Urban Fantasy TV

November 8, 2011

I’ve now seen the first two episodes of both Once Upon a Time and Grimm.  What struck me most about both of them is how solidly within the current mode of written urban fantasy they are.  The protagonist of Once is a bounty hunter (and we meet her during a very satisfying takedown of an embezzler), the protag of Grimm is a homicide detective.  Both of them are introduced to the supernatural by discovering they’re some kind of “chosen one” within that world, with a magical heritage they never knew.  And so on and so forth.  You know these characters.  There’s a million books out featuring characters just like them.  It make me wonder how much reading the shows’ writers have done, or if the formula is just so pervasive now it’s in the air.

I have some problems with Once Upon a Time that I’m actually feeling kind of guilty about.  I want to like it, I really do.  But Jiminy Cricket is a character, and when Emma is flipping through The Book I caught a glimpse of a hookah-smoking caterpillar, which is most certainly not from a fairy tale.  Once isn’t drawing on fairy tales, it’s drawing on Disneyland.  Okay, whatever.  (Must check — is Disney studios behind this in any way?)  I read a review of Once that was very excited about how women-centric it is, how it passes the Bechdel Test, etc.  But I’m not sure watching the two main characters spend forty minutes perpetrating petty revenges on one another in an effort to see who better deserves to be mother to a cloying moppet is quite what the Bechdel Test had in mind.  The second episode is essentially one long catfight, and not a very interesting one.  Oh, and about that moppet.  There’s a subtext here about adoption that I find troubling.  You can tell me “oh, it’s because it’s based on fairy tales,” but I’m not sure that excuses what’s going on here:  the only good mother is a “real” mother.  I’m kind of squicked out, watching this show.

Grimm gets huge style points from me.  Woman in red hoodie jogging through the woods listening to “Sweet Dreams” on her iPod?  That’s what fairy tales in the modern world is supposed to look like.  The stories so far have been inoffensive, if not hugely imaginative.  It’s basically police procedural with monsters.  But so is a lot of current urban fantasy.  This show’s take on “supernatural in the real world” is awfully close to my own, so I’m inclined to like it better.  And yes, I do like Monroe the (effectively) werewolf, who controls his monstrous urges with a good diet and Pilates.  Also, Marie is Anita Blake in thirty years, yes?

I’m willing to give Once a couple more chances, to see if it can get out of the rut of having characters say the same things to each other over and over again.  Definitely willing to give Grimm a few more episodes, for style points alone.  We’ll see if it can transcend its formula beyond that.

We’re definitely in the middle of a zeitgeist here.  A friend of mine just sent me the news about a movie slated for next year:  Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

18 Responses to “Urban Fantasy TV”


  1. wickedcoolflight reblogged this on wickedcoolflight and commented: I’m digging both shows myself

  2. Eloise Says:

    You may be right about disney, but although it’s not a fairy tale, the hookah-smoking caterpillar is a literary character before Disney. Carroll describes him, hookah and all.

    And I agree about the Bechdel test – although the spirit of it is still well worth applying, the precise wording is starting to fail. I wonder if at least some of the writers/editors put their characters through the wording of it and ignore the spirit?

  3. brandyp Says:

    I’m liking them both as well wicked. My daughter LOVES Once Upon a Time.

    I remember as a child, 20 years ago, scouring the library for anything fiction related to the supernatural. My friends thought I was crazy, but I loved it. The only problem was I couldn’t find enough of it. Now every where I turn I’m inundated with it: tv, books, movies. I’m happy to say that I don’t ever think I will find time to read/watch it all. My to read/watch list grows daily. I’m glad my favorite topic has started becoming a little more prolific.

  4. Ellen Lester Says:

    Once Upon a Time is on ABC, which is owned by Disney. http://www.freepress.net/ownership/chart/main

  5. carriev Says:

    I know the caterpillar is a character from Carroll, not Disney. Nevertheless, Carroll didn’t write fairy tales. And many people know Carroll from the Disney movie. Pinnocchio isn’t Disney, either, but again, that’s where most people know it. And again, not really a fairy a tale. My point is they’re basing their fairy tale knowledge on what’s been filtered through Disney.

    Yes, supernatural is getting to be pervasive. Thank you, Rowling and Meyer???

  6. Chris Says:

    Haven’t watched either one but am seeing more positive reviews of Grimm. Unfortunately it’s opposite Fringe which has a large following…
    As for the Disneyland connection, which network is it on? Disney still own NBC I believe…and if the show is on that network, there’s your explaination. Otherwise, a “Jiminey Cricket” character would have to be used with permission of Disney…and that wouldn’t happen.

  7. Greg Says:

    I have been watching each of the shows too and have had a different reaction to them.

    Before seeing them my expectations were that Grimm would be the one that was of more interest to me since I have a great amount of affection for well done police procedurals like the BBC s Luthor and HBOs the Wire. I have to agree with you about Monroe – he is the most compelling and entertaining part of the show and thechemistry between the main character and him is lots of fun. The police procedural parts of the show so far are mediocre, guess I was hoping for more. I will keep watching since some shows build slow and get their stride later.

    Once succeeds more for me right now; it taps into the same kind of meta fairy tale that Bill Willinghams Fables does. The stories so far have had a greater emotional effect for me. In thinking about what’s been said in the show about stories and how they give us hope resonates with me.
    I enjoy them both so far but Once just hits at a more visceral level.

  8. mystichawker Says:

    Like you I have watched two episodes of each so far. The third episode of “once” is waiting for me to have time to watch it. So far Grimm definitely has my attention. The characters are more likable and believable. I think it is better written and overall the better show. “Once” is more or less Disney’s Desperate Housewives, IMO. Like most everyone else I will give it a couple more episodes to see if it gets rolling but Grimm is on my watch list for the season.

  9. Doruk Says:

    I will probably give both of them a try, Grimm probably before Once.

    As for fairytales, what are we going to consider stuff like Andersen? Furthermore, even the Grimm Brothers stuff is not fully faithful to oral tradition in the first place (and a truly murderous (were)wolf would be Perault).

  10. Emily Says:

    Carrie says:
    “But I’m not sure watching the two main characters spend forty minutes perpetrating petty revenges on one another in an effort to see who better deserves to be mother to a cloying moppet is quite what the Bechdel Test had in mind. The second episode is essentially one long catfight, and not a very interesting one.”

    THANK you. This is exactly my problem with it and I’ve been debating posting something about it because I don’t want to be bashing “Once,” but at the same time, it is reminiscent of so many plots in which women compete with each other for the right a particular kind of relationship with a man. And there are other things going on in the story so far, like saving the fairy tale character’s happy endings. But. There is a lot of focus on who has the right to be a mother and what constitutes “real” motherhood, which is completely disturbing because the show is aligning itself with the idea that adoptive mothers are not real mothers. (To say nothing of the complications of step-motherhood).

    I just feel like there is more the urban fantasy genre can accomplish than conservatively commenting on what kind of woman should be allowed to take up a tradtional role that has been used by the dominant culture to limit women’s experience of life. This isn’t to say that motherhood is not wonderful and valuable, because it is. I don’t like the show focusing almost soley vaunting the experience of the biological mother; there are a LOT of experiences of motherhood not tied to the biological that are being sidelined so far in “Once.”


  11. The disney vs fairy tales aspect is what bothered me so much about “Once”, and I didn’t get past the pilot episode. I couldn’t bear to watch a fairy tale show whose creators had so evidently never read fairy tales. The characters in the show are filtered through the cultural tropes of these characters, most of which are shaped by Disney, rather than the fairy tales from Grimm, Andersen, and Lang that I grew up with.

    I found the “real world” versions of the characters intriguing, and liked the strong main character, but every time they moved into a scene in the fairy tale scene I felt like the quality of the whole show took a nose dive. I gave up the show because I felt like the people making it had chosen “fairy tale” because they thought it was the “in” thing that would make them money, rather than any actual love for the genre.

  12. Nan Says:

    I haven’t had a chance to watch too many episodes of Grimm yet, but it has my attention so far. Of the two, I think it’s probably the most imaginative. (I love the idea of the fairy tales as criminal profiles, btw.)

    As soon as I started hearing about Once Upon a Time, I was suspicious. As the comments above note, it’s on ABC, which is owned by Disney. So far, it would seem that my worst fears are realized: it’s imagining fairy tales through the Disney movies, not through the literary fairy tales of the 18th and 19th centuries. (As I told my husband, Snow White and her prince wouldn’t have had a problem at the wedding if they’d had the iron shoes ready!) I don’t like the fact that they’ve named the evil sorceress of the Sleeping Beauty storyline “Maleficent,” either. Considering that Disney studios is the one that gave her that name, it would seem obvious that their version of the story is the one that they’re working from.

    Grimm is good fun (so far), and I’ll keep watching it. I would have really liked to see what Once could have done without Disney–it might have been great. Right now, I think the source material is killing anything interesting that they’re doing.

  13. Jo Anne Says:

    The main exposure many people have had to the fairy tales is the Disney version, their. They are much more pervasive than the older literary versions. Also, since fairy tales are based on folk tales which would change with each teller, can there be only one definitive version?

  14. Jo Anne Says:

    Sorry, there is an extra “their” in the first sentence.

  15. carriev Says:

    Using Disney is fine, but don’t call it fairy tales if you’re also using Jiminy Cricket and Lewis Carroll! The Disney versions are just so clean and corporate that it seems disingenuous to me that they’re pretending they’re using generic fairy tales.


  16. I think OUAT is *storybook* tales, not necessarily *fairy* tales, so the wardrobe/Caterpillar/etc things get a pass. I’m really liking Grimm, especially since it sorta reminds me of how you’d create a a TV show based on the job Detective Hardin from the Kitty-verse might have had before Kitty “came out” on her radio show.

  17. Nancy Says:

    I’ve given up on Once. Neat idea, and nice action sequences, but there were too many moments that had me rolling my eyes (what takes the cake for me was the “my abandonment issues are worse than your’s!” speech the mother gave the child she abandoned as an infant. What the hell?). Grimm, on the other hand, shows more promise. The fact that it balances monster of the week stories with long term character arcs so well (at least so far) makes me want to give it at least 5 episodes.

    Unfortunately, I have a feeling that Grimm will be cancelled before it’s allowed to find it’s feet.

  18. Besa Says:

    Once Upon a Time is owned by Disney. Something inside me died when I found that out. Alas. Still, I find that the show has a certain charm. There’s a reason the person-unexpectedly-finds-out-she-has-a-supernatural-calling thing never gets old, especially when said person is a highly sympathetic character. I have trouble becoming the one chosen for an hourly wage, let alone an epic mission.
    You have a valid point about the adoption, however. It is a shame there are so few portrayals of loving, stable, happy adoptions on American television these days. In fact, there aren’t that many children on television who can actually trust their primary caregivers, adoptive or otherwise. (Have you ever noticed, in fact, how few Disney main characters grew up in stable families? Seriously, name me three Disney princesses whose parents were alive, well, involved, and able to attend their storybook weddings. I dare you.)
    Still, the reality is that not every child has trustworthy caregivers. I have a great many friends who have adopted and done very well, and their children are happy and healthy. However, I have also known adoptees whose parents adopted for all the wrong reasons. Their stories bear an unfortunate resemblance to that of the moppet and the evil queen, I fear.
    So I defend their decision, though I do hold out hope for a moderately believable happy ending. Of course, I must confess that my interest in the show hardly stems from its literary value. Mostly, I find it entertaining enough to make me sit still, but not so engaging that I can’t write with it in the background.


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