One year it’s vampires, another year zombies, and this year it’s fairy tales that have become the new cultural trend. We have not one but two Snow White movies coming out this summer, and this fall two new television dramas appeared featuring those famous old legends—supernatural/police procedural series Grimm on NBC and ABC’s fairy tale themed soap opera Once Upon a Time. Despite their shared use of fairy tales and myths the two shows have very VERY different tones, looks, and themes going.
Once Upon a Time, created by Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis of Lost, is based on the concept that there’s a town in Maine where all the fairy tale characters are living without memory of their true selves after a curse from Snow White’s evil stepmother. Things start to change only with the arrival of Snow’s daughter Emma. Typically an episode is split between events happening at present in our world, and past events in the Fairy Tale World. There’s an awful lot of romance and yearning, but not too many scares.
In Grimm there’s no separation between the supernatural and everyday worlds. In fact, certain creatures or beings walk and live among normal people without anyone knowing. Nick, from a bloodline of Grimms, is given the job to hunt down and kill the bad ones. No romance and yearning but many MANY scares. Not surprising since all three of the show’s creators—Stephen Carpenter, wrote Soul Survivors, David Greenwalt, was the writer and producer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and Jim Kouf, was the writer and producer on Ghost Whisperer—all have solid backgrounds in horror. Midway through the first season for each series, let’s take a look at how they compare.
Best Female Characters
Once Upon a Time has Snow White (played in a great casting coup by Ginnifer Goodwin, above), Snow’s daughter Emma (Jennifer Morrison formerly of House), and the Evil Queen/Mayor Regina (Lara Parilla). On Grimm we have…well, Nick the hero’s girlfriend, Juliet.
Winner: Once Upon a Time wins this category hands down.
Best Male Characters
Once Upon a Time features Raphael Sbarge as an annoyingly whiny and ineffectual human version of Jiminy Cricket (don’t ask), the villainous Rumplestiltskin (in another great casting coup played by Robert Carlyle), a cute little boy named Henry (Jared Gilmore), and, of course, Josh Dallas as Prince Charming himself. On Grimm we have our hero Nick the Grimm and police officer (David Guintoli), his fellow cop partner Hank (Russell Hornsby), his Grimm work partner, the hilariously offbeat blutbad Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), police Seargent Wu (Reggie Lee), and Nick’s boss, (and unbeknownst to him) powerful and shady member of the supernatural creatures community Captain Renard (Sasha Roiz).
Winner: Grimm takes this category easily for its use of male bonding. Nick and Monroe’s friendship in particular is one of the highlights of the show. With the exceptions of young Henry and Rumplestiltskin none of the male characters on Once Upon a Time seem to do much while on Grimm even minor characters like Seargent Wu at least help solve crimes.
Best Use of Setting
In Once Upon a Time, the narrative is split between the Fairy Tale World and Storybrook Maine. Storybrook is pretty much a generic small town, but the Fairy Tale World is usually done with a lot of costumes, horses, and CGI to depict breathtaking castles and fiery dungeons. Grimm does not take place in a separate universe or anywhere fictional at all but in the very real Portland, Oregon and the show heavily features the natural beauty of the Pacific West Coast.
Winner: A close call, but it goes to Grimm. The woods of Oregon have never seemed so mysterious and enchanting and, for all the pretty glass coffins on Once Upon a Time, key characters like Emma and Henry don’t even get to see the Magical Fairy Tale World.
Best Family Dynamics
On Once Upon a Time, we have Emma (biological mother) and Regina (adoptive mother) vying for the affections of Henry. We also have Emma befriending Mary/Snow White without realizing that they are in fact mother and daughter. There’s no real family relations to speak of on Grimm since Nick’s aunt, who told him his family legacy, died in the second episode.
Winner: Once Upon a Time
Best Use of Moral Ambiguity
On Once Upon a Time, it turns out that a lot of seemingly wholesome types, including Jiminy Cricket Mr. Conscience himself, made contracts with Rumplestiltskin that came at a terrible price. Also Rumplestiltskin wasn’t always evil and neither was Queenie. On Grimm Nick sometimes finds that his duties as an officer of the law and responsibilities as a Grimm sometimes conflict. In one case he finds himself doing protective duty on the same creature who attacked his aunt and who he knows to be pure evil from another character he actually sympathizes with. Moreover, Nick is apparently a rather unusual personality type among Grimms in that he doesn’t believe in just shooting every creature he sees on sight. (In one hilarious sequence members of the creature community come to see the legendary Grimm from afar and scatter in terror when he looks in their direction). He becomes close friends with the blutbad Monroe, and blutbads and Grimms are usually the most natural of enemies. In fact, Monroe comments that his parents would have been scandalized that he even talks to Nick. He also finds himself identifying with and even helping the creatures he meets. And we still don’t know what’s up with Nick’s boss, Captain Renard, or what his full intentions are.
Winner: Grimm. Frankly, watching all those characters in the Fairy Tale World make deals with Rumplestiltskin that anyone can see a mile off are trouble, isn’t giving them more dimension. They just seem really, really stupid.
Once Upon a Time managed to score feature film stars like Goodwin and Carlyle (above), as well as TV favorites Parilla and Morrison. By contrast when I first started watching Grimm I didn’t recognize a single face except for Silas Weir Mitchell.
Winner: Once Upon a Time. The cast of Grimm all perform well and Guintoli and Mitchell have great chemistry. But nobody on Grimm is a powerhouse the way Goodwin and Carlyle are in their respective roles. They bring depth to even their corniest scenes.
Best Use and Redefinition of Fairy Tale Archetypes
Since Once Upon a Time comes from the same media company that owns the rights to Disney characters, we are pretty much getting all the usual Disney figures—Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Gepetto, and even Jiminy Cricket, albeit in a new form with different backstories. However, except for the fact that a surprisingly high number of these Disney favorites apparently made shady deals with Rumplestiltskin, there’s really no redefinition of their characters. The show brings them into the present day world by giving them clever new names in Storybrook. (Cinderella becomes Ashley, the evil Queen is Regina, Jiminy Cricket is Dr. Hopper, etc. etc.). Grimm takes a very different approach. As its name suggests, the show derives a lot of its inspiration from the original Grimm stories (with all the horror and darkness those stories had before Disney cleaned them up!) and most of the creatures Nick encounters are given names in Germanic roots that aren’t actual words, just concepts the show uses to make sense of old legends.
Blutbad, is a Germanic vulgarization of “the big bad wolf,” and blutbads are indeed people whose true form is wolves. There are also millefleurs (bee people), Reapers, ziegevolks (goat people), hexenbeasts (nasty monsters that are always female), Ogres, and much, much more. And these creatures have evolved with the times—they use corporate takeovers, flash mobs, social media, and explosives to handle their inter community disputes. The first two episodes of Grimm were almost literal modern day updates on Red Riding Hood and The Three Bears, but the show has since expanded to completely deconstruct the old tales.
Winner: Grimm. Not having anything to do with Disney alone is enough to swing this one in Grimm’s favor but equally important, Once Upon a Time’s insistence on a split narrative shows that the series doesn’t grasp that the original purpose of fairy tales was to illuminate the deeper and darker stories of where we came from—something Grimm understands perfectly.
Best Overall Series
Contrary to what old Walt Disney thought, fairy tales aren’t really boy meets girl stories. They’re cautionary tales and despite the best efforts of Goodwin and Carlyle, there are too many problems with Once Upon a Time’s basic construction and Grimm succeeds as the better overall show.