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.
Christine Neulieb is a former Commonweal editorial assistant.