot whether you’ve never watched a single episode or you stopped to save your sanity a couple of seasons back.
Longtime fans of Once will likely be approaching Season Seven with some amount of trepidation and ambivalence. On the one hand, it’s clear things had been declining rapidly for the past several seasons, and if the show was to continue, a big change needed to be made. On the other hand, humans are creatures of habit, and losing most of the original cast we’d come to know and at least tolerate—if not love—isn’t an easy adjustment. Still, Once’s original premise was so unique and inspiring that it’s hard not to root for the show even now. Perhaps a (nearly) clean slate is exactly what it needs to find itself again, and even to flourish—or so we can hope.
Season Seven of Once Upon a Time premieres Friday, Oct. 6 at 8 p.m. on ABC.
Jennifer Still is a New Yorker and TV fanatic whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Glamour, Decider, Mic, Bustle and more. She’s on Twitter @jenniferlstill.