Hello g33ks, m33ks, and anyone else out there looking for their happily ever after. So far the 2011 television season has been a bit tumultuous. The Playboy Club has already been cancelled and Pan Am looks to be in danger of shuttering in its premiere season. Meanwhile The Walking Dead and American Horror Story are hitting ratings records not just for basic cable but for all of television. When the reason that Pan Am’s viewership has dropped into the 1-2 million viewer range is a show about a zombie apocalypse is drawing 10 million viewers worldwide network executives start to worry for their jobs.
After the initial opening salvo we’re starting to see who has the legs to survive, shows like 2 Broke Girls, The New Girl, and Ringer have all been considerable hits for their respective networks and look to be with us for some time. Now the last two major new fall dramas have finally premiered and its time to discuss their similarities and massive differences. Both happen to be based on the concept of Fairy Tales in the modern world. Both shows have producers with successful series under their belts, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and LOST. Both shows won their timeslot but that fact doesn’t really tell the whole tale. -Spoiler Alert-
The first show is Once Upon A Time. I saw it early at NY Comic Con and again on Sunday during its premiere on ABC. I didn’t write a review during NYCC because I wanted to make sure what I saw was going to match what the audience was going to see. Also, I didn’t enjoy Once Upon A Time a great deal and I wanted to make sure con fatigue wasn’t a factor in my decision. The series takes place in both the real world and the world of fairy tales. The main character is Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), a lonely bounty hunter with an almost supernatural ability to tell if someone is lying. (The only weakness to this ability is if the person actually believes the lie they’re telling.) Ten years ago she gave a child up for adoption and on her 28th birthday Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) shows up at her doorstep to introduce her to her secret destiny. He tells her that Fairy Tales are real and a long time ago The Evil Queen (Lana Parilla) was defeated by Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas). The Queen in turn chooses to curse the kingdom and send all of the Fairy Tale characters to a place without happy endings… Our world. They all end up in a town called Storybrook where time stands still and they are unable to leave without terrible things happening. Everyone in town seems to have lost their memories except for possibly The Queen and Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle). Emma, we come to learn, is really Snow White and Charming’s child teleported to our world via a magic wardrobe where she was prophesied by Rumplestiltskin to wait until her 28th birthday where she would then return and save the Fairy Tale Kingdom. Of all the things to say about Once Upon A Time I’d say its utilizing its actors in the wrong ways and doesn’t center enough on actual plot.
The Fairy Tale sequences are all in the past so it shouldn’t become too difficult for viewers to keep up with what is going on. There are elements of the series I just don’t understand the motivation for. For example Snow White is either younger or the same age as her daughter at this point and, unknowingly, is her grandson’s favorite teacher. The Queen is now Mayor of Storybrooke and can’t even pretend to be a nice person for more than 60 seconds. How does someone become mayor and not know the benefit of being political? But finally and this is the major failing of the series pilot for Once Upon A Time, is that at the end of the episode there is no discernible sign that Emma will actually do to help the residents of Storybrooke. All that was accomplished is that she will be staying in town. No characters got their memories back and there’s no training being set in motion to give her the magical powers necessary to send everyone back to the Fairy Tale Kingdom. All she did was learn, via her lying ‘superpower’, that the Mayor adopted Henry but doesn’t love him. For that the audience is rewarded with the town square’s broken clock tower working briefly. The hand only moves a single minute and except for Henry smiling nothing else seems to happen. A show doesn’t have to be formulaic to be interesting but it does need to have a specific focus. At the end of the first hour you have no clue what Emma’s focus will be while she’s in town and I can’t think of much use for a bail bondsman in a quaint New England town. Hopefully the show gets better. It certainly did well in its new time slot but that can also be said for what I feel is a wholly better show, which premiered in the ‘Death Slot’ (Friday nights at 9pm) Grimm.
Grimm is a series with an interesting provenance. That NBC is using the fact this group produced Buffy The Vampire Slayer as a selling point is no surprise. It’s not a new technique to invoke Buffy when premiering a new series as it holds a significant place in the hearts of genre fans. This show isn’t the first to draw comparison to BtVS (Supernatural, Tru Calling, Dark Angel) but it might be the show that best inherits its audience. The series holds a simple to follow premise: In Portland, Oregon homicide detective Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) finds out that he is one in a line of hunters known as “Grimms”, who are charged with protecting humanity from the kinds of evil creatures often written of in fairy tales. There’s plenty of depth involved in that simple concept for example the first episode deals with a Blutbad, aka Big Bad Wolf. That they are drawn to attack the color red is easy enough to guess but that the designation between good and bad is actually connected to the church they are members of is an interesting element. If they are reformed they are called Wieder Blutbad and maintain purity through a strict regiment of diet, drugs and exercise. That is something easily explained in the show in about the same amount of time it took to for you to read my explanation.
Nick’s purpose in the series is clear as a homicide detective he is already investigating deaths. Coupled with his new powers to see the supernatural creatures, who are able to hide as normal people, and the original Grimm texts detailing each creature’s lineage he’ll be able to solve cases that traditionally are thrown by the wayside. The types of creatures he’ll encounter are interesting, aside from the Blutbaden (plural of Blutbad) he also encounters scythe wielding creatures known as ‘Reapers of the Grimms’. Wordplay like that found a consistent home in Buffy, and is welcomed by its fans. It also shows that the creators spent a great deal of time working on the lore involved because the show mythology is highly detailed. All of these elements are what is necessary to maintain the interest of sophisticated genre audiences and what separates this show from Once Upon A Time. Grimm is better than a lot of shows are in its first episode with a group of actors who seem to have a good rapport (notably Nick’s homicide partner Hank Griffin played by Russell Hornsby and his Big Good Wolf sidekick Eddie Monroe played by Silas Weir Mitchell). As both a police procedural and genre drama Grimm holds enough intrigue that I can see this show working well even over several seasons.
These two shows aren’t very similar except that they are both modern dramas inspired by The Brothers Grimm’s classic fairy tales. Grimm was created by people who understand that their audience wants humor, detailed lore and an over arching mystery. Once Upon A Time was created by people who spent 7 years explaining as little as possible to their audience. Both shows had excellent premieres with Once Upon a Time getting 12 million viewers and Grimm getting about 6.5 million in the Death Slot. The ratings show that there is room on network schedules for g33k friendly genre television, I just hope that word of mouth propels Grimm into the the top 10 or makes NBC move it into a better timeslot. Did you watch the premieres? What did you think? Leave a comment.
– Mr. Khon
Update: Since this article did not go live until after the second episode of Once Upon a Time aired it is worth noting that the second episode was better. We spend a significant amount of time in the Fairy Tale Kingdom and I’ve come to discern that the main character of this series may not be Emma … Its very possible that the main character of this series is The Evil Queen. A cameo by Kristen Bauer van Straten (Pam from True Blood) as Malificent was amusing, and this section of the story showed the lengths The Evil Queen would go to have her own personal Happily Ever After even if it means the death of someone else and the destruction of the happy lives of all others in the Kingdom. An aside that should be noted is that she offered Happily Ever Afters in the Real World to a number of other evil creatures but they have yet to appear in Storybrooke except for Rumplestiltskin. Who we learn has a fail safe control over The Evil Queen as Mayor. All he ever has to do is say “Please” and she will be obliged to follow his commands.
The real world segment does answer one of the issues from the ending of the Pilot in that the Town Square clock has begun to run full time. There’s no signifier that each time Emma does something the clock will move forward one minute, which is what I would have assumed from the ending of the first episode. That is where the real world segment seems to fail the show again. Now the clock is running but again there’s no other signifier that anything is happening. We learn that Henry has a plan … but not what that plan is. Instead, Emma and The Evil Queen (who does have a name as Mayor but really she’s always just The Evil Queen) play this small town suburban game of one upsmanship for the the affections of Henry. The Queen using her office to force the Magic Mirror, who is a newspaper editor in the Real World, to slander Emma; Jiminy Cricket is blackmailed into framing Emma for burglary; and she sets Emma up to be overheard by Henry calling his Fairy Tale theory crazy. At the end of the day Emma manages to have an awkward cup of tea with Snow White (aka her mother) and gain Henry’s trust back with the help of The Sheriff (uncertain what character he is an analog for), Snow and Jiminy Cricket. The Fairy Tale Kingdom sections proved themselves to be much improved and therefore they stand out from the Real World segments. Which I can understand. If I was going to write another small town drama show or one about death and murder in a Fairy Tale Kingdom I know which one I’d pick.
Still not enough for a recommend but it earned its week three judgment call.