Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce
Ok, it’s probably not fair to call Grimm and Once Upon a Time rivals, exactly. There’s definitely room in the fairy tale universe for multiple retellings; indeed, that’s part of what’s kept the form vital and relevant for hundreds of years. But in the days of hotly-contested ratings shares and limited viewer time (and attention spans), one can’t help pitting one series against the other.
First, both are watchable. NBC’s entrant, Grimm, is a supernatural crime drama set in the misty Northwest, and, coming from former Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel producer/creator David Greenwalt, it sits squarely in that urban fantasy niche. ABC’s Once Upon a Time is a frothy fantasy bedtime story, spinning a “what if” story of fairy tale characters trapped in our world, and still duking it out with their ancient enemies.
I enjoyed elements of both series, but if I only had time for one, I’d watch Grimm. From the opening sequence, I was hooked. Filmed in Portland, Oregon in early spring, among bare-branched trees and chilly overcast skies, the show just looks amazing, in that spooky-yet-beautiful way we loved in The Dead Zone and The X-Files. The premise is also fun—a homicide detective discovers he’s the latest in a long line of Grimms, or… well, we’re not entirely sure what those Grimms do, yet, as Nick Burkhardt’s (David Giuntoli) mentor inevitably falls into a coma before getting a chance to explain Burkhardt’s new destiny. But Episode One gave us enough clues to play along, as destiny and day job collide when a serial killer strikes local girls in red hoodies, and turns out to be a “Bludbad,” or big bad wolf. It’s a familiar setup, but it’s handled beautifully, and Episode One of Grimm was one of the best pilots I’ve seen in ages, with smart writing, smart characters, and a tantalizing premise.
Giuntoli is likeable as the not-so-hapless ordinary guy thrust into a strange, otherworldly adventure, both a caring family man and a sharp detective, and we sense he’ll handle the burden of his new role just fine. Borg.com editor C.J. Bunce praised the show’s special effects, particularly the startling transformation of ordinary passers-by into demonic entities that only Nick can see. The rest of the cast is likewise enjoyable, from Bludbad C.I. Eddie (Silas Weir Mitchell, Burn Notice), to Nick’s partner on the force, Hank Griffin (Russel Hornsby), to a fantastic appearance by Tim Bagley (Monk) as the Big “I do my own needlepoint” Bad hunting Little Reds. Though this is unabashedly paranormal, it’s nice to see a show that respects both the genre and viewers’ intelligence–Nick’s special abilities lead him to the perpetrator, but the crime is ultimately solved by smart (wholly natural) police work. It’s this combination of the normal and the para- that will make Grimm a standout this season, and two moments in particular characterize the smart, surprising elements that have me hooked. When Nick first meets wolfish Eddie, we see him walk out his back door to mark his territory. My immediate reaction was an exasperated, “Why would anyone leave their house to… oh, right.” Subtle, and spot on. The other was the chilling glimpse inside Bagley’s armoire full of red hoodies. It’s just the perfect amount of creepiness, without descending into horror.
Once Upon a Time time also features lavish production values and is (mostly) lovely to look at. The writing is capable, if nothing special, and the actors—particularly leads Jennifer Morrison, Jared Gilmore, Lana Parilla, and Robert Carlyle (in a creepy turn as an impish Rumpelstiltskin)—give solid, enjoyable performances. The trouble comes when you look closer. First, the concept is nothing new—we’ve seen fairy tale characters trapped in our world before, and done better, in Bill Willingham’s landmark Fables comic book series, and Sarah Beth Durst’s award-winning novels Into the Wild and Out of the Wild.
More bothersome is the handling of the source material—instead of acknowledging the richness of the fairy tale tradition, Once is stuck firmly in the Disneyverse, populated with characters straight out of the Disney versions of fairy tales (and, confusingly, stories that aren’t fairy tales at all, like Pinocchio), but without the charming irony and acknowledgement of the inside joke that made their similar offering, the 2007 film Enchanted, work so well. Instead, the world feels oddly proprietary, as if, Evil-Queen-like, they’re clamping down on the traditional stories and adhering only to their own canon. Sadly, this won’t bother most viewers, but the show would be more fun for everyone if the nods were more obvious and played up (a sherrif named Woody, perhaps?).
Though each series shows promise now, unfortunately both networks have a history of failing to follow through on great setups (Lost and Heroes), so neither show really has an edge in that respect. Once has the better timeslot (the 8 pm Sunday night slot that has performed historically well for Disney), but hopefully Grimm can pick up enough of Chuck’s loyal fan base to encourage a better move for next season. Grimm has the better premise and payoff, but Once boasts familiar actors that will draw viewers. All things considered, it’s definitely a great time to be a fairy tale fan.