Monday, October 15, 2012

Fairy Tales and Haunted Houses

With the CW network adding an Alice in Wonderland reboot to its schedule, the fairy tale trend in entertainment is not going away. Even though films like “Red Riding Hood” and “Mirror, Mirror” didn’t do as well as hoped for at the box office, TV seems to be a different story. ABC’s Sunday night offering, “Once Upon a Time,” is an audience favorite, with strong buzz and good ratings. I also watch NBC’s Grimm and ABC’s 666 Park Avenue. Although the latter isn’t based on the fairy tale world, it’s a world ruled by magic, and a lead character whose type often appears in supernatural fiction. Of the three, the new 666 Park Avenue is my favorite. Sadly, it hasn’t found an audience, and I’m afraid it might be canceled soon. If you have a Nielsen box in your house, I urge you to watch this show!

I find myself starting to lose patience with “Once Upon a Time,” and the ratings, while still strong, are softening. I wonder if other fans are frustrated with the same things that I find annoying. This show debuted last year with a strong premise – that residents of Storybrooke, Maine, were in fact fairy tale characters who were cursed to live out ordinary lives and not remember who they were. This is the type of premise that gets people in two ways – one, since fairy tales are a part of everyone’s childhood, the audience was instantly familiar with the characters – and two, the parallel lives concept is a popular one, and seeing both the fairy tale and the ordinary lives in the same episode is entertaining.

The first season centered around young Henry, the adopted son of Storybrooke’s mayor Regina. Due to a book of fairy tales he’s been given, Henry is the only one who realizes that the town is populated by magical characters – and his own adoptive mother is the evil Queen who tried to kill Snow White. When Emma Stone, Henry’s birth mother, comes to town, Henry informs her of her true identity, and that she is actually the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. As the season progressed, we met other fairy tale characters and learned their fairy tale back stories (Red Riding Hood’s is particularly different than the more familiar tale). Eventually, Emma and the other characters began to believe Henry, and the season ended with the curse being lifted and the populace of Storybrooke remembering who they really are – only to be felled by another curse.

It’s a compelling premise, but many of the episodes are starting to feel gimmicky to me. I have no trouble believing that Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty were all princesses in the same magical kingdom that also housed Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Rumplestiltskin, and Red Riding Hood. But the show seems to add a new magical character every week, and then try to shoe-horn him or her into the plot. Captain Hook is slated to show up next week. To me, he doesn’t belong in this universe. Neither does Lancelot, Mulan or Pinocchio. The original fairy tale characters were all collected by the Brothers Grimm, and their stories were edited down to be appropriate for children. They share the same antecedents, and their familiar origins make them seem like family to each other. The newer characters just don’t fit in the same way, even if Disney does own the rights to all of them now. I shudder to think that Winnie the Pooh might be making an appearance.

Conversely, characters who don’t play a role in the real fairy tale universe have important roles in the show. Snow White and Prince Charming never had a daughter, and she certainly didn’t grow up to give up a child in adoption. Snow White’s evil stepmother didn’t have her own evil mother. I’ve heard rumors that Henry’s father will turn out to be important, but who could he possibly be? Aren’t all the other important characters taken?

It’s obvious why the evil queen Regina had to be given her own evil mother – it allows the writers to soften her character. Similarly, Rumplestiltskin, is in love with Belle from Beauty and the Beast and sometimes teams up with Emma. I assume he’ll be clashing with an even bigger bad as the writers seem to root for his character. In fairy tales, the good learn lessons and the bad are vanquished. There is no character growth. Snow White’s stepmother ordered the huntsman to cut out her heart. The actress who plays Regina may be pretty and her lips tremble on cue, but that’s no reason to mess with the foundations of story.

The show uses flashbacks to the fairy tale world to spell out questions such as why does Snow White’s stepmother hate her so much – questions that don’t necessarily need to be answered, as we are all familiar with the woman’s vanity and her magic talking mirror. In the beginning, these flashbacks were illuminating, but now I find them annoying. Why? They aren’t in order. We already know how these stories end – Regina curses the kingdom; Snow and Charming send their baby in a portal to another world. All these flashbacks to what happened before merely illustrate what we already know, and as George Lucas found out the hard way, sometimes it’s better to let viewers imagine the back story themselves than to disappoint them by spelling out a past that isn’t as good as they imagined it. While I don’t think I’d have this issue if the flashbacks were chronologically consistent, that’s a moot point. No one is going to worry about how Snow is going to overcome the curse that she can’t have children when we already know she had Emma. Filling in the details is a waste of time.

The trajectory of this show reminds me of “Lost,” another show that relied on mythology and flashbacks (although those flashbacks were in chronological order… for the most part.) “Lost” lost its footing somewhere around the 3rd season, but found it when the producers told ABC that they would only be producing a few more years left of shows. This schedule allowed them to plan out the rest of the series and come up with an ending. By giving themselves a deadline, the producers gave a focus and an energy to the rest of the series. Unfortunately, it ended with a whimper rather than the bang that fans were expecting. I do think the producers of “Once Upon a Time” could learn from this lesson. Tell ABC you’ll give them the five more years and then you’ll be wrapping things up. Give the viewers a happily ever after, and make sure it’s a journey they’ll enjoy.

NBC’s “Grimm” seems to play in a similar playground as “Once Upon a Time.” The premise is that police detective Nick is actually a Grimm, a man who can see beyond the human facades of the “big bad wolf” creatures that live among us and like to commit horrible crimes. Each episode starts with a quote that sounds like it could come from a fairy tale. Then there’s a murder; Nick goes to investigate, finds out it’s a supernatural bad guy, and eventually solves the case. In the first season, “Grimm” borrowed from a few fairy tale standards – Rapunzel, Goldilocks and the Three Bears – but most of the “Grimm” creatures seem to spring fully formed from the minds of the series writers. Nick has a serious girlfriend who was cursed into not remembering him, a partner who’s recently been enlightened about the whole deal, a “big bad wolf” good guy helper who explains all the various types of bad guys out there, and a boss who, unbeknownst to him, is actually such a big bad guy that even Nick can’t see him for what he truly is.

Even though “Grimm” is supposed to be another look at fairy tale characters in real life, it does not resemble “Once Upon a Time” as much as it resembles “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Like Buffy, Nick is a “chosen one,” chosen to fight magical creatures but without any magic of his own. There are legends, a book to look up the bad guys in, and even a magic shop. But while Buffy effortlessly wove in messages about identity, responsibility and desire so well that it seemed to be two shows at once, “Grimm” is only surface deep. Perhaps the writers have handicapped the storytelling by giving Nick a serious girlfriend and making his best friend the big bad wolf. Of Buffy’s three loves on the show, two of them were vampires. There would be a lot more storytelling juice if Nick’s girlfriend were secretly a witch. Who knows, maybe the writers will go there eventually. Right now, all the payoff seems to be in Nick finding out his boss is evil… and I’m not sure that’s a payoff that really gives viewers a reason to stick around.

“666 Park Avenue” is giving its viewers a reason to stick around, but unfortunately, they are not. The series is a combination of a less gory “American Horror Story” and a darker “Fantasy Island.” Jane and Henry (who are not married… yet) have become co-managers of an imposing pre-war building off of Central Park. Scary things happen – bleeding walls, dying lights, creepy children who are probably dead – and Jane, like many horror movie heroines before her, likes to investigate these things in her underwear. The building’s owners are Gavin and Olivia, who seem a lot more interested in Henry and Jane than owners probably should be. The series is three episodes old, and in them we have seen Gavin smoothly manipulate residents by giving them what they wish for and then having these wishes explode in their faces. He’s a living, breathing, bald Monkey’s Paw. (As the series progresses, we may find out that he’s neither living nor breathing, but he is most definitely bald.) By the end of season one, I just know that we’re going to be screaming at Henry and Jane not to open that door!

And this is why I think “666 Park Avenue” deserves a full run. This is a show with a strong throughline and an obvious direction. The horrors in the building are on a collision course with Gavin’s devil-making deals, and Jane and Henry are caught in the middle. It promises to be a fun ride, and I want the full roller coaster.

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