Remember the fairy tales your parents used to tell you before bedtime? Well, those weren't stories, they were warnings.
Note: This post was written after the mid-season, 2012 New Year's return of Grimm (after Of Mouse and Man). While I find I have a lot more I'd like to say in a completely different vein (and may add at a later date) these issues have been my primary concern since the pilot and remain so as of posting today.
While ABC’s Once Upon A Time and NBC’s Grimm have been compared like rival stepsisters from the start, the two shows are really very different. Grimm airs on Friday night (traditionally known as the "kill slot") and is actually doing well in comparative ratings. It also airs later than Once does, which it should as the content is definitely more graphic and adult than the family friendly Once. Grimm's procedural-grit-with-occasional-gore angle, combined with the pursuit of justice and truth is designed to be male friendly and shake hands with audiences of Supernatural. Once is a serial-soap, focused on finding happily-ever-after, complete with fairy tale fantasy brought to life that’s doing a great job of wooing the female demographic. Interestingly, Grimm’s creators seem to have a better handle on the origins and variations of the fairy tales they use than Once and being good with research, both in mythic and real world details, is one of the things that keeps me coming back. Once, however, is all about “what’s going to happen next?” in two very different ways: a) the drama – will they/won’t they? and b) the tales – what story/character are they going to use next and how? Two avenues of suspense, one show. That’s a wallop of a fan set-up. The Grimm writing team also appears to have the ability to look beyond simply retelling tales* by creating situations and guest characters with a lot of potential BUT (and it’s a capital letter B-U-T) there just hasn't been much development in the regular cast or in a strong storyline (apart from the last two episodes, Game Ogre and Of Mouse and Man) to get people’s gotta-watch factor ticking.
One of the reasons I haven’t written much about Grimm to date is that although it was supposed to be a MOtW (Monster of the Week) procedural, using fairy tales as a springboard, it really feels like it should be a lot more, especially by now. So I’ve been waiting… And from all I’ve read in forums and from critics, I’m not the only one grinding my teeth over this.
I'm a firm believer that a good storyteller can take any story, no matter how simple, lame or ridiculous the premise and turn it into gold for their readers or listeners (yes, even the ridiculous ones). The opposite is also true: no matter how good an idea is, if the storyteller isn't up to the task it will crash and burn. In Grimm we have an excellent, even mythic at times, premise told via multiple storytellers (writers, directors, actors etc). In looking at the show critically it's easy to pick things apart (eg. wooden acting, dubious CG effects etc) but I can also see a lot they're doing right. Unfortunately it's clear the storytellers aren't performing to par and I'm not sure why. By and large, the crew on Grimm all belong to impressive alumni (Buffy, Angel, CSI, Ghost Whisperer, X-Files, Wonder Years, Star Trek, Eureka among others) and you’d think they’d collectively aim higher.
Overall, I've been quite impressed with the approach to the fairy tale monsters used in Grimm. The writers delve into history and folklore and use subtle connections to flesh out their fantastic (ie. fantasy-based) cast. The one thing they're not doing well though is making all the difference between a guaranteed hit in today’s cultural climate and a show that's seems to be holding on by its fingernails. That one thing is a strong and unique identity.
It likely goes without saying that I will continue watching the show but other viewers, who don't have the interest I do in fairy tales (and don't mind procedures), may have trouble. To put it bluntly, Grimm really isn’t really stand out at all, at least, not in the way that it counts. Characters? Largely forgettable. Monsters? A weekly hit or miss curiosity. Tales? Miss a week no problem. These sound like huge issues but it’s not a scrap-it situation. In Grimm’s case it’s very fixable, especially since there really is so much else being done right but only if they get their booties into gear immediately and start doing the following, like, now:
Add conflict (please!)
If you're a writer you will have heard this nugget more than once: "Story is conflict!" and conflict is something Grimm needs more of - a LOT more of – and I don’t mean ogres making a mess of the décor.
First up, Nick needs a good dose of angst. How can a guy - a cop who's job it is to set things right way up, no less - have his world turned upside down and be so ok with it all? Answer: he couldn’t. Especially considering he can't/won't tell a) his girlfriend he wants to marry and b) his partner whom he has to trust his very life with. A straight-up, honest guy keeping secrets, telling half-truths and outright lying? That’s so going to wear on your soul! Meanwhile his only confidante, Munroe (the reformed Blutbad aka werewolf), is from the dark side that Nick is supposed to be getting all Terminator on... so, yeah I'd say that would make for a little angst. Unfortunately Grimm's Nick is way too well adjusted, equal opportunity-pro and willing to take advice or help, which honestly, just pegs him as a little short in the smarts department. Not only that, he's, well, kinda perfect, which is a big problem. In stories perfect = yawn-worthy. Nick should be doubting himself and everyone else. He certainly needs to be (dragged down to the level of) "human" and make some mistakes, both at home and in his job. His relationship should be under great strain with the giant secrets he's keeping and Juliette, who obviously has both common sense and brains, should be feeling it all big time. (And she's a veterinarian! How can you not have scenes of both comic disaster and heart breaking tragedy tugging at your sleeve with that combo?) Nick shouldn't be able to escape all that in his work either. Having Grimm abilities would make it naturally tempting to cut corners on the job, especially in shoot-em-up situations, and the repercussions of doing just that should really hit the fan (in the best-worst possible, gotta-tune-in-next-week way). Admit it. Just talking about all the things that could and should go wrong has you more interested in Grimm than ever, right?
Follow Through - Show The Consequences
You know the formula: "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction". The same should be true in story. Everything that happens should have a price (preferably heavy on the taxes!) otherwise there are no stakes in a conflict. Unless you rewind time each week like a Brady Bunch sitcom, Portland and everyone in Grimm should be a little changed as a result of whatever happened the week before, especially since it’s literally life and death stuff we’re tuning into. Unless tragedy is possible there is no real risk (and no real reason to watch). Nick's actions in particular must reap consequences (sometimes literally, with those scythe-wielding visitors) and nothing, and no one, should be the same after coming into contact with his Grimm-ness.
Create A Solid Vernacular For the Show
What’s vernacular in TV terms? It’s when you hear someone say: “That’s such a Rachel thing to say!” (Or Mulder/Trekkie/insert-popular-character-or-show-title-here/etc) Apart from Munroe and his wry comebacks, this show is crying out for some witty repartee, snappy (quotable even!) dialogue and a use of language that’s particular, peculiar even, to Grimm. Good dialogue is really all about character. Snappy dialogue is all about smart characters under pressure, which is something every single person in this show should be. With the outlandish and fantastic aspects of this show, a scene or situation can go from hokey to brilliant, simply by clever use of language that catches the ear of the audience. On paper, the writing isn't bad. There aren't huge clunker-lines for the most part (what the actors do or don't do with them is another issue) and the mythology is sound and original enough to be different. The weekly stories and fairy tale references are generally cohesive and there's a sense of humor that runs throughout. Unfortunately it often feels self-conscious or uncomfortable in the Grimm skin it's in. That's no good for character development or for giving a show a recognizable stamp. I say grab that branding iron in your hot little hand and use it with ferocity that makes people notice. It’s rarely love or hate that kills a relationship (or viewership). It’s the middle-of-the-road, not-too-any-one-thing-in-particular that does it. Proper use of branding irons should remove any possibility of apathy! This show not only rides the wave of current fairy tale popularity but also the still-booming trend of urban fantasy - a genre that uses wry and smart, sassy humor to deal with the weird, to cope with tragedy and things out of the ordinary. The writers and creators of Grimm cut their teeth on this brand of clever so we know they have the skills. While I'm not asking for a repeat of “Buffyisms”, as fantastic as they were, I do wish Grimm would stop dipping its big toe and instead boldly cannonball in to create its own vernacular and brand of story telling.
At the moment, Nick is a little like The Boy Who Set Out To Learn Fear, someone who is barely bothered by anything that crosses his path, but my fear is that he won't discover it (and take real risks) until the viewers have gotten tired of his banal reactions (or poor underutilized Juliette meets a grisly end as people originally predicted). We need to see Nick second-guessing everything, including what the heck a "Grimm" is anyway. He needs to get into trouble, be backed into impossible corners and even more impossible dead-end alleys while figuring his own way out in the nick (heh) of time even as he compromises who he thinks he is. Doing all this against the larger backdrop of dark fairy tales and formidable fairy tale creatures is mythic in the making, if the blend is right. The guy that survives all that amid monsters (human and non) and keeps trying is someone to root for and ultimately someone you want to have your back - especially when you visit Portland...
There's no doubt fairy tales are more than just stories and any book or series that tackles that has a lot it can do. What it comes down to is this: people really want to see the potential in every man, especially the hero, to be a monster and his struggle to rise above it. After all, that's what fairy tales - and being human - are really about.
It can also great for ratings.
* I don’t mean to imply that retelling a fairy tale is simple. To keep a tale fresh, relevant and surprising while being a retelling is difficult. As I’ve said before, my hat is off to Donna Jo Napoli who retells tales in the most incredible way I’ve ever seen. Kudos also to Cameron Dokey whose retellings in the Simon Pulse “Once Upon A Time” series are fresh and lovely.