Not your average fairytale: NBC’s Grimm and ABC’s Once Upon A Time

Watching the leading contenders in network genre-programming back-to-back was illuminating. Grimm is hybrid of horror and police procedural, that uses fairytale elements to ground the story firmly outside our reality. Once Upon A Time in its premiere episode, plays a little bit like the Wizard of Oz as it inter-cuts scenes from the, “Real,” world with life in the Enchanted Forest. This is a show that is a fairy tale, it doesn’t just play one in an alternate reality.

Grimm NBC

Grimm gives us detective Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) the next in a line of descendants of The Brothers Grimm who didn’t collect stories so much as hunt down the creatures that were eventually watered-down into what we call fairy tales. There’s a tinge of BtVS, as Nick’s Aunt Maureen, (Kate Burton) the current Grimm is dying and he is called to take her place. Executive Producer/Writer David Greenwalt is clearly applying his experience on BtVS/Angel to Grimm, and I think the show suffers for it. Giuntoli is likeable enough, but he’s out of his depth in the pilot. Russell Hornsby, Sasha Roiz and Silas Weir Mitchell all have more charisma and believability in their supporting roles. Nick’s a homicide detective preparing to propose to his girlfriend, he shouldn’t come off as a clueless naif.

Grimm presents a universe that functions as an allegorical ourobouros: Little Red Riding Hoods are the victims of a serial killer who is both magically and morally inhuman, yet wears the most ordinary of human masks so very, very well. What is extraordinary in this universe, is the ability to see beyond the mask. That pretty blonde on the street can be just as much of a monster as the Big Bad Wolf, and the ability to see that isn’t just supernatural, it’s the way we see what we want to see.

There’s potential here, but there’s a fine line between being clever in using such familiar tropes and drowning in them. Future episodes will determine whether Grimm can move beyond the concept and make a police procedural/fantasy hybrid into a successful show.

Once Upon a Time ABC

Once Upon A Time, is a superficially stronger show. It’s glossier, it’s heavier on the obvious special effects, and it has Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White, Lana Parilla as the Evil Queen, House’s Jennifer Morrison as Emma Swann and Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin.

Cast notwithstanding, Once Upon A Time is practically dropping anvils on the audience every five seconds. “Happy Ending,” is repeated so many times in the first hour that I wanted to shout, “I get it, they have to find the happy ending!” The show starts with a happy ending, in fact: Snow White and Prince Charming’s wedding. Enter the Evil Queen, looking like she just stepped out of a fetish shop. Lana Parilla makes this a delicious villain, both in the fairy-tale and, “Real,” world settings. The problem I have with the Enchanted Forest vs, “Real,” world problems is that the narrative treats the real world problems like they’re part of a fairy-tale. It’s deeply patronizing to single adoptive mothers, orphans, and. . . yeah.

I want to like Once Upon A Time. In fact, I do like it. The first episode was fun. I just see this more as a mini-series narrative arc and that’s been done. “The 10th Kingdom” unpacked all the parent-child with fairy-tales as metaphor for an emotional journey to adulthood a long time ago. Once Upon A Time has some interesting dynamics to play with, among its female leads, but it doesn’t seem to have a grip on how to overlay the real and enchanted worlds it’s straddling, just yet.

With such a rich history of the varying forms of fairy tale, from Perrault and Grimm, to Disney and Anne Sexton, I need more than just lip-service. Right now, Grimm is edging out Once Upon A Time for me. I’m hoping that both shows prove themselves up to telling the tales.