It’s no secret, I suppose, at this point in history: the fairy tales we know from Uncle Walt and his famous animation studio are generally Bawdlerized versions of stories collected and edited by the Brothers Grimm — perhaps history’s two most-aptly named men. The Disney versions are stories for 20th Century kids, and are replete with happy endings and Princes (Charming or otherwise) and cute talking animals. The Grimm versions are stories for 19th Century kids, and are thus meant to just scare the crap out of the little buggers so they’ll behave and keep to the road.
By what I can only assume is coincidence (right? It has to basically be a coincidence?), there are now two fairy tale-based TV shows, premiering the same week: one is on ABC (that is: Disney) and the other is called Grimm. I mean, whoah. The first is about all of the fairy tale characters being under a curse that deprives them of their “happy endings”; the second is about a police detective who’s the descendant of the titular Grimms, and who has the power to see all the insane monsters that live in the world and who kill and eat humans.
I don’t think either of them are really working, but it’s early on, maybe they’ll get better.
The Suburban Nightmare
Once Upon a Time is by far the more troubled of the two. The premise is this: that Snow White’s Wicked Queen cast a spell that exiled all of the
Fables Fairy Tale Characters into a town in Maine where time doesn’t pass and they don’t remember anything about their own history.
On the face of it, there’s something gleefully transgressive about the idea, in a way that seems a little unusual for Disney: the characters have all had their “happy endings” taken away from them and are now living in the real world. Oh, horror. The small-town life must, indeed, be a nightmare for these guys, used, as they are, to magic castles and enchanted forests. There’s potential for a pretty wicked satire here, one that castigates both our weary modern cynicism AND Disney’s own preoccupation with making a billion dollars by knocking together some fantasy pablum and offering it up to a gloomy population that’s hungry for a little good news.
Of course, none of that’s in evidence. There’s nothing really self-aware about the show so far — but, worse than that, it’s marred by some really generic writing. And often inexplicably generic; I suppose there’s some kind of production values issue that’s the source for why, in the pilot, we only see characters from Pinnochio and Snow White, with guest appearances by Rumplestiltskin and Red Riding Hood & Grandmother. Episode 2 brings in Maleficent, but again, there’s a kind generic quality to her, too: she just seems like kind of a mean witch. And not even that mean, so I don’t know who you are, writers of Once Upon a Time, but how did you get this far in life believing that Snow White’s Evil Queen is somehow badder than Maleficent. Are you kidding? MALEFICENT?
All right. But the thing is, if you really ARE run by Disney, you’ve at least got the rights to the sweet, sweet character designs, right? Look at how brilliant Maleficent’s design it — menacing, elegant, otherwordly. How did she end up in the TV show looking like this:
It gets worse, too, in the sense that it just seems to remain completely bland. The dark curse that the Wicked Queen calls down is called The Dark Curse. The scene with the Council of
Elrond Fables Fairy Tales opens with Prince Charming slamming his hand on the table and saying, “I say we fight!” Fight — fight what? Wait, what? Fight who? How? Then, the Blue Fairy finds a magic tree that can provide protection (which tree they then cut down — way to respect the ancient powers of your world, fairy tale guys). But, it can only protect one person. Why? Well, because it can, just shut up.
Back in the real world, Jennifer Morrison (the lost daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, whose return will presage the beginning of the final battle, which will be called “the Final Battle”) doesn’t have much in the way to do either. A boy that she’d given up for adoption finds her and convinces her to go to Storybrooke, Maine — but there’s nothing seemingly keeping her here, no particular drama for her to struggle with. Even in the second episode, which rests entirely on the evil Queen’s intricate strategy of: “Have the psychiatrist give Jennifer Morrison some files, then pretend that she stole them so she can get arrested” doesn’t really make any sense. They let her out of jail, why doesn’t she just leave? What is going on in this town that she, or anyone else, should care?
There’s an opportunity here, missed by a hundred miles, to create a kind of Deliverance-like atmosphere, in which Jennifer Morrison is TRAPPED in a town where the evil Queen controls all the courts and the police and everything; it’d be even more dramatic if she had some actual reason to be there beyond “Well, this kid is apparently completely crazy, I guess I’ll stay around and see what’s happening? Sure, may as well just leave my job and my apartment and everything, whatever.”
By contrast, the Grimm pilot is a leaner, muscular, driving story: detective finds a murdered body, his dying aunt tells him he’s a magic detective, a girl gets kidnapped by a werewolf, detective and his partner have to find her. One episode and we get: the premise, three or four mysteries to be solved this season, and the immediate threat of a six-year-old in mortal peril of being eaten by a werewolf. Good, good plot. Very tense.
Grimm is hurt, strangely enough, by its interest in its own weirdness. Where the pilot is stylized in some pretty interesting ways (it was shot in Portland, I think, which is apparently some kind of crazy old-growth forest?), it still ends up doing the same thing that used to bother me about Buffy and Angel (not coincidentally, Grimm is produced by the same people): there’s a big guidebook, the monsters are sorted out into classes with particular names and such. The werewolf is called a “Bludbad” (which I guess is German for “big bad”?), and, seriously — you know, English, and German, both have a word for a man who turns into a wolf. That word is “werewolf”, and we’ve been using it for hundreds of years. Why does the werewolf in Grimm have a different name? What is the point of that? He is obviously a werewolf.
What it is, I think, is a mistaken impulse to add a level of “reality” to these monsters — you give them new names to differentiate them from the “monster” and establish them as a different species. It makes them seem less like enigmatic monsters haunting the edges of human civilization, and more just like weird dudes that all you need to do to stop is look them up in a book. It sets up a standard of: Detective discovers a weird monster, looks the monster up in the books, discovers its weakness, defeats the monster. That’s pretty boring, honestly; it’s a rehash of shows that we’ve already seen (and are still seeing), and it doesn’t add anything new to either the “supernatural monster” genre, or the “police procedural” genre.
The thing about fairy tales is that they’re a kind of folklore, and the purpose of folklore is not to tell people a story about a werewolf. It’s about transmitting culture from parents to children, and culture means a lot of different things: values about who and what to be afraid of, what’s good and bad, what kinds of things are frightening. They’re about providing the tools that we use to build our identities — which is why not a single Grimm fairy tale was about, “young children discover a monster, look it up in a book, find a way to defeat it, defeat it” — the actual monster is just representative of some kind of sociocultural evil that occasionally has to be destroyed (the Big Bad Wolf) but occasionally simply has to be confronted and integrated (say, er, the Beast).
Likewise, the “happy ending” part of the fairy tale is the least relevant part; it’s a notional prospect that, really, is just a way to finish the story without having to have to introduce new drama. The point of Snow White is her struggles with her Wicked Stepmother — the way jealousy and power conspire to destroy youth and beauty. It’s not “Snow White ends up with Prince Charming.”
The Perils of Ordinarity
The problem with both of these shows is that, in their own way, they rob the fairy tales of the essential weirdness that makes them so interesting. “Magic”, as a cultural phenomenon in our real world, is a collection of often entirely-unrelated folk beliefs: it’s specific, and it’s eclectic, and it above all defies any kind of unifying theory. Sometimes there are trolls, sometimes a woman turns into a swan, sometimes there’s a wolf-man. Sometimes there’s a magic spell that causes you to fall asleep if you prick your finger on a spinning wheel; sometimes there’s a magic spell that makes deadly brambles grow around your tower.
Both of these shows are squandering the potential of their premise: Disney (as you’d expect), invoking its saccharine, unalloyed optimism by turning every fairy tale into a story about getting a “happy ending” (hahahah, take it however you want, I don’t care); Grimm by doing what the Grimms did: relentlessly categorizing their own culture, and then taking out the mystery and replacing it with gore.
On the other hand, like I said: we’re still at the beginning, maybe they’ll get better. I don’t know if you remember the first season of Buffy, but I do, because I think I was the only one watching it. Man, that was some dumb television.