Welcome to the new fall TV season, where new shows battle it out with returning shows for a warm little place in the hearts and minds of audiences. A pilot might not fully reflect what a whole series will be like, but it is what makes people latch on to a new show. Here are a few quick thoughts about the new shows fighting for our attention.
Once Upon a Time (ABC) and Grimm (NBC): Two different approaches to the same thing.
We all grew up with the wonderful tales of the Brothers Grimm. After all, most Disney animated films were based on these tales. Some of us also had accesses to the anime version of these stories and the books. Even if these tales were aimed at children, there was nothing childish or sweet about them in their original form, even if most had happy endings. They were scary. Disney did a good job at camouflaging the scary aspects of these stories with purposely cute elements and characters, colourful glossy ambiance, beautiful musical numbers, and omission of certain details. This season gives us two different shows that put a modern spin on Brothers Grimm tales.
On Once Upon a Time, the defeated Evil Queen makes an appearance at Snow White and Prince Charming’s wedding where she curses them and all other fairy tale creatures to a life without happy endings, cast out of the Enchanted Forest, sent to live in the most horrible place on earth, the small town of Storybrook, Maine, where time is frozen and everyone’s doomed to live without knowing who they really are; 28 years later, Emma Swan, a tough bail bondswoman, is visited by the son she gave up for adoption 10 years earlier and taken to Storybrook to fulfill her prophesised destiny as the saviour of fairy tale people.
Grimm tells the story of Nick Burckhardt, a detective with a good life and a loving girlfriend who begins to see strange thing. When he gets a visit from his dying aunt, he discovers that he is one of the last living descendants of the Grimms, a long line of creature hunters dating back to the Brothers Grimm who wrote the tales as a way of documenting what was really going on.
Both shows feature strong, independent leads with a troubled past. They are orphans with a special ability: Emma can tell when people lie, Nick can see the true nature of a person. As both shows begin, these two characters begin a journey of self discovery. And that’s as far as the similarities go.
Once Upon a Time is a fantasy drama that takes a more Disney approach to fairy tales. Life in Storybrook and the Enchanted Forest are independent realities. Colours schemes help differentiate both realities as well as the differences between fairy tale characters and their reality counterparts. Where the Enchanted Forest is filled with blue skies and saturated colours, Storybrook has a more desaturated look and somber feel to it. Snow White is strong and feisty, but her Storybrook persona, school teacher Mary Blanchard is calmer and passive. Prince Charming gives his life to save the life of his daughter, and doesn’t do quite well in their new reality either. We are presented with other fairy tale characters and their fates in their post curse world. The only characters aware of their true nature are the Evil Queen who is the mayor of Storybrook and the one who adopted Emma’s son; Rumpelstiltskin, the prisoner who prophesised the return of their saviour, is the devious Mr. Gold who seems very amused by Emma’s arrival; and Emma’s son, who’s somehow very aware of what’s going on in Storybrook and relentlessly tries to convince the incredulous and cynical Emma that fairy tales are real, thus providing the biggest bulk of exposition. Emma is played by House alumn Jennifer Morrison in her first foray as the lead in a television show. Only time will tell how effective she is as a lead. The brilliant Robert Carlyle plays Rumpelstiltskin /Mr. Gold, a character that was important on the pilot but didn’t get enough screen time. Lana Parilla was a bit over the top as the Evil Queen. Young Jarred Gilmore as Emma’s son was the highlight of the pilot. He had the hard task of delivering exposition and did it with charm, innocence and youthful idealism that never got annoying. His interactions with Emma were good but for the most part their dialogue was limited to him trying to get Emma to believe in fairy tales and Emma resisting.
Grimm is a drama/fantasy/horror/procedural that combines reality and fairy tales in a single timeline. When the pilot deals with the procedural aspects of the story, it is as standard as procedurals go. But when it ventures into fantasy/horror, the pilot is very fun. The show takes a darker approach to fairy tales that approximates to the original fairy tales a lot more. David Giuntoli, an actor whose work I’m not familiar with, is a charming lead and works very well with Russell Hornsby, who plays Hank, Nick’s partner. The two characters that connect and guide Nick through the world of evil creatures, reformed big bad wolf Eddie Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell) and aunt Marie (Kate Burton), are great assets to the show and to Nick’s journey. Aunt Marie gets to deliver exposition, making her dialogue a bit clichéd, but being a fragile looking woman with terminal cancer, it’s a welcome surprise when she engages in full-on hand to hand combat with tremendous agility. On the other hand, Eddie Monroe, who’s tamed his wicked ways through “a strict regimen of drugs, diet and Pilates,” adds levity to the somber mood of the show.
Once Upon a Time seems to be the show with greater mass appeal of the two, though the fairy tale world scenes are tonally not quite right. Grimm is the second new NBC show of the season that seems wrong for the network but it has great potential. If Grimm manages to shift focus from its procedural elements towards Nick’s transformation into the creature hunter he was born to be and the mythology behind his ancestry, or if it manages to find a better balance between all the genres it tries to tackle, this can become a very fun show.
Deciding which show is the better one will partially depend on your childhood preferences, combined with your current viewing preferences. My appreciation for the darker things in life makes me favour Grimm despite my general dislike of most procedural shows. As for Once Upon a Time, I wouldn’t rule it out after one episode, even if it takes the Disney approach to fairy tales and gets stuck on exposition. At the very least, both shows are interesting experiments.
Mini- review: Boss (Starz)
If you’re familiar with Gus Van Sant’s work, you’ll see his signature all over the pilot for Boss, the Kelsey Grammer led show about a mayor of Chicago dealing with a degenerative disease and his troublesome life at work and at home. The pilot is beautifully shot, sometimes even poetic. There’s not a single wasted moment, no diving into melodrama. Every scene reveals a new piece of information about a character without using exposition. I’ve never been a fan of Kelsey Grammer but his performance on this show is absolutely stellar. There’s also no shortage of interesting and very complicated characters that are not what they seem to be. However, the pace at times felt terribly slow.
I see this as a very polarizing show. People are going to love it or completely ignore it from the get-go. Whatever your opinion might be, there’s no denying that this pilot was exquisitely made.
The show lost its two showrunners right after the pilot aired, but since it was renewed for a second season, I doubt it’ll have any long term effect on its quality.
Next time on Pilot Watch: Jonah Hill gets animated and I catch up with Enlightened.