Small-Town Magic In ‘Once Upon A Time’ — And Elsewhere

Because I spend a lot of time overanalyzing things, I tend to grade on a bit of a curve for pop culture I can just purely enjoy, like Revenge (though even there I get some sweet, sweet class warfare politics) or Once Upon a Time, ABC’s frothy fairy tale, which debuted last night. I’m a sucker for fractured fairy tales — I once won a Girl Scout writing contest by revising Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to make Snow White a union organizer and her evil stepmother a majority shareholder in a mining corporation.

But the show also got me thinking about a funny little holdover, the persistence of shows about magic set in small towns. In Once Upon a Time, Emma leaves the city where she’s working as a bail bondswoman and finds an eerily perfect little town in Maine that happens to be populated (perhaps entirely? We don’t know yet.) by amnesiac fairy tale characters. In Eastwick, the short-lived 2009 ABC adaptation of John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick, magic turns another small New England town upside down. Grimm, NBC’s supernatural cop show, which premieres this weekend, is set in Portland, and while that’s not exactly a small town, the show is shot to make it seem like it’s taking place on the edge of the frontier, with cases that take its paranormal detective into the woods. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which eventually expanded in scope over the years, started in a Southern California version of a New England small town, a community that looped between school, home, and the Bronze, a closed little world.

It’s not really surprising that this is the case. We actually had witch trials in New England in the early years of our country’s history: the fear of and fascination with magic, as well as anxieties about how easy it is for misconceptions to set in and take over small communities, is part of our founding story. When characters live at the edge of what you consider the known or civilized world, maybe it’s easier to believe that there are things beyond the canon accepted human knowledge than it is to believe such things surrounded by the calming omnipresence of civilization in the city. And if you want magic to be something that disrupts the lives of a wide swath of characters rather than be the secret knowledge that binds together a small group of people, a small town is a more reasonable setting. But the presence of magic in small towns is an interesting photo-negative commentary on the idea that they’re a repository of values and a guarantor of safety. You may leave a set of contemporary, human-created concerns behind if you flee to the suburbs and beyond. But you may find a whole new set of concerns if you venture into — or close to — the woods.