Thursday, November 3, 2011

Once Upon A Time and Grimm: Fairy Tales Go Prime Time

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 3, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page

Jennifer Morrison (far right) and the cast of ABC's Once Upon A TIme

Fairy tales are the new vampires: this is what a friend of mine told me a couple of months ago after she saw the new fall TV schedule. And indeed, fairy tales do seem to be enjoying a real renaissance of late. Three years into our apparently unending economic downturn, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that popular culture is turning to more and more fantastic and otherworldly settings to tell their stories. And if fairy tales seems destined to displace teen vampires in our cultural zeitgeist, Snow White herself seems fated to be their poster child. Next year alone, Hollywood will be releasing two live-actions retellings of her familiar story: Tarsem Sitongh’s as-yet-untitled project with Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen coming out in March, and Rupert Sanders' Snow White and the Huntsman with the Twilight saga’s Kristen Stewart playing a Snow White meets Joan of Arc incarnation of the character. And in 2013, never to be outdone, Disney will be releasing Order of the Seven, another live-action adventure which tells the story from the perspective of the dwarves and re-sets the action to 19th-century China.

But we don’t have to wait until 2012 to experience the fairy tale revolution: over the past two weeks, two new shows have premiered on the small screen, each with its own revisionist take on the familiar stories we all grew up on: ABC’s Once Upon A Time and NBC’s Grimm. But even though both shows operate generally on the same, perhaps familiar conceit – bringing storybook characters into our contemporary world (see 2007’s Enchanted for a recent movie example of this) – the two shows could be hardly be more different in their particular takes on the idea.

Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White
Co-created by Lost writing staff alums Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, Once Upon A Time stars Ginnifer Goodwin (Big Love) as Snow White and Lana Parrilla (Boomtown) as the Evil Queen, Snow’s nemesis in this world and in the enchanted one alike. The setup goes like this: on the eve of the wedding of Snow White and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), the Queen crashes the ceremony and announces an ominous threat to take them all away to a place without “happy endings.” Soon enough, a curse befalls the kingdom, and all its familiar Brothers Grimm inhabitants are transported to our world (a coastal hamlet of Maine, to be precise). As the curse falls, Emma, the newborn daughter of Snow and the Prince, escapes the curse by being safely sent away (Kal-El style) by way of an inter-dimensional tree trunk. The remaining fairy tale characters, suffering from an enchantment which strips them of their memories, live out their lives for decades in picturesque Storybrooke, Maine – unknowingly awaiting the prophesied return of the couple’s long lost daughter. Our story really begins when a now-grown Emma (Jennifer Morrison, fresh off her thankless role on last season’s How I Met Your Mother as Zoey, the latest in a long line of Ted’s “nope, not your mother yet” girlfriends ), is tracked down on the night of her 28th birthday by a boy (played compellingly by young Jared Gilmore) who claims to be the child she gave up for adoption 10 years earlier. While taking him back to his home town, young Henry lays it all out for her: fairy tales are real and the town in Maine where he is from is populated by fairy tale characters, living under a curse and oblivious to who they really are – and only she can break the spell.

True to its Lost pedigree, Once Upon A Time adopts a dual-story structure: one storyline taking place in the real world among the amnesiac denizens of Storybrooke, and another told in extended flashbacks to the enchanted realm prior to the curse. As Lost demonstrated, this parallel story structure can be challenging, both narratively and dramatically: the trick being to somehow succeed in making both worlds more, rather than less, compelling by their juxtaposition. Moreover, Once Upon A Time has the added complication that almost none of the real world versions of the characters (with the possible exceptions of the Evil Queen and Rumpelstiltskin – played with relish by Stargate Universe’s Robert Carlyle) have any memory of their former fairy tale lives. What this means, dramatically speaking, is that any impact of the events revealed in flashback can only have indirect or symbolic links to the real-world timeline, since the oblivion of the curse separates the two. Each episode will need to be carefully crafted with this in mind – much like the best episodes of Lost (though, for my money, there were too many episodes of Lost that left me rather cold for precisely these reasons). This creative tightrope notwithstanding, the first two episodes (both written by Horowitz and Kitsis) do more or less succeed in carrying both theme and character across that make-believe abyss.

As for the fairy tales themselves, Once Upon A Time has already demonstrated a willingness to revise and complicate the fairy stories we grew up on. I won’t exactly say they’ve darkened them, because, as anyone who’s read the original Grimm stories knows, these stories probably couldn’t get any darker. (Let’s just say that this version of the Snow White story has so far, thankfully, left out the implied cannibalism of the original telling.) But if your only access to these stories has been through the pink-tinted lenses of Disney Princess™ sunglasses, you may well be shocked and gratified by the gravitas the show brings to the perhaps too-familiar stories.

Giancarlo Esposito and Lana Parrilla
Though currently there seem to be only a half dozen or so main characters, no doubt as the season progresses more and more background characters will step into the light. Cinderella (Jessy Schram, Karen on TNT’s Falling Skies) already waits in the wings, as do an assortment of dwarves. And there is already something quite fun about trying to identify the storybook personae of every passing character we meet in the town: my money is on Sheriff Graham (Jamie Dornan) being the Huntsman, for example, and they’ve all but told us that Granny (Beverley Elliott), who runs the town’s B&B, is Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. There is an almost inexhaustible reserve of fairy tale characters out there, and unlike Lost, Once Upon A Time won’t have to discover a missing section of a crashed plane in order to introduce new characters to the town. But my hope is that they will go deep, rather than broad, with these back stories. Both Snow White and the Evil Queen have many more than one flashback in them, and as fun as mining the back catalogue of the Grimm canon might be, our investment has to be with the main characters or else the whole conceit risks growing dull. But that caveat notwithstanding, I am really looking forward to episode which gives us some background on the Queen’s Mirror, since he is played by Giancarlo Esposito – whose devastating portrayal of Gus Fring in the most recent season of AMC’s Breaking Bad gives him a lock on the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor next year. All we have really seen from Esposito so far (beyond the inevitable “Mirror, Mirror on the wall” moments in fairy land) is one short scene as a reporter for the town's newspaper – the aptly titled Daily Mirror – opposite the Evil Queen (now Evil Mayor), but with that kind of talent in their stable it would be a scandal if the show’s writers didn’t take full advantage.

Right now, with the bifurcated structure of its episodic narratives already quite established even in these early episodes, I have to confess I still can’t quite imagine what the wider plot of the series will be. Emma is supposed to break the spell and “bring the happy endings back” but we have been given no real indication of how that will play out. No doubt each character will awaken slowly to the reality of their respective situation, but what is the end-game here? Now that Emma has ‘returned’, the frozen time aspect of the curse seems to already be lifting. After almost 3 decades of living “in a haze” as Henry described it, in many ways the characters' Storybrooke lives have only just begun. And, in the end, those are the people viewers will need to become invested in as the show progresses. If six seasons of Lost has taught us anything, it was that flashbacks are only as compelling as the characters in them – characters who need to be moving forward, and not backward, to their ultimate destinations. Whether, in the end, the Queen’s curse turns out to be a curse or a blessing, only time will tell. But I expect that both the audience and the characters alike will come to learn that the really interesting stuff only happens after the happy endings have themselves come to an end.

David Giuntoli stars in NBC's Grimm

Premiering just five days after Once Upon A Time, NBC’s new supernatural thriller Grimm, follows in its “this is no fairy tale” footsteps. A more mature rendering than ABC’s effort, this is a world of monsters in the dark, violence, and children at risk. In the world of Grimm, the stories written by the Brothers Grimm weren’t children’s stories at all: they were allegorized criminal profiles, and the Grimm brothers were first in an apparently long line of monster fighters, a mantel passed on through hereditary descent. And so it is that we meet Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli), a Portland PD homicide detective who discovers he one of the last surviving Grimms, and who must take up a fight that has been going on for generations.

Co-created by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel writer/producer David Greenwalt, Grimm is really just a crime procedural with a supernatural twist, and it admittedly treads familiar TV ground – e.g. his newfound “chosen” status comes complete with the requisite library of handwritten books and cache of gothic weaponry. But with only one episode airing so far – it premiered this past Friday to coincide with the Halloween weekend – I saw a lot there to like. We’ve have already been left with a number of suggestive avenues of speculation: the untold story of Nick’s deceased parents, more tales of monster-killing and ass-kicking librarian aunt who raised Nick after his parents’ deaths, and the conspiracy-laden implications of a shadowy group known as the Reapers of the Grimms, who apparently have hunted the hunters across the centuries. The pilot put a lot out there in its first hour, and I enjoyed the low-key darkness of the setting. The series is filmed almost entirely on location in Portland, Oregon, and it uses its old-growth forests and Northwest climate to successfully gloomy effect.

The formula for the series might be well-trodden, but it also comes with some established precursors, like The CW's Supernatural, which took their time and let their ambitions emerge slowly over the course of multiple seasons. But, also like Supernatural, the long-term success of Grimm will depend as much on the charm and likability of its main characters as it does on the stories they choose to tell. If the pilot is any indication, the show promises to bring a nice balance of shadow and lightness to their stories. Fortunately, joining Guintoli is Silas Weir Mitchell, who shines in the pilot as Eddie, a recovering Blutbad – more familiar to us as a “big bad wolf” – who keeps his dark appetites in check “through a strict regimen of diet, drugs and pilates.” Eddie, coming on board as a guide and sidekick to Nick as he navigates the new Grimm-world he’s been thrown into, promises to bring an ironic sense of fun to the potentially too grim storylines.