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Halloween Candy

First, fair warning: this is a frivolous post, a tale of pop culture, written to accompany the eating of leftover Halloween candy.The week leading up to Halloween brought television two new fairy-tale inspired dramas, NBC's Grimm and ABC's Once Upon a Time. Grimm is a police procedural with a supernatural twist (one of the cops is a descendant of the Brothers Grimm and has inherited a vocation for hunting monsters). Once Upon a Time supposes that an evil curse has trapped fairy tale characters in the modern town of Storybrooke, Maine, unable to remember where they came from, but with a prophecy about a lost daughter returning to break the curse. The monsters in Grimm are derived from the original, gory tales of the Brothers Grimm; the characters in Once Upon a Time are drawn from the sanitized Disney tales.Of course I was much more optimistic about Grimm. I can't stand sanitized fairy tales with simpering princesses and sugar-coated endings. So I watched Grimm first and was sorely disappointed. The show feels like a third-rate imitation of a Joss Whedon series. The production and writing are sloppy; the plot twists are predictable; nothing about it feels original.Once Upon a Time, on the other hand, which I expected to hate, left me impressed. The characters have complex and plausible human interactions, in the fairy-tale scenes as much as in the real-world ones. Prince Charming tells Snow White that surely the Evil Queen can't hurt her; Snow White shoots back in a tone dripping with sarcasm: Really? She poisoned an apple because she thought I was prettier than her. Costume and set design are richly imagined and have a distinct realism about them the princesses wear gowns that suggest Alexander McQueen more than classic Disney animation. Rumpelstiltskin is not just mischievous, he's unhinged and possibly malevolent. The casting is brilliant. The story is not predictable, and the writing is tight all the guns on the wall in scene one are fired by the end of the episode.Once, in other words, attempts to present the Disney tales come of age, imbued with real human drama and stripped of their saccharine trappings. It's a tall order. The promises of the pilot episode are going to be hard to follow through on. One slip in tone and the story could veer into the saccharine or even ridiculous. Pacing is also going to be a challenge: the initial setup suggests the beginning of a feature film more than a multi-season television drama, and it's hard to imagine the premise holding for more than one season. Still, the pilot was good enough that I'll stick around for a few more episodes and see what these writers can come up with they might just be able to work a bit of magic. If you're in the mood for some lighter viewing, this series is worth checking out.My one criticism, at this point, is that its feminism might be overdone. Like the literary fairy tales of Angela Carter, Once introduces strong female characters three of them, on whom the story centers. The men don't have a whole lot to do; so far they seem to exist mostly as pretty faces or else pawns in a dangerous, female-dominated game. (The one exception, the male creature with designs of his own, is Rumpelstiltskin; but he is monstrous.) This arrangement felt skewed to me, a sort of reverse sexism, and brought to mind all the recent journalistic buzz about "the end of men." Its not that I think the princesses should go back to behaving like wilted lettuce and let the men rescue them, it's just that having at least one fully developed male character in the ensemble (and/or a weak female character to contrast with all the strong ones) would make the story more believable. The objectification of one sex is never a good idea. Ethically, it's unfair; artistically, it drains half the human race of its agency and therefore weakens a story, no matter which half the artist decides to favor.We now return you to your regularly scheduled high culture.

About the Author

Christine Neulieb is a former Commonweal editorial assistant.



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High culture doesn't seem to have got many takers here, sadly. There's much more interest evident in the political fights in the other wing.I almost never watch television, but every now and then something beckons and I have a look. Interest always wanes after a few episodes. The novelty is fun for a while, the cinematography beautiful, the writing not bad, and then, suddenly, it's all extremely boring.

Thanks, Christine. Frivolity is good, and Once Upon a Time may lure me from PBS. We watch very little television but some if it is really worthwhile. I scoffed at Doc Martin after a few minutes, but thankfully a wiser friend got me to watch it again and now I am a fan. I look forward to Once. (Sadly, all the Milky Ways are gone.)

Which night and at what time is Once on? Since it's ABC it should be easy to find. Sounds worth a look :-)

It's on Sundays, 8 (7c), and the pilot is online at or hulu. Again, it's a guilty pleasure, a bit of mental bubble gum -- but enjoyable mental bubble gum, at least so far!

Thanks, Christine. Will look.I watch TV without a qualm. And speaking of Halloween candy, CNN's Anderson Cooper) just ended his program with some clips of some very little children being told by their parents, "We ate all of your Halloween candy last night after you went to bed". This seems a bit unfeeling, but the kids' reactions are hilarious. Catch them this evening when Cooper's program is repeated :-)

I'm not a high culture vulture (I visit Tim Horton's and watch "Dancing with the Stars" with Raber, and someone gave me a copy of George Hamilton's autobiography!), so "Once" ought to be right up my alley. But I couldn't get through it. It revolves around a clever premise, but it doesn't really seem to be about anything. What does it mean? Fairy tales are parables, the transmission of an culture's virtues and values (and vengeance is swift and bloody). What is "Once" about? Even "Seinfeld," a show I utterly loathed, was about the utter triviiality and shallowness some people make of life, even thought it purported to be be a "show about nothing."Maybe I should give it another chance.I haven't seen "Grimm," though. But I'm not a fan of cop shows. I can't even watch "Castle" with that dishy Nathan Fillion. I wish they'd bring back "Firefly." Sigh.

"...but it doesn't really seem to be about anything. What does it mean?"I don't think most traditional fairy tales can be reduced to simple parables, though there are some that function as cautionary tales. The original stories collected by the Grimms are often frightening and disturbing; they have a lot of sex and violence in them; I'd be hard-pressed to say what most of them are "about." While sometimes bad things happen to bad people as punishment, it's just as often the case that scary or tragic things happen to good people for no apparent reason. Actions have consequences in these fairy tales, but sometimes the negative consequences are out of all proportion to an innocent mistake. I think that's because fairy tales can be an important way for a community to grapple with the baffling complexities of life, not just to pass on instructions to their children about a world whose rules they've figured out. Fairy tales are "about" dealing with a scary, confusing, dangerous world where people don't always seem to get what they deserve.As for Once, I think one of the most important things it's about is the importance of restoring the original moral complexity of fairy tales. The classic Disney retellings of Grimm stories stripped them of everything that made the original stories valuable -- nothing ever truly costs anything in the Disney versions, not really; no one we care about ever loses anything of value; the evil of the villains is cartoonish and inexplicable, motiveless. Once presents more realistic heroes and villains (Snow White, living in Storybrooke, has not entirely attractive school-marmish habits and has trouble getting a date; the Evil Queen, living in the Enchanted Forest, loves her father, and that's what makes us really feel the awful force of her choosing to curse Snow White. The scene in episode two where she calls her father "Daddy" several times, channeling Amy Winehouse -- it's fantastic. It humanizes her.)All that is probably, I'll admit, just about all the analysis this show deserves. It's not terribly deep in its themes, but at least it has themes. It's also truly outstanding in production design and costuming, and I can enjoy a show for the visual aspects alone, if they're good enough.I agree about both Castle and Firefly. :)

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