What’s in a Fairytale: An Introduction to TV’s Grimm and Once Upon A Time

In the spate of new shows that began this fall, two in particular caught my eye, simply because they both seemed to revolve around the world of fairytales.  Having just written my very first of the genre, I was mildly interested to see what sort of new things would be brought to the old standbys on the television screen.  I went into each knowing very little about either of them, but I’d already decided that one would pique my interest more than the other, and the general concensus was that both would not survive the season, so I hoped my attention would be captured by the eventual primetime victor – if any.

Turns out I had no idea what I would be getting myself into in either case, nor how much I would end up enjoying BOTH shows.  And from the looks of things, there are enough fans of both to keep all of the fairytale takes going for awhile.  Here are some of my thoughts on this season’s Grimm and Once Upon A Time.

First off, we have Grimm, the darker take on fairytales that I felt more drawn to in the beginning, but largely because I dig dark, and because the lead actor kind of reminds me of Superman.  🙂

Grimm follows the adventures of Portland, Oregon homicide detective, Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli).  Nick finds out one day that he is what’s known as a Grimm, which means that he’s inherited the ability to see supernatural creatures in their true forms.  To everyone else, they look like normal people living normal lives.  But Nick’s ability let’s him see flashes of what they actually look like, and what that reveals about their inner nature.  He enlists the help of a “reformed” wolf – a Blutbad known as Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell).  Monroe is the only ally Nick has who knows who and what he really is as, naturally, he chooses to hide his new identity from both his partner, Hank (Russell Hornsby) and his girlfriend, Juliette (Bitsie Tulloch).

Grimm follows a darker subject matter, in general – it’s a crime show colliding with a darker and more sinister supernatural underworld.  Nick has to figure out how to stay alive and keep those he cares about safe, research fairytales and the creatures with whom he is suddenly coming into contact with increasing regularity.  He also has new powers to learn about and a supernatural world to keep hidden – all while still catching the bad guys at the end of the day.

The show brings just the right amount of comic relief to ease its more serious subject matter (usually in the form of the sarcastic and put-upon Monroe), and it does not rely on flashy special effects to carry the viewer into its hidden underworld.  Nick gets glimpses of what the creatures look like underneath, but for the most part, everyone looks human and unremarkable.  They also have their own feuds and politics that Nick knows nothing about (such as the recent wolf versus pig episode), and as a Grimm, he has a history with these creatures of which he knows even less, thus requiring him to turn up on Monroe’s doorstep far more often than either of them would like.

Nick has enormous shoes to fill – the supernatural creatures he encounters are simultaneously in awe of him, terrified by him, and most would not pass up the opportunity to kill him.  But being new to the whole thing, Nick is both vulnerable and a kind of blank slate.  He has a legacy to live up to, and yet is able to carve his own place in that world.  He is a cop first (with a capable and heroic partner) and a Grimm second – while in the meantime, there is a fridge breaking down at home, and an incredibly hot girlfriend – who has a warm and intelligent presence of her own, by the way – waiting for him to return at the end of each shift.  His life has become a juggling act – while walking a tightrope between worlds – and I, for one, am happy to tune in each week and follow Nick into the darker recesses of the supernatural world’s seedy underbelly.

In contrast, there is the much brighter and somehow more magical Once Upon A Time.  I wasn’t as excited about this one, but wanted to make sure I gave it a chance, because I am a huge fan of Jennifer Morrison (House) and series creators, Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz (Lost and Tron: Legacy).  Not to mention the lovely and talented Jane Espenson (pretty much every other show I love).  And I am very glad I did!  It took less than an episode for me to be charmed by this quizzical little tale, and by the end of episode two, I’d fallen completely in love with it.

Once Upon A Time follows bailbondsperson, Emma Swan (Morrison), a young woman who has been on her own since being abandoned as a baby, and when the son she gave up 10 years ago shows up suddenly at her door one day begging for her help, her whole world (and ours) gets turns on its head.

The boy, Henry (played by cutie Jared Gilmore), believes that everyone in his hometown of Storybrooke, Maine is a character in a fairytale book, and that they are all trapped under a curse cast by an Evil Queen, which froze them all in the modern world, and left them with no memory of their former lives.  What’s more, Henry believes that his birth mother, Emma, is the long lost daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming (Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas), and that only she can break the spell and bring back happy endings to one and all.

Emma heads to Storybrooke with Henry, intending to hand him back over to his adoptive mother and town Mayor, Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla), whom Henry believes is the Evil Queen herself, but even the most skeptical side of her has to admit that not all is what it seems in the sleepy New England town.  She doesn’t believe Henry (even though the kid seems openly sincere and wise beyond his years), but she feels that something is going on, and decides to stay awhile – for the good of the child, of course.  The fact that she gets along surprisingly well with Henry’s teacher, Mary Margaret Blanchard (the adorable pixie-cut-sporting Goodwin), and that they do look eerily alike, is another matter entirely.

To help us better understand the people we meet in Storybrooke, each episode provides us with pertinent flashbacks to the fairytale land – a glimpse into the past lives each of them have forgotten.  These glimpses answer several questions, and raise several more all at once.  And none of the fairytale characters that we read about as children turn out to be quite how we imagined – each one has a fully realized backstory that was never revealed in any of our books.

It could be hard to follow, or possibly even unimportant to the viewer, if the show were in less-inspired hands.  But brilliant performances from the cast weave us through the story’s twists and turns, while the incredible writing makes it all believeable, and very very real.  Everyone involved with Once Upon A Time has come together and found a way to show us how to dream.  They make the familiar seem new again.  The sudden death of a fan favourite character proves that the stakes are high, and even the notion of evil is no longer black and white.  An incredibly nuanced performance from Parrilla will leave you wondering how much she knows, what she remembers, and above all – is she really evil?  Or is she a hurt and angry woman, who’s maybe just trying to find a genuine connection with another human being?  That’s something I can relate to, really, so I find myself feeling a sort of kinship with the show’s Big Bad, while at the same time begging her to … stop being so mean.  haha


Happy endings are gone from Storybrooke, and yet, somehow, hope itself remains alive.  It remains in young Henry who, despite all evidence to the contrary, stays steadfast in his beliefs, and holds his course.  It remains in Emma, who inadvertently restarts the clock and sets other changes in motion, despite her innate skepticism.  And it remains in the characters of Storybrooke who, even though they’ve lost their memories of a happier time, still can’t help but seek their fated path, frightening and dangerous as it may be.  Like you – like me – everyone just wants to live their own happily ever after.

I believe, with Once Upon A Time, they may be able to do just that.

Grimm airs Fridays at 9pm on NBC and CTV.

Once Upon A Time airs Sundays at 8pm on ABC and CTV.

One Comment Add yours

  1. I like Once Upon A Time so far and I’m DVRing Grimm, urban fantasy in literature as long been a favorite of mine especially when done well. Like Charles de Lint, and Tanya Huff. Nice to see Tv embracing it as well. Sure to set the fashion and theme the Renaissance Faires next year!

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