I have to admit that when Is saw that the latest mini-trend for this fall’s television season was modern takes on fairy tales, I rolled my eyes (check out Alan Sepinwall’s review here). Of course, it’s a move that makes perfect sense from a writing (and studio) perspective. Audiences gravitate toward the familiar (just look at the number of retreads at your local movie theater), and this is some a whole mess of familiar sitting fat and happy in the public domain. Storylines are populated with easy-to-grasp heroes and villains, stakes are life-and-death and usually we get a happy ending (or at least we did once Disney had their way with the Brothers Grimm). What could be better?
Plenty. Thanks to Disney, we not only have those happy endings embedded in our consciousness, we have a fondness for these stories that, for most of us, dates back to early childhood. Messing with Snow White may be enough to turn off more than a few viewers. Personally, I don’t mind one bit, as Disney messed with those fairy tales in the first place. It’s easy to forget that in the Grimm version of events, villains usually met with horrific endings such as being stuck in a barrel lined with nails and then rolled downhill to drown (The Three Little Men in the Wood), princesses aren’t always pure (Rapunzel gets knocked up in the first edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, though that was ultimately changed) and kids get beheaded (though it’s of a decidedly different image, I had nightmares for years thanks to Arthur Rackham’s illustration of “Sweetheart Roland,” a story which has a witch chopping off her kid’s head, though by mistake). Fairy tales often have happy endings, but they weren’t always so G-rated and sweet.
So, a modern twist on fairy tales should be great, right? Hardly. What seems to happen in the magical realm of TV is that no matter how much writers want to twist Disney’s work, they rarely play as fast and loose with the source material as they need to in order to create a completely realized and fresh arena. Watching “Once Upon A Time,” I kept waiting for something to throw me off, the way Gregory Maguire did by making the Wicked Witch of the West our protagonist in “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.” But when it comes to episodic TV, no one’s been brave enough to dismantle Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin, as expected, is a perfect angel both as Snow White and as her schoolteacher doppelganger) and so, we’re left with the familiar. A big, bad witch, Prince Charming, yada yada yada).
While “Grimm” captured more of the darkness of those Grimm fairy tales, it ultimately felt like a police procedural with a tacked on element, the fairy tale side of matters no richer or more exciting than what we see in “Once.” And maybe that’s the problem — television just isn’t the right format for a truly engaging, exciting and original twist on the fairy tale.
Though Bill Willingham’s “Fables” was developed for NBC, it’s probably for the best it never got past the script stage. The broad audience that’s demanded to make a TV show a hit may not have cottoned to a show based on comics that did outrageous things like jump genres (hopping from murder mystery to caper), reform the Big Bad Wolf and had an overt political slant. But the comic medium gives Willingham a place to fully flesh out a complete vision of an alternate fairy tale universe, something that would most likely be squashed flat on network TV.
So I may keep watching “Once Upon A Time” and “Grimm” (I have to believe if anyone can turn things around, it’s David Greenwalt), but I’m not optimistic for a happy ending.