All the Better to Watch, My Dear: NBC’s Grimm

October 31, 2011 § 5 Comments

Thank goodness for NBC’s Grimm! I could cheer.

I’m sure folks have their taste, and there are many who’ll prefer the tame, Disney-worshipping Once Upon A Time, but oh! For my money, a television show that pays credence to German folklore and spends its time cracking open the themes and unsettling familiarity of one story at a time is pure gold.

Let me say first: Grimm is not perfect. There are a few too many Buffy-esque moments for my taste (really, dude popping out nowhere with a scythe? You gonna let cancer-ridden Auntie take you down?), but hey—that show was my college obsession, so perhaps it’s my own nostalgic baggage weighing on me. And okay, the plot was a tad formulaic: did anyone doubt for a second that the good guys would find their man?

But let me approach this show as a fairy tale advocate, enthusiast and self-admitted purist, and tell you why I was practically giddy by the closing credits, despite the predictable throw-downs.

To do that, alas, I have to revisit last Sunday, and Once Upon A Time.

OUAT’s formula was simple: toss out a bunch of names that the audience will recognize, then place them in a supernatural situation that has nothing, nothing to do with any of the stories mentioned. No investigation of Snow White’s eternal sleep (though they did give themselves the room in the plot), no interesting investigation (yet) of the role the stories might play in our own world, etc. Names and a tacked-on plot.

What Grimm managed to do in the pilot episode, by contrast, was give us an unsettling taste of familiarity in the first two minutes—we see the girl in the red hoodie and we know, because we recognize the tropes of her story (the red hood, the woods), that she’ll come to no good; we also recognize the college girl out for a jog on a cloudy day who’ll come to no good either, a la SVU, and the blending of these two familiarities seems fitting and yet mysterious at the same time. From there the show goes on to crack open that one familiar tale, rewriting its themes into a real world that fits the stories almost seamlessly, even without the slightly heavy-handed supernatural concept of a “Grimm.”

Pause, for synopsis, and clarification: Nick is a detective in Portland, Oregon who is called to a crime scene in the park, where a young girl in a red hoodie has been brutally killed by what looks like a wild beast wearing Timberland boots. Also, weird, Nick is beginning to see strange things—people’s faces suddenly morph into demonic monster faces before his very eyes (there’s that old Buffy/Angel style at work again). What’s up with that? Luckily Nick’s Aunt Marie, dying of cancer, shows up to clue him in. Because she’s dying, the family’s curse is passing to Nick. He is a Grimm, able to see “what they really are” (by “they,” I assume Aunt Marie means scary fairy tale villains). “They” are after her, she says, because she’s vulnerable, and they can finally get rid of her—we’re meant to infer, I think, that she’s been spending her life hunting these beasts down, Slayer-style. As she tells him this, she and Nick are attacked by a monster-dude, who puts Marie in a coma and Nick in a world of confusion, since he kills the dude, and then dude’s face becomes normal again. The guilt! The bewilderment!

So, Nick is the new Grimm, and though he’s unsure of his newfound powers of seeing-scary-things, he uses them to track down a little girl, Robin, who’s been kidnapped from her safe Portland street while on her way to her grandfather’s house by a man in the Timberland boots we’re already on the lookout for. Of course, the girl is wearing her favorite red hoodie. In the midst of the search, Nick meets Monroe, a “blutbad” (in the show, it means werewolf; in English, “bloodbath”) who denies involvement with the missing girl, claims to be reformed (a “weider blutbad”), and who offers to help Nick find her.

The end, after the inevitable rescue, is a bit of a surprise. The last two minutes (like the first two) kept me excited to see the larger plot, Nick’s story, unfold in the course of the season. I won’t spoil it here.

Instead, I want to sing the praises of inside jokes.

Like I said, the search/rescue plot, when it came to the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Robin was predictable. However, watching it unfold, I felt like I was on the inside of a very good, well-played joke.

Yes, the show tells us a story that we’ve heard a thousand times: girl goes missing in the woods, is taken in by a charming wolf who pretends to be her grandmother, girl is rescued by the huntsman. But instead of being bored by the formula, I was compelled by the references to German folk culture and the clever blending of the “real” and the tale that the show employed. For example, we know that the Wolf enters Grandmother’s house, eats her, and dresses in her clothing, a “disguise” which authors like Anne Sexton and Angela Carter have made wonderful use of in their investigations of gender in fairy tales. In some versions of the LRRH tale, the wolf is Grandmother, a werewolf who waits until the girl (or multiple children in some cases) is vulnerable before she strikes. So much thematic gold to be mined…

Sure enough, when Nick and his partner track down the blutbad who has taken Little RH, he’s dressed in a pastel cable-knit sweater, in the middle of baking a chicken pot pie. “Nice pillows,” Nick’s partner comments, picking up a floral needlepoint throw pillow. “Thank you,” the Wolf answers. “I make them myself, though I don’t tell everyone that.”  Anyone expecting Walking Dead levels of violence from this scene instead of strange banter just aren’t getting the joke that the writers are telling. Me, I felt like I was in on it. And all the while, the Wolf is living in a cottage decked out in Black Forest clocks and furniture (an ornate style of woodcarving originated from the same region as most of the Grimms’ tales), and he has a shelf full of porcelain Goebel figurines, the German equivalent of the Precious Moments collection: both nods to the German folk culture that the Grimms were seeking to record, and which they eventually became an indispensable part of.

Even if you didn’t laugh when Monroe corrects Nick’s German when he says “blutbads” (plural, he insists, is “blutbaden”), you’ve got to appreciate a show that doesn’t assume you’re a complete idiot, and will get the numerous jokes that this show tosses at you, and which the characters seem almost too aware of.

It’s as if the characters are part of a club which Nick, with the help of his Aunt Marie, has only just joined: a club in which the fairy tale characters, instead of being locked in time with no clue who they are, are compelled to act out their own stories over and over. This was the impression I got hearing Monroe tell Nick that all of the blutbaden go crazy at the sight of red: that they know who they are on the page, and just can’t help themselves. Nick’s Aunt Marie tells him, pre-coma, that “what [the Grimm brothers] wrote about really happened.” Well, I don’t know about that, but what I do like about Marie’s point is how it relates to the world that the writers have set up for us: in Portland, Oregon (as close to a dark German forest as any place you’re likely to find in contemporary America), the fairy tales live next door, down the street, across the park, through the woods. If you were to ask a rural German villager circa 1800 (like the Grimm brothers did), they’d tell you that the tales weren’t necessarily true, but certainly close to home. Closer by far than we now consider such stories as “The Little Cinder Girl,” “Snow White,” or “Little Red Cap.” ABC’s Once Upon a Time gets one thing right, and that is a contemporary audience’s already pre-packaged notion that “fairyland” or “once upon a time” is someplace far away, ancient, nonexistent. Grimm, however, toys with the permeating fear and mystery that the tellers of the original tales experienced. There were things to fear in the forest, and in your neighbors. There were rituals and superstitions surrounding every unfamiliar situation. I appreciate that the landscape of Grimm is as unsettling as the tales themselves, and that the characters are aware of their roles in that world. The stories are true because they’re all around you—not relegated to some fictional Disney village in Maine, where they haven’t recognized themselves for ages. The stories are true because in the world of Grimm, they are always happening, have always happened, and come loaded with the baggage of self-recognition. Oh, so much more interesting than amnesia. Save it for the soap operas.

I just want to wind up this review by saying thank you (cue sappy music). Thank you, NBC, for paying credence to German folklore instead of just getting on your knees to the Disney empire. Thank you for filming something in Portland that doesn’t include the phrase “put a bird on it” (though there is a reasonable amount of beards). Thanks for letting the story be as dark—and yet darkly funny—as tales like “The Robber Bridegroom,” “The Boy Who Set Out to Learn What Fear Was,” or (shiver) “Mother Holle.” And thank you, a thousand times, for not assuming that your audience is made up of idiots who won’t get the references. Keep the jokes coming.

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