Life Is Not A Fairy Tale

October 31, 2011
By | 4 Comments

Just in time for Halloween, ABC and NBC both rolled out new shows last week focusing on the basic premise that Fairy Tales are real and their protagonists, or their ancestors, are living somewhere in the United States. Brought up, like many children, on fairy tales, Disney movies, and miniseries like The Tenth Kingdom, I was excited for this surprising turn to fantasy on broadcast television. Series with supernatural or fantasy themes have been reasonably successful for the CW, with series like Supernatural, Vampire Diaries, and Secret Circle garnering robust ratings, relative to the network’s norms. So, when these shows finally came to air I was eager to see how the premise was going to be adapted for the broadcast television audience and whether or not it would work.

NBC’s gambit with Grimm is reasonably clear, and compelling on paper.  Grimm is structured like a crime procedural and includes many of the best aspects of this genre: a satisfying goal completed and mystery solved at the end of the episode, a high stakes focus for the narrative arc, and a resulting brisk pace. At the same time its novel twist, that the intrepid police detective is the last in the blood line of the Brothers Grimm and has the unique ability to see the monsters who are hiding in human form which lends itself well to the series additional serial level; where the mystery of the protagonist’s, Nick, family’s past can be as explored as well as the secret of the shadowy group implied at the end of the first episode. While this balance is structurally effectively, I have some serious concerns about its ultimate ideological effect. Early on in the episode, Nick is in the precinct and sees a random perpetrator briefly shift into a monster, the kidnapping of a young girl and an assault of a college student (stock plots of more traditional procedurals like Law & Order: SVU) is also traced to the work of a monster. This conceit’s potential ideological effects are troubling, it moves away from a period in which crime was depicted more contextually on television. It isn’t desperation, class or neighborhood issues, mental illness or family issues that cause criminal behavior, it isn’t even anything as messy and complex as motive, inside a criminal there is simply a monster. Since the criminal is truly a monster, the protagonist needs to have no qualms about shooting him or her and the producers seem to find nothing wrong with depicting a man who kidnaps a young girl as effete (complete with hand needlepointed pillows, hummel figurines, home cooked pot pie and an actor well known for playing gay characters) if he also happens to be a modern big bad wolf. There is much to like about Grimm, the filming is excellent, the writing reasonably tight and the premise strong. As a Friday night show on a struggling network it may even prove a success, but until I see more to the contrary I worry that Grimm is indeed a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

ABC’s Once Upon a Time fits less neatly into a popular broadcast television formula and as a result has both more challenges and more potential then its NBC cousin. Once Upon a Time’s premise is reasonably complex, there was a world and time in which fairytales were real and Prince Charming and Snow White reigned. The evil witch took revenge on them by transporting them to Storybrook, Maine where they would not remember who they were or their history. They can only be saved by Snow White’s daughter, Emma Swan, who just happens to be a bounty hunter, that was saved by the curse when they hid her in an enchanted wardrobe, a portal to the other world. By a tremendous coincidence Emma is lured to Storybrook by her own son who she gave up and was adopted by the witch, who in this world is the mayor of Storybrook. Got that? Good because the complexity of its narrative premise might ultimately be Once Upon a Time’s achilles heel. If Grimm’s concept and structure can be quickly discerned how Once Upon a Time will ultimately unfold is certainly a mystery, which is to be expected in a show conceived by two former Lost writers. This is in some ways to the series benefit, while some villains are clearly defined our heroine, Emma, is clearly no saint and our saint, Snow White, shows the potential to be anything but. As a result, Once Upon a Time evidences the potential for moral ambiguity that Grimm limits. Even so there is a strange backlash undertone to a show with such a strong female protagonist. In her everyday human context, the witch is a single career women, working hard to make it in local politics, whose evilness is indicated to her son (also Emma’s son) by a lack of maternalness – it is important that his damning accusation is not that she hurts him or fails to provide for him but that she only pretends to love him.  Emma’s ability to save the fairy tale characters, and to transform personally, comes from her willingness to stay in Storybrook and bond with the child that she gave up. If you are still not convinced about the series strange backlash undertone Rumplestiltskin actually is a snidely whiplash like character who menaces Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother, owns almost the whole town and his last name is….wait for it….Mr. Gold. Despite this, the interesting female protagonist and the potential for innovation and interesting moral ambiguity makes me want to believe that these red flags will be less disconcerting as time goes on.

At the end of the day, I found myself disappointed by these two new additions to fantasy television. In many ways they were more artfully done, more visually beautiful and more narratively compelling then I expected, but, especially compared to their CW cousins, they were also much more ideologically problematic then I had anticipated. Fantasy has the potential to break the rules in profound ways. The fact that in this case it appears to be used to instate an authoritarian model of intrinsic criminality and backlash tales of bad mothers, mothers in need of redemption, and the sainted mother who martyred herself from the outset is disappointing at best and disconcerting during a time of cultural shift at worst. Nonetheless, there were elements of the programs that were promising and I hope to be proven wrong.


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4 Responses to “ Life Is Not A Fairy Tale ”

  1. Erin Copple Smith on November 1, 2011 at 8:54 AM

    Interesting analysis, Kyra. I unabashedly and deeply enjoyed the premieres of both series–in part because they seem so very unlike anything else on television. Watching OUAT, my husband and I commented that it felt more like a TV movie or miniseries than a regular series, and were intrigued by what was to come. Their very difference feels refreshing amidst a sea of the familiar sitcoms, procedurals, and reality (which, I confess, I also enjoy, for different reasons).

    I admit that I don’t take the same reading of either Grimm or OUAT that you lay out here, although your points are valid. To my mind, OUAT seems to undercut as many fairy tale stereotypes as it presents. I found Emma to be wonderfully “real,” despite her fairy tale origins as the daughter of Snow White. Her gruffness wasn’t overdone, and her eventual and reluctant choice to stay in Storybrooke to follow up on Henry’s concerns seemed genuine to me.

    Part of the issue, I think, is that this is a series based on fairy tale stories, and thus has to adhere to fairy tale storytelling, to some degree. The evil queen has to present as…you know…evil in order to make the concept work. If she’s evil, then she’s only keeping Henry in order to keep her hold over Emma and, by extension, Snow White and the rest of her evil plot–not because she loves him. Fairy tales are difficult because they rely so heavily on simplified narrative tropes–the evil queen is evil. Period. We don’t have a second act moment of redemption, in which she realizes the error of her ways, or questions her motives and tactics. To my mind, despite being somewhat constrained by working within the genre they’ve chosen, the creators, writers, and actors seem committed to updating the narrative by adding in characters whose qualities we aren’t meant to immediately recognize (primarily Emma & Henry, although I’d argue that the inclusion of Jiminy Cricket and other less clearly-defined characters–what’s Red Riding Hood’s deal, really?–marks a similar move).

    Sorry for the long response, but your analysis gave me a lot of food for thought–something I always appreciate!

    • Kyra Hunting on November 1, 2011 at 4:33 PM

      Thanks for your thoughts Erin, they were great! I do agree about Emma (who in and of herself is a great character) n and I thought the programs were well done, which increases my concern about them. I guess I wonder – and your thoughts really crystalize this for me – if my problem at its core is about using fairy tales without complicating their narrative tropes. Post Gregory Maguire, I suppose I am also thinking that fairy tale characters could and should be complexified in a complex world. I guess I might also argue that it is not unreasonable for the evil queen to be evil and love Henry, intensifying the conflict, or to be evil and a married housewife (not a single mom career woman), or that her evilness towards Henry involves her actually doing something bad (locking him under the stairs HP style) instead of just not being maternal enough. It is complex though, you are right, and it is possible I am just a grinch about it, but I guess I feel like if we are going to put fairy tales in a modern context their morality tales should be modernized too? Like I said though, I will keep watching and I hope you are proven right and I wrong because I want to like these shows sooo badly!

      • Erin Copple Smith on November 1, 2011 at 7:48 PM

        All great points, for sure. Your point about post-Gregory Maguire particularly struck home for me–and you’re right, that a modern world may require a modernization (and attendant complication) of existing narrative tropes. A friend at Denison is teaching a first-year seminar on fairy tales & pop culture–I posted a link to your piece on her FB page, and she brought up exactly these issues; in her words “the responsibilities of 21st fairy tales to their antecedents.” It’s definitely great food for thought.

        And, perhaps, these characters will get complicated over time–this is the blessing and the curse of serial storytelling. You have to get the character types out there early, but have plenty of time to develop them into shades of grey. Perhaps, eventually, we’ll see another side to the evil queen?

        All of this to say–the post is great, precisely because it opens up interesting avenues for considering our own readings and interpretations of the series, and what they mean in a larger context.

  2. Samantha Close on November 24, 2011 at 4:46 AM

    I’m glad to read this because I share your fascination and frustration with Once Upon a Time. There’s a longing in the modern setting for the “fairy tale” world of the nuclear family that greatly concerns me, especially as it seems to be set up via taking all of the male main characters out of the picture and casting the female characters in the present as essentially lost and searching for them. (seriously, consider the modern world cast balance given that Henry is a child) You could read the Storybrook sections as a strange re-telling of the “princess in a tower” idea in which these princesses have started to realize Prince Charming isn’t coming… but have no other ideas than to go looking for him.

    On the other hand, though, the fantasy world setting itself actually feels much richer and more morally complex. Snow White as a bandit, Cinderella as deal-maker rather than passive recipient, and strong evidence for moral struggle by the Wicked Queen–all of these are interesting additions. I wonder if, as you say, the fantasy world seems like a safer place, in some way, for the production team to locate these strong female characters.

    I agree that there’s still hope for the show and am watching with you to see if our patience will be rewarded!