A Fairy Tale of TV: Grimm and Once Upon A Time

So two of the new TV shows are based on a similar concept – fairy tale characters in the real world. I’ve watched the first two episodes of both Grimm and Once Upon A Time so here’s my thoughts.

Once Upon A Time

The premise of Once[1] is that Snow White and Prince Charming had a daughter but that during the birth the Wicked Queen cursed the entire kindgom so that they, and all the other characters, were exiled to our world. Not only that but they don’t remember who they are. They now all live in a small town in Maine called StoryBrooke[2] where “time has stopped” meaning that the characters haven’t and don’t age.

Meanwhile they did manage to “save” their new-born daughter by shoving her in a magical wardrobe at the last minute. This sent her through to this world too but since she was on her own and not part of the curse she grew up naturally. (How growing up alone, in a series of foster homes, rather than being in a frankly rather cosy looking little town with the benefit of eternal youth counts as being “saved” looks dubious, never mind).

She herself had a child which she gave up for adoption at the age of 18. Ten years later she’s working as a bail bondsperson and her son turns up on her doorstop. He’s carrying a book of stories and wants her to go back with him to StoryBrooke to break the spell. She plays the hardbitten, cynical city girl but she does at least take him home to his adopted mum who just happens to be the Wicked Queen aka the Mayor of StoryBrooke.

And thus the adventure begins.

I actually did enjoy quite a lot of Once. Jennifer Morrison in particular was good in the Emma Swan (Snow White’s daughter) role. I liked the real world sections most. However they inter-cut these with flashbacks to life in the fairy tale realm. To say these are played straight is an understatement. They are taken so seriously that it undermines any drama in the other sections. They do try to pull off the Buffy trick of playing the weird and wonderful as if it’s perfectly normal for those involved and showing how it feels. However it fails partly because the execution is too on the nose. There’s almost no (deliberate) humour.

Also, by the second episode the main storyline seemed to have developed into a showdown between the Birth Mother and the Adopted Mother (Foretold Breaker-of-Curse and Evil Queen). It suddenly hit me as these two powerful women were squaring off against each other that I was watching Dynasty with fairy tale trimmings and I found it hard to take seriously after that. Certainly not as seriously as they apparently want me to.


I watched both Once episodes before watching Grimm and was left with a feeling that whilst intrigued there was something missing. I was also aware that Grimm had received slightly less favourable reviews (going off IMDB and AV Club ratings). So I was pleasantly surprised about 20mins into the pilot how engaged I was.

The set up is much more familiar. Basically the Brother Grimm were actually monster hunters and their stories were written as warnings. They have passed down a legacy of fighting these monsters – who look human most of the time through their descendants and the turn has now come of a young cop in Portland. He’s started seeing weird things when he looks too closely at certain people’s faces and then he gets called out on what looks like an animal attack but becomes clear is a murder. A young woman jogging through the forest in her red hoodie was torn apart by some sort of big bad w… you get the idea.

So in the same way that Angel and a bunch of other shows have done what is basically a police procedural with a supernatural twist, here the twist is fairy tale. But the twist isn’t really that much of a twist so far. Yes our hero has to learn about the various beasties, and he can use his “sight” ability to identify them but so far he’s dispatched them with good old fisticuffs and firearms. And in the first episode the killer happens to be a monster but it’s shot like he is a serial killer of the kind you’d see on Dexter. The fact that he ‘wolfs out’ briefly during the final fight doesn’t add a lot.

I think what I was reacting to in those first minutes of the pilot was how efficiently done the setting up was – following the victim, perky soundtrack, intriguing details, sudden surprise attack. However it soon settled into a familiar groove and whether it actually was clunky or I was just too used to it, it suffered from the fact that I could tick elements off a list. When the “good” wolf character turns up he lightens the mood with some self-aware, self-deprecating humour[3] but I immediately feel like he’s put there to be a source of exposition for our hero to pick up back story. Sure enough in episode two when a new monster appears on the scene, Nick (our lead) pops around to Eddie’s (good wolf) house for some playful banter and an info-dump on the new adversary’s MO.

The nicest thing I can say about Grimm is that it’s very competently done and if you like procedurals this isn’t a bad one.

Which One Wins?

I knew watching these two shows that I really only have time in my life for one of them on an on-going basis, if that, and so part of the process was to decide which was better and which to commit to.

Well despite both being about as good in different ways, the answer is probably neither. I have enough anxiety about all the books, TV shows and movies I haven’t read or watched. I have bookshelves, kindles and hard disks full of the stuff, much of it destined to remain unseen by me. I’m not sure either of these passes the “I just gotta see it” test to make me want to make time for it.

Having said that I’m bailing on Grimm right away (good but too predictable) but I may watch another episode or two of Once to see if it picks up.

[1]I shall be referring to it as “Once” for brevity rather than OUAT which I have seen used elsewhere but is frankly ugly
[2]Yes really!
[3]David Greenwalt, one of the creators of Grimm, worked on both Buffy and Angel and it shows, albeit in a pale reflection kind of way.
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