GREY MATTERS: With "Grimm" and "Once Upon A Time," TV fantasy casts its spell with mixed results

Features
by Ian Grey
November 17, 2011 12:04 PM
2 Comments
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Fall's two biggest TV hits center on traumatized people waking up to a universally terrible reality, and all anyone can do is work endlessly to prevent things from perpetually worsening. But what I wonder about the ascendancy of Grimm and Once Upon a Time is if people are tuning in because they directly validate our sense of things falling apart, or if viewers feel so battered that they can’t even enjoy fantasy without a substratum of neo-Depression dread and jitters. Certainly, both shows’ hard-times elements are in your face so often that interpretation mostly becomes a critical redundancy.

For this way-dedicated Joss Whedon fan, Grimm feels like a karaoke version of a cover band's take on an Angel episode, with mise-en-scène ported from Jennifer’s Body. (Steal from the best.)  The show's co-creator is Angel main man David Greenwalt, which explains Grimm’s similarities but does nothing to shed light on why it's so, well, awful.

It takes place in Portland, where there's a lot of moss. Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) is a pretty detective who starts seeing flashes of citizens with monster faces. His Aunt Marie (Kate Burton) drops by in a beat up '70s station wagon, mobile home in tow – a visit from the terrible economy. Unemployed thanks to a fight with cancer that has her bald and near death, Aunt Marie wants Nick to know something: his parents did not die in a car crash. They were murdered.

Also, he's a Grimm, as in “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” which were actually reports by Nick’s ancestors on their ongoing battles against a seemingly endless profusion of creatures that walk among us. That’s why he can see monster people.


After the workman-like pilot, Grimm riffs a version of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" that only makes sense to people living in the stuck-in-glue daymare of Depression 2.0. The hook: an attractive couple breaks into a swanky country home. Do they use super criminal skills to computer-transfer gold bonds to an anonymous account in the Cayman Islands? To steal a rare diamond? To hot-wire the family's classic 1963 Porsche 356B Cabriolet Convertible?

No. They’re just two members of Generation Debt who want to pretend to be rich for a couple hours. They drink rich people wine, eat rich people food and fuck on rich people sheets. That is, until the rich people return and only the girl can get away in time, leaving the boy as prey for the week’s beasties: bear people. Like, bears in a bear market. Well, I thought it was funny.

Anyway, Grimm is a rote procedural glued to a weekly creature feature. The only time it has a pulse is when it is most Angel-like, with Nick playing straight guy to the hilariously constantly annoyed "big bad wolf," played by the delightful Silas Weir Mitchell. But while David Boreanaz owned an enjoyably self-deprecating brand of comic timing and Angel (the character) always had a backstory of epic woe to texturize his prettiness, the Brandon Routh-ian Giuntoli just leaves the always-game Mitchell with a puppy’s eagerness for a foil. Could be limiting.

Perhaps Greenwalt’s master plan is to bring current social anxieties to the forefront to get our minds off the fact that the show proper hasn’t that much on its own mind. Or perhaps Grimm's real objective is to officially add “supernatural” to the doctor/cop/hospital list of approved genre presets.
Lana Parrilla and Robert Carlyle star in "Once Upon A Time"

Luckily, there’s Once Upon a Time to distract us from such mercenary things, doing that awesome TV thing: teaching us how to watch it while also creating the kind of giddy, free-associative buzz you get after a couple hits of mellow sensimilla.

Lots of shows have practically sold the souls of virgins wetted with the tears of newborns to get people to think, “This is the new Lost”. Well, this is the new Lost in the way it sucks viewers into its tale of spiritual entrapment, now updated for the new hopelessness and told in a way that’s just super sui generis. (It helps that the show is written by ex-Lost scribes Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis.)

Once Upon a Time’s hook is that fairy tales are real, and that at some point in the world of these tales, the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) let loose a curse that threw everyone to the worst of all places in all the universes: America in 2011. Now, fairy tale characters live as normal Americans in Storybrooke, Maine, which allows us to enjoy, for example, the magnificent and delightful Robert Carlyle in two roles: Rumpelstiltskin and Mr. Gold, Storybrooke’s local one-percenter.

Our P.O.V. character is Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), broadly played (like many of the people in Once Upon a Time) as a sort of bounty hunter with a large chip on her shoulder. Her life's efforts have gained her a Volkswagen Bug, a red faux-leather Forever 21-style jacket, and that’s about it.  (Unlike Grimm, where Nick casually sports a good $5,000 of McQueen-level leather couture. The fashion folks here understand how class represents in style.)
Jennifer Morrison in "Once Upon A Time"

Anyway, Emma meets 10-year-old Henry (Jared S. Gilmore), who – long story short – she becomes so compelled to take care of that she brings him to his hometown of Storybrooke to see what the deal is with his mom, Regina (the Evil Queen in fairy world), who's a real piece of work and basically runs the town. Swan instantly feels a deep affinity with Mary, Henry's elementary school teacher (Ginnifer Goodwin, rockin’ an adorable and practical short Mia Farrow/Vidal Sassoon cut), who in fairy world is Emma’s mother, which is kind of kinky in my opinion.

Little Henry, clearly a nascent Obama Democrat, thinks that by remembering how things got so terrible, the residents of Storybrooke will get back to where they once belonged. But will they? Are the events unfolding in the past/fairy world fixed, or can they be changed to change this world? Will knowing what you once were influence who you are now?

The human incarnation of the Evil Queen, Regina, loves her child Henry, but she knows something is existentially wrong about everything in Storybrooke, and we’re already getting indications that, a la Lost's Others, she may not be the repository of pure, unmotivated evil that “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” would probably like us to believe. (Holy inter-textuality, Batman!)

A lot of people gave the show’s pilot shit for being too earnest – as if irony and self-snarkiness were automatic virtues – but by its second episode, Once Upon a Time was already showing a stealthy sense of humor about itself, with Snow White giving Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) shit about his name, and the Prince pulling out a warrant for White, showing her wanted for treason, murder and the like. The original multi-camera laziness has been perked up by zippy single camera moves. Morrison has grown comfortable enough with a very stylized character; she casually tosses extra-value curveballs into already funny lines like, "Kid, telling someone their soulmate is in a coma is probably not helpful."
Josh Dallas in "Once Upon A Time"

And I’m loving a narrative strategy that doesn’t work by linear storytelling but by skillfully randomized accumulation of themes, images and recalled interactions. The writers not only have cocky confidence in their skills, they have confidence in their audience. Most of all, the show works in shades of entrapment, which is why, I believe, five or so million Americans keep tuning into it during a terrible Sunday night time slot.

Just like the surviving passengers of Lost’s Flight 815 can’t really leave the island even when they leave it, the rudely Americanized fairy tale folk of Once Upon a Time feel somehow displaced, with glimmers of basic, existential wrongness indicating something vast and malign is writing the script. At a time when so many critics seem willing to wait years for Boardwalk Empire to match in quality what it has in stylish depictions of cruelty, gore-violence and horrible men (the things that automatically signify "quality" and "seriousness" sight unseen these days), it’s no surprise that viewers are happy to vote with their remotes and tune in to a show like Once Upon a Time, a show that entertains and connects with wit, spirit and soul about things that matter to them.

Me, I’m more than happy to put my Best Show sticker on Once Upon a Time, a wee smidgen above Homeland – a great show, but still a super-honed iteration of things we’ve seen before, while the loopy, lysergic Once Upon a Time has the right stuff to transcend the nihilism craze, to become awesome in a way we’ve never seen.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York

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2 Comments

  • Ian Grey | November 18, 2011 12:58 PMReply

    I'm certain that it will. I was listening to the very smart showrunners being interviewed and there's already quite a grand, very rich mythology in mind. The ambition is just as grand as LOST and more cohesive.

  • Angela | November 18, 2011 9:14 AMReply

    Very interesting review. I watch Once Upon a Time with my 7- and 8-year old boys. They love it as much as I do. It's creativity makes this show far superior to others. Lucky for me the show is rated PG. I hope it stays that way.

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