By the beginning of October, all new scripted shows of the fall season have typically premiered. This year, however, two TV series waited for the end of the month to grace our small screens with their presence, and it turns out both are heavily based on fairy tales. ABC's Once Upon a Time, somewhat lighter, opened one week before NBC's Grimm, much darker, which fittingly premiered only a few days before Halloween. With the similarity between the source material and the fact that both shows chose a late start, we at Player Affinity TV couldn't resist a face-off.
Story Once Upon a Time is about the struggle of Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), the long-lost daughter of Snow White, and her own son Henry (Jared Gilmore) to free the citizens of Storybrooke (Maine!) from the curse cast by Evil Queen keeping them all (herself included as the mayor) prisoners of time and oblivious to their former lives in the fairy tale world.
Grimm is a much more literal take on the fight of good against evil. It tells the story of Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) one of the last Grimms who are entrusted with the mission of fighting evil fairy tale creatures. These creatures live among us and cannot hide who they are from a Grimm.
Once Upon a Time appears to be a story of hope, hope that a certain world order would be restored, while Grimm is a story about keeping the balance of forces, basically Angel with less vampires or demons, but with more wolves. It might be telling that Grimm was created by Jim Kouf (Angel) and David Greenwalt (The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel).
Mythology Once Upon a Time includes the retelling of fairy tales, with ancient stories put in context in terms of generations of protagonists (princes, heroines, etc.), antagonists (witches, etc.) and secondary characters. Plus there is the fact that all those characters are frozen in time, waiting to be freed, while exhibiting behaviors very much in line with what they used to be.
Grimm depicts a world that is the result of an evolution. Fairy tales and their characters are stories of the past that are used to help the viewer (more than the Grimm) understand why modern day creatures behave the way they do. It is very unlikely that we will revisit the past. Some of the creatures appear to be organized with an agenda not yet quite clear, but most of them would like to be rid of the Grimms to be able to hunt and feed at will, I guess.
Once Upon a Time's mythology is a retelling (with a consistency check) of the stories we know, putting all of them in the same place and within a single timeline, while Grimm's mythology will most likely dwell on the story of the Grimms and on the new world order that followed the stories of time past.
Characters I think any retelling of a fairy tale for an audience other than children has to include a significant transformation of the villains. While in original fairy tales they can be one-dimensional characters only defined by their actions, in a modern retelling they have to be much more than that. In fairy tales, villains essentially make the protagonists by pushing them to their limits, which they should still do in a retelling in addition to having more depth or a much more imposing personality. In Once Upon a Time, whether we are revisiting past stories or following what is unfolding in Storybrooke, Regina Mills/Evil Queen has a screen presence that will keep many adults coming back for more. Lana Parilla has so far delivered an impressive performance as the quintessential villainess. On the other side, the relationship between Henry and his mother has been very well developed, just as the subtle modern presence of Snow White.
Aside from Emily (who raised Nick), Grimm's characters could all be replaced and we wouldn't notice. In this department, the superiority of Once Upon a Time is much more apparent, Grimm having adopted a set of characters typical of police procedurals. The police chief who appears to the be the main antagonist so far is barely noticeable and our hero is still going through an identity crisis. Henry in Once Upon a Time dragged his mother with so much conviction that we barely saw her own crisis.
Cinematic Craft and Storytelling Once Upon a Time takes us back and forth between Storybrooke and the fairy tale world, with very fitting cinematography for each location, but the transitions and the integration of the two timelines are what should really catch the viewer's eye. Whether from a sentence, a particular shot, a character's name or even the statue in the mayor's garden, those transitions and the intertwining of the past and present storylines have been so far very well done. A personal favorite is the burning of the end of the story from the book without sharing its content. The writers managed to keep away from us important details on the story without creating any frustration, while at the same time elegantly giving themselves the possibility to draw anything they want from those missing pages and still make sense.
Grimm's cinematography is good enough, but the show has given the impression it might not systematically use fairy tales to set things up, but rather focus on the history of the fight between the Grimms and the creatures. The story is told as a police procedural with a supernatural twist having a distant origin in fairy tales.
Verdict The more I wrote about the two shows, the more it became obvious to me that a comparison was actually unfair. After reading the above face-off, you might think Grimm is a much less interesting show, which is far from being the case. It is simply a less ambitious one put together with a bit less craftsmanship. It opened last week against the World Series and did well, surprising everyone. I think its creators played it safe by mostly diverting the fairy tales elements to cater to an audience that exists today and is drawn to darker horror/fantasy shows, while Once Upon a Time's creators were much more ambitious with their story and their audience (the family) and it paid off creatively.