Two of the new TV series we have sampled over the last couple of weekends have some things in common. Both are hour-long scripted dramas which layer fantasy and supernatural elements onto the everyday, modern world. Both also link back to the realm of classic fairy tales.
So far, ABC’s Once Upon a Time (Sunday nights at 8/7 Central, full episodes of the TV show are also online) seems the more ambitious of the two. It features a sizable cast of characters in two interwoven settings — both the enchanted past of the show’s title, and the present day town of Storybrooke, Maine. This means, for example, that Ginnifer Goodwin appears not only as Snow White, but also as Storybrooke schoolteacher Mary Margaret Blanchard (Get it? Blanchard?) and her nemesis the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) is also Storybrooke Mayor Regina Mills (Get it? Regina?).
It is the Evil Queen who has cursed the legendary characters to spend eternity in this humdrum town where the clock tower’s hands never move. Their only hope resides in the return of a savior — Snow White’s daughter, safely ejected at birth from the old world to the modern one in a wardrobe built from the wood of an enchanted tree. She is now 28-year-old Emma Swan (Chicago actress Jennifer Morrison), a Boston bail bondsperson and bounty hunter. Coaxing her back to the people she never knew is a 10-year-old boy named Henry — the son she gave up for adoption, who has been raised by Mayor Regina Mills.
The most engaging aspect of Once Upon a Time is its mythological potential — the Joseph Campbell-style metaphor beneath it all illustrating how ordinary citizens and their mundane neighbors are secretly heroes and villains capable of extraordinary good or evil.
Less imaginative is the way most of the characters just happen to be Disney properties — a grab bag collection from Snow White and Pinnochio, with Robert Carlyle tossed in as Rumpelstiltskin (a.k.a. Mr. Gold). There are also alleged allusions to another ABC show, Lost, which employed the same writers, and a kitschy fantasy atmosphere similar to Desperate Housewives.
The other new series is NBC’s Grimm (Friday nights at 9/8 Central, complete episodes also online), which just premiered three nights ago. It’s a darker cop drama with a supernatural twist on the usual good guys and bad guys. Here, it’s “Grimms” vs. “Blutbaden.”
A Blutbad is a werewolf type of creature, more commonly known as a “Big Bad Wolf.” They attack, kill, and eat people — or hold them captive to fatten for a later meal. The color red in particular arouses their violence, especially when worn as a red hoodie by a young girl.
The Grimms, on the other hand, are an ancestral line of criminal profilers. Gifted with special sight which reveals these beasts, Grimms are dedicated to documenting them in books and protecting humanity from them.
David Giuntoli stars as Nick Burkhardt, a young Portland, Oregon homicide detective whose Grimm heritage is passed on to him by his dying Aunt Marie (Kate Burton). She carts a whole trailer full of Blutbad books and gear to Nick’s house and outlines the legacy to him even as he is investigating his first Blutbaden attacks.
The Grimm pilot episode didn’t really perk up until the introduction of Eddie Monroe. A recovering Blutbad played by Silas Weir Mitchell, Monroe says he has been able to stop killing “through a strict regimen of diet, drugs, and Pilates.”
Mitchell’s quirky fun is the best thing about the show so far, but it does also have a menacing edge and short busts of violence which push beyond the storybook evil of Once Upon a Time. Where that show comes across as something the whole family could watch, Grimm is too dark for younger kids and geared more toward young teens and up — making it a good fit for its Friday night slot.
What both of these series have in common is actual writing, acting, sets, effects, music, production, and a dose of imagination. They are not reality shows or news magazines. That alone makes them a refreshing change from much of the modern TV menu.