By Rebekah Fitzsimmons
I was intrigued to see two shows this year dealing with the concept of fairy tales: Once Upon a Time on ABC and Grimm on NBC. Fantastic, mysterious and even supernatural shows have been a staple on television for a long time, but it seemed serendipitous that two television shows based on the very basic concept of “Fairy tales are interacting with the real world” would come out at the exact same moment. Perhaps the closure of the Harry Potter series has left a gaping void in some entertainment spreadsheet, and both television networks are clamoring to fill it. Or maybe the rest of the world is finally figuring out what we children’s literature folks have known for a long time: there is more to fairy tales than the sanitized Disney versions would have you believe. In short, fairy tales are cool (as are bow ties). However, it is from this similar point that both television shows diverge.
Grimm is a dark, gritty and scary world, with lots of shadows, creepy music and dead bodies. The basic story is that Nick is a homicide detective who has inherited the “misfortune” of the Grimm family: he can see the terrifying fairy tale monsters for what they really are. Disguised as regular people, these monsters hide in the real world and indulge their monstrous appetites. Only the Grimms can see, track and eliminate the bad ones and have created fairy tales as a means of passing down the information. Nick’s aunt Marie arrives, dying from cancer, and she warns Nick that he needs to learn about his heritage, read the books she has brought him and beware of the Reapers, a secret organization dedicated to killing all of the Grimms. One such Reaper attacks Marie and Nick, putting Marie into the hospital only after she displays some pretty butt-kicking self-defense. All this happens in the pilot episode
The show is part buddy-cop plot, as Nick’s police partner is the engaging, likable dupe, but also feels a lot like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (perhaps because it is written by some of Buffy’s original writers.) Nick has inherited a tragic yet necessary supernatural ability and the first season as least will be dedicated to exposition about where his abilities came from, what he is supposed to do with it and creating a catalogue of bumps in the night. It wasn’t really until season 2 of Buffy that the mythology finally broke free from the single arc episodes and took on a life of its own, so hopefully Grimm’s track will expand significantly as the season(s) progress.
Once Upon A Time is nearly the mirror opposite of Grimm, a through the looking-glass perspective on reality. If Grimm posits that all the really scary things in the world can be attributed to fairy tale monsters, Once Upon a Time casts the real world itself as the scariest thing imaginable. The basic storyline in Once Upon a Time is: all the fairy tale characters you know (and think you know) have been cursed by the evil queen to live in the “worst place you can possibly imagine,” otherwise known as the real world, where they are deprived of their memories and happy endings. The only hope of breaking the curse comes from the daughter of Snow White and Prince James Charming, who is born moments before the curse takes effect. By the use of a magical wardrobe, the baby Emma is transported into the real world ahead of her family.
In the pilot episode, a fully grown Emma, a bail-bondswoman with a chip on her shoulder, is approached by Henry, the son she gave up for adoption 11 years ago. Henry knows that all of the people his hometown of Storybrook, Maine are actually characters from fairy tales and that his birth mother, Emma, is the key to getting them all back to where they belong. Henry tells Emma and the audience that the city is under some kind of time lock, that if any of the characters try to leave Storybrook terrible things happen and that his mother is the evil Queen and she does not really love him.
In comparison to Grimm, Once Upon a Time is grander in scale. The majority of the actors in the show play 2 characters: their fairy tale selves and the disguised trapped versions. The depictions of the fairy tale world are lush, grand and epic, though often told with a modern twist. The feel of each episode is similar to Lost: the episode chooses to focus on one character, then flashes back to their life in the fairly tale world in order to elaborate and explain their actions in the real world. In later episodes, Snow White is shown living in the woods, hiding from the death sentence of the evil queen by robbing the rich and trading with goblins. Prince Charming insists on being known by his first name, rather than his title, seeking identity outside of his ordained role, even as he moves to marry Sleeping Beauty for the sake of his kingdom.
Like Grimm, Once Upon a Time is wary of the role that magic plays in reality: Rumpelstiltskin is an ominous figure who exerts magical power over every character, even the evil Queen herself. The magic that holds the characters in place in Storybrook does great harm to anyone who tries to leave. And yet there seems to be a space for magic that heals and connects people. Henry and Emma are able to connect on a deep level, having both been abandoned by their parents and placed in the foster/adoption system. Snow White feels an uncertain connection to a John Doe in the hospital, even though she can not remember that he is her Prince Charming.
As of the mid-season break, both shows appear to be doing well with audiences and critics. If I had to make a prediction as to which show would survive longest, it would probably be Grimm. The episodic and procedural drama of Grimm, coupled with the dark explanations for otherwise seemingly random evils in the world seems to have a large mass appeal. The one I am enjoying the most is Once Upon a Time: I have really enjoyed watching the writers struggle to update some of the less PC aspects of common fairy tales. One of the most recent episodes centered around the bargain between Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin: rather than being assisted to the ball by her fairy godmother, Cinderella was forced to bargain away her firstborn child in order to meet her prince. The real world equivalent of a young girl selling her baby to the local real estate magnate shocked Emma, even as she recognized that she gave her baby up for adoption too. While I am greatly enjoying the creativity and complexity of the film, I am not really sure how long the novelty and appeal of the re-written fairy tales will be able to maintain interest. Hopefully some Lost-like twists will appear to help further the overall story arc and delay the happily ever afters a few seasons longer.
Rebekah is a PhD student who is studying hard for her exams, not watching TV, she swears.