Once Upon a Time in Don Draper’s Office

April 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

A quick fix for your Monday:

Two of my favorite things (fairy tales and Christina Hendricks’s miraculous frontside) met briefly last night, before I conked out (really, AMC? Mad Men isn’t on until 10? I am getting old), and there was much rejoicing.

Creating a pitch to sell women’s shoes, Stan and Ginsberg mention using a Cinderella theme, which gets shot down as too cliche.

Don: “Sleeping Beauty? Snow White? Nothing worked?”

Stan: “They’re more about necrophilia than shoes.”

Right on, Stan.

And Ginsberg gets it too : later in the episode, the three men are selling the non-fairy-tale pitch they came up with to the client, but Ginsberg jumps in and steals it like the merry tramp he is, by tempting the client with the notion of “Cinderella” being “too dark” for them. He describes her running down a dark stone alleyway in her one fabulous shoe, being pursued by a strange man (in keeping with the violent Richard Speck theme of the episode). Finally she stops, turns, and there he is–handsome, and holding her other shoe.

“She wants to be caught,” Ginsberg says. “See? Too dark.”

The clients, of course, switch from Don’s pitch to Ginsberg’s, because who can resist the darkness of fairy tales? This episode was, after two weeks of duds, completely fabulous, reminding viewers of the dark, far-reaching violence that colors the way women were regarded and treated in the 1960’s… and have been in stories for centuries.

“Not My Mother”: SyFy’s Neverland and J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan, Part Two

December 14, 2011 § 11 Comments

In Part One of my response to SyFy Channel’s latest offering, Neverland, I left you with one of my favorite quotes from J.M. Barrie’s original novel, Peter and Wendy. Need a refresher? Here:

“You are so queer,” [Peter] said [to Wendy], frankly puzzled, “and Tiger Lily is just the same. There is something she wants to be to me, but she says it is not my mother.”

“No, indeed, it is not,” Wendy replied with frightful emphasis.

And there are those who think children’s literature is sweet and uncomplicated.

In my last post, I wrote a ton (I know, these posts are getting long…) about the stakes for each character in Peter Pan: what they want, what they have to lose. Creative Writing 101. In SyFy’s Neverland, I concluded, the stakes for both Peter and Hook are never clearly defined, though they have much to do with power, pixie dust, and proving oneself. But if you were to look back at Barrie’s novel, you’d find that the stakes are, as I said last time, more personal and emotional, and no one has more defined stakes than Wendy—even if the most apt words used to describe them are “something…but not my mother.”

In a little-known but beautiful musical version (not the one Mary Martin made famous, I mean less known, musical theatre trivia fans) composed by Leonard Bernstein, he of West Side Story and Candide, Peter is, as is traditional, played by a girl, but that doesn’t stop Wendy from coming right out with it, in the catchiest little way:

Peter, Peter, you’ve got a smudge on your face/

Allow me, Peter, Peter, to wipe it away/

I know it’s just an old excuse to feel your touch/

But I want to feel your touch!

Make no mistake: Wendy’s experiencing her first love. « Read the rest of this entry »

SyFy’s Neverland and My Own Obsession with the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, Part One: Bad Form

December 7, 2011 § 2 Comments

I’m pretty surprised that I have not written about Peter Pan yet. Granted, this blog is still young. But I have a lot to say. So much, in fact, that this post has to be split in two, for sanity’s sake. Here in Part One, I give an overview of SyFy’s “prequel” to Peter Pan, Neverland, and some background into my own love for all things Peter Pan. In Part Two, to be posted later, I’ll look more closely at the character of Peter himself, J.M. Barrie’s quest for his own lost childhood, and I will make A SHOCKING CONFESSION. So stay tuned.

Several years ago, I was sitting on a plane with an issue of The New Yorker that I had stolen from my dad’s bathroom (where all the good reading material goes). Inside was an article about the playwright and author J.M. Barrie—probably because the release of Finding Neverland was imminent—and the lamentable personal life that in all likelihood led to the writing of the play Peter Pan, or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. I had loved Peter Pan—as a book, as a concept—for a long time, in part because my version is illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, who is my fave, and more so because it’s just so delightfully sad.

Yes, I said sad. Cathartically, brilliantly full of child-sadness, something that most of my favorite authors seem to have in common. Peter Pan: sad, strange, and endlessly interpretable.

But reading this New Yorker article was a horse of a different color, turning what was, in my mind, a sweetly sad book into a diatribe on loss and frustration and futile escapism. James Barrie himself was such a strange man, stunted as a child because of the death of his brother David, who would never get to grow up, and the subsequent depression of his mother Margaret, who, in her grief, seemed to almost forget who James was. I became so choked up that I had to wash my face in the tiny plane bathroom—and this was very soon after 9-11, when anyone oddly emotional or out of their seat was subject to several suspicious and slightly nasty looks by their fellow travelers. I cried in the airplane bathroom for a good five minutes after reading that, over thirty years after Barrie’s own tragedy-ridden life had ended, in 1960, just before the 50th anniversary of Barrie’s book Peter and Wendy, Peter Llewelyn-Davies, the character’s namesake, threw himself in front of a train pulling into a London platform. He called the book “that terrible masterpiece.”

I’ve never gotten over it. « Read the rest of this entry »

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.

“‘Where Are We Going?’ ‘Somewhere Horrible,'” Indeed: ABC’s Once Upon A Time

October 24, 2011 § 17 Comments

I think my folks in Maine would resent that particular exchange between Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White (post-labor, pre-time warp) and the Evil Queen, played by Lana Parrilla. Maine is far from horrible.

In fact, compared to the hour I just spent watching ABC’s fairy tale-themed new show, Once Upon A Time, Bangor, Maine is paradise on earth.

The show’s concept is a little convoluted, which is why I had such a vague idea of what I was going to watch, despite reading several summaries beforehand.

I’ll give it my best shot: Some time ago in that vague story-land that should, if we’re reading the stories right, be Europe in the middle ages, but always turns out instead to be some fantasy video-game set, Snow White is rescued by her Prince, gets knocked up (like you do), and then is the victim of a terrible curse set upon her by the Evil Queen. Evil Queenie stops time, dooming everyone in video game land to live immortally in a state of amnesia, not remembering who they are or what they all meant to each other.

Flash forward to present day: Emma Swan, a sad (and sadly written) female protagonist is having a bummer of a birthday when knock, knock—a small boy named Henry arrives at her door with a strange leather-bound book. He introduces himself as her son given up for adoption 10 years before, and convinces her to drive him home to Maine from Boston. Emma does this, because any lonely woman who clearly doesn’t want to deal with a kid would rather do an overnight drive to Maine with said strange child rather than call the authorities, try to contact the child’s adoptive parents, or do any sort of responsible adult thing.

Thus, we arrive in Storybrooke, Maine, where lo and behold! All the characters from Henry’s crazy book, appropriately titled “Once Upon a Time”, are living with Story-Amnesia, unaware that they are so-and-so. The Evil Queen, who is Mayor of Wasilla Storybrooke, is Henry’s adoptive mom, and she and Emma have a little tete-a-tete in which Emma decides she really does like that kid and gets all in Evil Queen’s face, asking her questions like “But do you really love him?”, which is a completely appropriate question to ask someone who adopted and raised your unwanted child that you were calling a nutcase just a commercial break before.

Emma Swan decides to stay in Storybrooke rather than return to her home in Boston and we all get to wait and see how this completely underdeveloped character will somehow save the inhabitants of Storybrooke, so that they can all go on wearing their Sci-Fi garb and waving swords about.

I wanted this show to be good. Fairy tale retellings are my bag, in a big way. But the combination of bad writing and character development with what I soon found to be a blatant “nobody knows, so who cares?’ attitude towards the fairy tales themselves wore on me until it was a chore to turn the volume up after the commercial breaks. I just wanted it to be over.

I’m sure there are others out there commenting on how the relationship between adopted child, adoptive mother, and birth mother are so underdeveloped in this show, so I won’t go into the glaring generalizations and convenient character motivations there, except to say this: even if a show is generally a fantasy, if it applies a realistic narrative as a foil to that fantasy, then that reality has to be sharp in order for the contrast to work its magic. If Emma’s whole interior monologue when confronted by Henry is, “Ok, sure, I didn’t want you but I’ll drive all night in the rain for you,” and the show never gives us a compelling (or even just interesting and unique) reason why, then why have any part of this show set in the “real world” at all? Why not just go all David Lynch and create a world in which the bad logic makes sense?

But what I really want to address here is the fairy tale aspect, not the so-called reality bit.

A great deal of buzz on Twitter surrounded “figuring out” who all the characters were–ok, knock yourselves out. You had Snow White, her dwarves, her prince, Rumplestiltskin, Red Riding Hood, a fairy, Geppetto the woodcarver (I’ll get to that), Granny, etc.

Should be right up my alley, right? Fairy tale characters, a somewhat interesting concept involving stopped time. Ok. But what the creators of this show have done is something that gets so under my skin, I can’t bear to watch it unfold. All promotional material has made free use of the term “fairy tale.” It’s a show about fairy tales, featuring fairy tale characters, etc. And yet, the pilot episode proves that when it comes to ABC and Disney, “fairy tale” means just about anything, when in fact it has a very specific definition:

A fairy tale is a tale usually featuring folkloric characters which has its roots in oral tradition. Literary fairy tales exist, and are the ones that we’re most familiar with, since a “literary fairy tale” is a fairy tale or folk tale that has been written down. But at heart, fairy tales have their genesis in a region’s oral storytelling traditions, and are stories that have been passed down and around by word of mouth.

Once Upon A Time doesn’t exactly stick to these stories. Of course, that’s part of the show’s schtick–the fairy tales you never heard as a child! Fairy tales with a twist! But even the characters they’re “twisting” have nothing to do with what fairy tales really are. I suspect that the show’s ideal audience probably won’t even notice.

The show relies on the nostalgia kick of a fairly specific, and yet undoubtedly vast, group of watchers: those who grew up with Disney films, and who either never knew that those films were bastardized versions of primary literary material, or who knew and just didn’t ever care to acquaint themselves with the originals.

The show is absolutely not trying to expand anyone’s knowledge of the original fairy tales–or original children’s novels, which are something completely different, but whatever, OUAT, do what you want–because no exploration of the themes and tropes of actual fairy tales exist in the pilot hour of this strangely cobbled-together show after the first two minutes. We begin with Snow White, and then we’re nowhere. We’re in children’s lit soup.

No, what the show is primarily trying to do is make sure that you never forget that Disney owns the term fairy tale, and what “fairy tale” means in Disney language is whatever it own rights to.

Example:

We briefly see a couple of illustrations in Henry’s book of fairy tale lore as Emma flips through it. One is taken from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Another is taken from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland–neither of which are fairy tales. They are novels.

Another example:

Halfway through the show, we are given a brief introduction to young Henry’s psychologist, another victim of Story-Amnesia. When the kindly man leaves the scene, Emma asks Henry which fairy tale character he was supposed to be. Henry, without a moment’s hesitation, answers that the man is really Jiminy Cricket.

Here’s where you showed your thin deck of cards, ABC, and where you lost me for good.

Jiminy Cricket is not a fairy tale character, for two reasons.

One, because Pinocchio was a serial written between the years of 1881 and 1883 by a man named Carlo Collodi. The difference between a book-length collection of episodes written by a single author and a traditional fairy tale is vast, and one does not become the other just because Disney made a film a while back. That film, sorry, is not a fairy tale either.

Two, because Collodi did not create a character named Jiminy Cricket. Disney did.

What this means is that the show, which is supposed to be about “fairy tale characters” is really just about Disney characters. The Wikipedia page tells me that we’ll soon be joined by Maleficent, of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty fame. Hey, guess what fairy tale never actually had anyone with a name so dumb as Maleficent? We’ll also get to spend more time with Dopey, Grumpy, and the rest of the vertically challenged crew, none of which had names until Disney decided they should. This, my friends, is not surprising, given that ABC is, of course, part of the Disney empire. But it is disappointing.

Ironically, the real fairy tale characters truly are stuck in time, folks–because no one will remember them, the Brave Little Tailors or the Clever Marlenes or the Simple Ivans of this world. If Disney didn’t use them, they’re not worth knowing. And if Disney did use them, then they’re not worth knowing in their original, dark, mysterious and wonderful form.

I wanted to enjoy this show. Television that draws on childhood nostalgia has the potential to do a great thing, by creating a link between people who remember the same stories. But for me, growing up, stories existed in many forms, not just the Disney ones. Seeing Disney once again present something as “the fairy tale your parents never told you,” and then just give us another bright Disney spin entirely reliant on their own copyrighted characters is insulting to the many of us who know what fairy tales actually are–and for the most part, the real fairy tales aren’t the ones your parents told you about anyway. I’m talking here to people who loved this show, the “OMG! I love fairy tales!” types all over Twitter an hour after the pilot premiere. Because chances are, your parents didn’t tell you fairy tales at all. They just plopped you in front of the movies.

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