Sunday, October 30, 2011

"Once Upon a Time" and "Grimm" (and "Fables," Oh My)

Since writing up this post about the potential similarities between the Bill Willingham comic "Fables," and the new fairy-tale themed shows "Once Upon a Time" and "Grimm," I've finally had the chance to sit down and watch the two pilots and do some assessment. Thought I'd share a few thoughts on them below.

Of the two, ABC's "Once Upon a Time" appears more impressive at first glance. It has a cast with bigger names, and the creators seem much more gung-ho about the whole fairy-tale idea. In the pilot, Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), and other fairy-tale characters are transported by the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) to a small town in Maine called Storybrooke. They live out normal lives, with no memory of who they really are, but they can't leave and never age. The only one who can break the spell is the grown-up daughter of the prince and princess, Emma (Jennifer Morrison), spirited away to Earth as a baby before the spell could affect her. Emma is brought to Storybrooke at the urging of her own son Henry (Jared S. Gilmore), who she had to give up at birth, and reappears in her life as a precocious ten-year-old. Henry knows the truth about Storybrooke, but his adoptive mother is none other than the Evil Queen – the town's mayor.

"Once Upon A Time" is so family-friendly, brightly-colored, and utterly harmless, it almost makes my skin crawl. It does nothing remotely interesting with the fairy-tale characters, letting them all conform to the utterly sanitized, cartoonish, Disney-fied versions that the popular culture is familiar with. And no surprise, as "Once Upon a Time" airs on the Disney-owned ABC network and makes use of its library of characters. Human versions of Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge) and Grumpy the Dwarf (Lee Arenberg) appear in the pilot, and the extended cast list promises more to come. Aside from Jennifer Morrison, the performances are too broad and over-the-top. Lana Parilla's bald-faced bitchery is already making me think this could end up being "Desperate Housewives" with glass slippers. The writing is clever in some respects, but so bland and so clearly uninterested in exploring the classic stories in any real depth, I found it hard to stay engaged. Also, the production design is pretty atrocious – like Disney's "Enchanted" or their 90s "Cinderella" special on a fraction of the budget.

I'm much more partial to NBC's "Grimm," which takes a completely different approach. It's a police procedural, following police officer Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli), who discovers he's descended from a line of Grimms, who protect humanity from fairy-tale villains. Russell Hornsby plays Hank Griffin, Nick's partner, and Bitsie Tulloch plays his girlfriend. Two other characters more worthy of note in the first hour are Nick's tough Aunt Marie (Kate Burton), and Eddie Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), a twitchy, reformed "blutbad," better known as a Big Bad Wolf. The Blutbaden, who live among humans and are undetectable save by Grimms, are set up as the major villains of the series. In the first hour, a blutbad snatches girls wearing red hoods, including one who took a shortcut that she shouldn't have.

"Grimm" has a pretty shaky first outing, but I also think it has a better premise and the right attitude toward adapting fairy tales to the modern day. It emphasizes the horrific elements at the core of most of these stories instead of playing on our nostalgia for happily ever after endings. "Little Red Riding Hood," referenced heavily in the pilot, has always been a cautionary tale, based on potent, real-world fears. The concept of the blutbad is hokey, and there's not much that distinguishes them from the demons on "Supernatural" or the vampires on "Buffy" right now, but "Grimm" has plenty of room to improve. The acting is solid. The effects aren't great, but they're used well. And then there's the chilly, edge-of-the-wilderness atmosphere, helped by the fact that the production is based out of Portland, with all those Pacific-Northwestern forests in close proximity. Also, I really think the procedural formula is going to help rather than hurt "Grimm" in the long run, because it'll help some of the more outlandish elements go down easier.

I'd like to reiterate that I really see no similarity between either show and "Fables" at this point. The mythology of "Grimm" is totally different, and so is the way that it uses fairy-tale allusions. "Once Upon a Time" is a closer match, but the tone and focus of the story aren't, and the show totally rejects the subversive edge of the comics. For some that may not be such a bad thing. I suspect that I would have liked "Once Upon a Time" much better if I were younger and less familiar with the gorier, toothier, original versions of "Snow White," "Sleeping Beauty," and so on. And while I think "Grimm" is more promising, it is a little frustrating that I already suspect that if it does well, it may never break out of the procedural formula.

So will somebody please just adapt "Fables" already?

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