Monday, January 30, 2012

Thoughts On NBC's Grimm – A Mid 1st Season Review

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.


  1. I have to add: Please give us a female lead who isn't a giant wet blanket like Juliette! Someone who can stir things up a little. Some of the guest star chicks have been fabulous, but we need someone on a regular basis so the show isn't so completely without estrogen. Of course if this show is supposedly for men then maybe they like their women weak and whiny.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. It's not that I want an ongoing conspiracy or anything--I'm fine with contained episodes overall, but give me character development, please! These characters, excepting Monroe, are flat.

    And, yes, on the need for estrogen. I don't need a Will They/Won't They plot either, but I would like some women who do something besides hover on the victim side of the scale. OUAT has more characters, more storylines and yet I feel like I know those characters better despite their short screen time so far.

    I keep watching for the fairy tale interpretations which keep me paying me attention, but otherwise I would be out, too. And I think the myth/folklore research is some of the stongest I've seen in tv/movies in a long while. So again, I keep watching but I couldn't care less if all of the regular characters were killed in the next episode excepting Monroe. I say bring in a female Grimm or something, anything. Please. I am REALLY most sad that they killed off his aunt because she had potential as a mentor, teacher, and of being well, interesting. It is rather shocking that this gaggle of writers aren't doing that with their track records of shows that have engaged me on more than one level.

  3. I agree with Heidi, it probably wasn't the best idea to kill off aunt Marie. She exactly was the strong female character we might be in need of here, but without the (rather boring) possibility of will they/won't they. Juliette never appears on the screen without me thinking she might be an evil witch after all... but I guess that's just me.
    The one thing that actually bugs me most about the show is how they spend impressing amounts of money on animations and action scenes but were not able to find a German native speaker to read over their explanatory texts in the Grimm guides again. If they want to use another language than English (yes, yes, I know, German is complicated), they should at least do it right. Being German (and a former student of linguistics), I thought it might be some older version of syntax at the first glimpse, but after I rewatched and looked a bit closer, I found it was complete nonsense, about as bad as Google translate, maybe even worse.
    Maybe that's just nitpicking, but after the uproar about the wrong name for an apple in OUAT it might be not so unjustified after all...

  4. @pambelina & @Heidi Anne Heiner I debated how much to write about Juliette and maybe I should have kept more of my original post discussing just that. When I weighed it all up it still didn't seem as big an issues as the other points I ended up focusing on since, unless they're fixed, it doesn't matter much what they do with Juliette. But since we're on the topic... ;) I think she's shown hints of being a potentially strong character almost all the way along BUT the moment Nick leaves the scene the camera seems to completely forget about her (whaa...???) - which is just odd and leave the show feeling unbalanced, especially since she's one of the characters you can actually see thinking in most of her scenes. I think showing the consequences for all main characters through the show would go a long way to fixing this, rather than being so NIck-focused all of the time but it certainly doesn't address it all. The last couple of episodes have shown Juliette do some gutsy things (come back around to confront the Ogre in her house when Nick is down, go back into her violated house alone that night - yes, back-up was outside but how many of us would still feel vulnerable with the cops sitting in cars across the road, rather than right there? - follow up on the people who were watching the house on her own against Nick's express "professional" orders, etc) and for the first time we're seeing a little of what she could do/trouble she could cause. But, yes, it's still not enough and there's still this feeling of her being apart from it all, not truly effective and not considered to be more than a prop for Nick's personal side (insert frustrated arghh!! here). I'm hoping that changes big time in the next few episodes...

    @Hedgefairy Ah the German language kafuffle! (Now you see why I don't write reviews very often - I always find I miss something important!) Yes - I completely forgot to comment on this, which I shouldn't have, since I've noticed in many places around the web that people are definitely having issues with the bad use of German in Grimm! Not only is this aspect not well done at all, it also feels really awkward. This is also the exact starting point I would suggest the writers and creators consider focusing on to rework/create a vernacular and get a distinct dialogue happening. Buffy is a good example: though she had a librarian Watcher who had all the old names and texts, Buffy knew it wasn't in her to get it all correct but instead created her own shorthand for all the oogies and boogies, which was the language focus when discussing it all - not tripping over Latin syllables (or whatever archaic language was used in the text). While Nick isn't a teen to come up with Buffyisms, he could certainly use his own shorthand, which you know Munroe would be tickled by (and Juliette is bound to hear snatches of, raising yet more flags). Most professionals have their own shorthand/vernacular for their various fields to start with so it wouldn't be out of character for Nick to do the same. But yes, they should either get a better grip on their German or change that tack completely. I almost wonder if it wouldn't have been smarter to have the Grimm book written in some secret, unknowable/unreadable code so that Nick can only look at the drawings, extrapolate what they mean and make up his own translations and explanations for repeated symbols. That would have made for some possibly near-fatal misunderstandings, some hilarity from Munroe when he hears Nick's ideas and a whole lot more mystery and unknown possibilities. Plus it would be a whole lot of fun to write!

  5. I think it's a nice idea that (at least some of) the Grimm books are written in German - well, the Brothers Grimm were Germans (and studied in the town I live in, btw. ^^) after all -, but apparently there have been several generations of anglophone Grimms before Nick, wich could have made notes, too (he seems to have known German before the whole Grimm "problems", though, as he was asked by Hank if he was able to translate the inscription on the first scythe).
    I also wonder why the "monsters" kept their German names for hundreds of years outside Germany - why wouldn't they change them, tradition (which also changes sometimes, see "refomed Blutbaden") aside? Things like these happen (e.g. the difference between British and American English, or Pennsylvania Dutch and recent German), and I think it would have been nice. Or maybe that's why the names are so weird for German ears to hear, but then it wouldn't make any sense that the names are the same in the book.
    I hope at least if they ever make a Grimm Guide as a merchandise piece they'll check it again or leave the "original" German files out of it (presumably the latter).

    And by the way: Thank you for your awesome blog! :)

  6. Grimm started out pretty good, but they lost me after a few episodes. I think the biggest thing it lacks is commitment to it's own realty. I want to feel like I'm peeking into another world, instead I was very much aware that they were actors (and not very good ones at that).