Once Upon a Time… Happily Never After has its charms, but it’s too slight and predictable to leave a lasting impression.
This review of Once Upon a Time… Happily Never After Season 1 is spoiler-free.
There’s a certain charm to Netflix’s new musical romantic fantasy Once Upon a Time… Happily Never After. It’s hard to put a finger on where it comes from. It might be the chintzy flashback sequences that deliberately resemble a high-school play, or how it happily languishes in the expected tropes, or how it shucks and jives in the direction of real surprises and then goes with the most predictable ending anyway. There’s a lot to like, in other words, but that predictability, not to mention slight runtime that doesn’t allow for much space to dig into the show’s characters and ideas, mean that it fails to really make much of an impression in the long-term.
Here’s the hook: In some fantastical, fairytale past, a doomed romance between a princess and a fisherman led to a whole town being cursed with the inability to love. Through tragic circumstances doled out in flashbacks during each episode, we learn how the curse has persisted throughout the generations, with the rather complex instructions – involving a dragon and a once-every-few-years type of moon – never quite having been followed successfully.
In the present day, the legend of the story is the primary money-spinner for La Soledad Hotel, a touristy hotspot where the mythical blue dragon chills in a foyer vivarium. The place is struggling, but it relies on the curse enduring to stay afloat. This means it’s a bit of a problem that Maxi, who believes himself to be the reincarnated Diego, thinks he has fallen in love with Juana, a dead ringer for the old princess. You can fill in the blanks for yourself from there.
Within two of the 30-minute episodes, you’ll have a pretty solid idea of how everything is going to unfold, which takes some of the fun out of the journey. But the setup – mostly how the reincarnated princess’s appearance has changed over the years, while Diego’s hasn’t – provides some decent laughs and character moments, helped along by game performances from the handsome cast. The specifics of the curse also give the drama its structure – the two reincarnated lovers must reunite and release a dragon into a lake during a very specific moment, or the town will be burdened with more loveless years. In that, you have a ticking-clock device, a mystery, and a romance all in one.
And yet… I just never found myself caring. It’s a shame, really, since the effort is there, and some worthwhile ideas about love and destiny provide an interesting subtext that you can’t help but wish had been better unpacked. I’m sure this show will find a keen fanbase on Netflix, but it’s unlikely to be a broad one given how many times we’ve seen such similar stories play out. Still, at least the songs are quite nice.