Life Is Not A Fairy Tale
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.