Poor network television. Having to compete with cable, the internet and generally every other form of media transmission except print (sidenote: buy a book, people!) Network television’s quality has spent the last decade doing a fairly good impression of a hang glider. Sure, an updraft of awesome (Fringe, Lost) comes along now and then and the glider goes up a little more. But in the end, it’s still going down. Well, you know what’s a good way to try and boost your ratings while not having to spend money creating brand new stories and characters? Two words: Public Domain.
Those of you familiar with Bill Willingham’s Fables comics, published by Vertigo, know that taking classic fairy-tale and storybook characters we all know and putting them into the real world can yield interesting and compelling stories. Supposedly, both NBC and ABC have previously tried to adapt Fables into a show, but it never panned out. But while neither network was able to successfully translate the comics into a show, both networks must have liked the idea of public domain backstories. The resulting shows, ABC’s Once Upon a Time and NBC’s Grimm both take the familiar stories and try to package them in a way that will hold the attention of today’s TV viewer during the brief window of time when that viewer isn’t watching cable or hanging out on the internet. Here’s the rundown, if you haven’t caught either show:
In Once Upon a Time, or OUAT for brevity’s sake, the fairytale world has been destroyed by the curse of the (or is she just one of many?) Evil Queen. Its inhabitants, forced to live in the fake Maine town of Storybrooke, where they exist as “regular people” who never age or leave the town. They just kind of drift along, unaware that they are in stasis (like hipsters). The protagonists, though, are different. Emma, the big city bounty hunter who was brought to the town by a little boy who claims to be her son, spends most of the show constantly running around, super-suspicious of all the fairytale allusions. Each episode focuses on a new townsperson and shows us what they were up to in the fairytale world; meanwhile, Emma and her son try to kind of prove that they’re really fairytale characters and nobody really believes them. Also, Prince Charming and Snow White are totally gonna “Disney-do-it” (missionary, clothes on, no penetration, nose snuggle) soon.
Grimm, on the other hand, is a crime procedural centered around Nick (played by David Giuntoli, best known for looking kind of like Brandon Routh, who is best know for looking kind of like Christopher Reeve), a detective who happens to also be a “Grimm”, the latest in an ancient line of monster hunters. In this world, creatures from the old fairytales are masquerading as humans, only revealing their true form when agitated, emotional, or if it’s necessary to the plot. (Only Grimms can tell when this is happening, though.)
Nick finds out about his bloodline from his badass cancer-ridden aunt, who shows up and explains it in the pilot. But she and Nick are attacked by a “Reaper of the Grimms” (ugh) and she dies in the second episode, leaving behind a Winnebago full of lore and whatnot.
It all takes place in an actual city called Portland, Oregon (which, according to the show is basically a shitload of trees with a few buildings here and there, and according to Portlandia is AWESOME). Each week, our main character solves a new case, aided by his partner, who is sassy and black. The case always involves a creature out of Grimm’s fairytales, disguised as a human. Nick learns how to fight the creature by consulting the Winnebago of Lore and also his “friend”, a Blutbad (wolf-guy) who knows everything about other creatures like himself (except Jacob from Twilight, he’s a deep valley of confusing turns, an enigma wrapped in a riddle).
Wow. When I type it all out, it sounds kind of crazy.
Let’s start with the shared flaws. Both shows suffer from trying to balance a ton of exposition with an episodic storyline. As a result, both shows have characters who are basically there to say “hey, look at that! That’s a ____! Here’s how it fits into the crazy fairytale world that secretly exists!” Both shows suffer from dialogue that can induce facepalms, and the ratio of surprises to predictable twists could be better. Having gotten that out of the way, let’s just go ahead and put this out there: Grimm is a much better show.
The differences between the two shows can be seen in the way they treat the aforementioned exposition problem. OUAT deals with it by throwing a child at it. While I like the instinct (“Throw a kid at it” will be on my tombstone), the kid who plays Henry on OUAT is just not able to sustain the role he has. He is constantly showing up to tell his mom (who doesn’t know she’s really his mom yet), “Hey, that guy is actually Jimminy Cricket! And my ‘mom’ is actually the Evil Queen! Hey! Let’s have an adventure!” He’s necessary to explain things to the characters, but what he’s telling them is also being shown in the form of Lost-style flashsideways scenes that take place in the fairytale world. The result is a terrible stain just above my television screen, left over from where I throw things every time Henry starts talking.
Grimm also has a character who’s main job is exposition: Monroe the Blutbad. He’s a reformed wolfish creature who keeps himself from indulging in the whole killing and eating people/small critters bit by maintaining a strict regimen of diet, exercise, pills and one-liners. He’s an interesting character who’s only gotten more interesting as the show’s gone on. In a show where the two main detectives are “some guy who looks like the new Superman” and “that black guy from Stuck“, he’s poised to become the star. But also, he’s much better at delivering expository dialogue that could be incredibly dull and grating if delivered by, say, a 10-year old.
A much deeper problem that OUAT has right now is that it doesn’t seem to know where it’s going. Very little has actually happened after the premise was set up in the pilot. Ok, they’re all fairy tale characters. So… she’s going to rescue them? By making them remember that they don’t really live in Maine? So far, the only major revelation has been “Hey! You know how they don’t remember who they really are? Well they really, really don’t remember!”
In short, the show lacks momentum. It has ambitions of creating the sort of huge plot lines and questions that made Lost such a money-printing-machine for ABC, but it doesn’t seem to know how to get there. So we’re stuck wandering around a small town and flashing sideways to a CGI world full of the same people in silly costumes. Basically, OUAT is what would happen if a small town in Maine had a renaissance fair and a sad little boy that eats paint chips instead of lunchables.
Grimm, on the other hand, benefits immensely from the serialized nature that comes with being a procedural. Each episode is fairly straightforward: A crime! A suspect! He’s some sort of creature! Probable Cause! Search Warrant! Nick has a girlfriend (who serves no purpose except to someday get kidnapped)! How will Nick solve this one? By being a Grimm? Yep! With this silly and predictable backbone, though, the show is able to slowly start exploring the potential of it’s premise without meandering. Nick’s boss seems to be a Grimm Reaper (ugh again!), that’ll come back. Not all the creatures are evil, some are pretty cool. There are other Grimms, maybe we’ll meet them. This story is going somewhere.
Basically, as cool as it would be for Fables to be a TV show, that’s not happening. And even though Once upon a Time is brave for trying to mimic the same depth and scope of that kind of story line, it’s only managed to become less interesting with every week. Grimm, on the other hand, is slowly turning into a legitimately entertaining show, with an interesting plot. Now if only they could drop whoever keeps writing lines like “The worst part is…I still love you”. They could spend the extra money on some better CGI.
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Written by Myles Cockcroft (@myleswithay)
Myles Hewette Cockcroft is a writer, comedian and part-time unemployed person living in Brooklyn, New York. When not watching terrible movies on Netflix streaming, he watches TV shows from his youth over and over again, often while weeping and cursing the heavens. He co-wrote and directed the short film My… More »
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