Since I am something of a self-proclaimed connoisseur of bad television shows, it shouldn’t surprise anyone who has already been reading this blog that I watch a variety of new shows, even if they don’t look great. Sometimes you find a diamond in the rough, sometimes you find Stargate Universe.

 

Watching a TV show regularly is a pretty big time commitment, so you don’t want to be doing it unless you get some entertainment out of the series. Conversely, pilot episodes, despite their purpose,  aren’t necessarily indicative of what a show is like. Further, many times it take a few episodes to catch a stride, so giving a show a fair shake often means watching more than one episode.

 

I do have a general rule of thumb to help me decide which shows are worth watching and which ones aren’t. Under ordinary circumstances I find that three episodes of a new series are enough to determine whether a show has promise. This doesn’t mean that one of those three episodes has to be a real gem, or that the show needs to be perfect by its third episode. I do find, though, that typically by the third episode you know the main cast of characters pretty well and have a sense of the show’s tone and typical stories for their world. This is usually enough information to decide whether the show is worth watching.

I am vengeance! I am the night! I AM BATMAN!

 

In case is isn’t inherently clear, I don’t like bad television for the sake of liking bad television. I like bad television because there’s something absurd in a funny way about it, or some character is unbelievable because of how cartoony they are. For reasons beyond my comprehension I’m a pretty big fan of melodrama, which is probably why I like things like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Phoenix Wright so much. I think it says a lot about me and my taste that my personal favorite incarnation of Batman is the Adam West Batman series.

 

Sometimes I will give a show some extra time to show promise if it stars an actor or actress I really like, or if it has a really good premise that the writers haven’t figured out how to use just yet, but I would say that three episodes is standard. I recently had reason to put a pair of shows to the test, and I think this particular run through my gauntlet demonstrates the system pretty well.

 

For anyone out that who pulls out all the stops when it comes to avoiding ads, you may have missed that NBC and ABC recently premiered rivaling fairy tale based TV shows. NBC brought Grimm to the table and ABC’s offering iss called Once Upon A Time. Now aside from the fairy tale premises, these shows don’t have a lot in common, especially since one of them passed the Three Episode Test and the other has officially failed it.

 

Grimm is about a Detective named Nick Burckhardt who starts seeing a darker side to people, and I mean that literally. His ailing aunt drives to town unannounced in her RV to tell him that he is a descendant of the brothers Grimm, who weren’t all that creative since their stories are based on actual monsters they fought. His only real power is to have some advanced notice about who is a monster with his ability to see their true form, which he can’t fully control. Luckily his aunt’s RV is full of detailed drawings and descriptions of the monsters of the world, as well as a whole arsenal of weapons.

 

One Upon A Time is about a fairy tale world that has suffered the ultimate curse: to be stuck in our world in the year 2011. The main character is bail bondswoman Emma Swan, whose biological son runs away from home to inform her that she’s Snow White’s daughter and only she can break an evil curse. The pilot establishes the fairy tale world, as it was before the curse, then subsequent episodes use Lost-style flashbacks to tell us about the backgrounds of the fairy tale characters.

 

I wish I could say that this image was from the 1985 film Teen Wolf, but it's from 2011's Grimm.

The best character on Grimm is a werewolf who tries to fit into human society by not eating people, and gets a disappointing amount of screen time considering his charm. He sometimes assists the main character, whose name I had to look up just to mention him before. The rest of the cast is even more forgettable. I’m pretty sure Nick’s partner is around just to make it clear to the audience when something is suspicious, but he’s not enough of an actual character to ever call him out on anything. And Nick’s boss exists solely to hint at a woefully underdeveloped serial conspiracy plot. Generally the characters of this show are more plot devices than they are people, which is a big strike against them in my book.

 

On Once Upon A Time, this was not the case as Emma Swan is a much more memorable character. OUAT (I’m sick of writing the full title, it’s getting abbreviated now) uses its fairy tale lineage to give us a sense of even the supporting cast pretty quickly. We meet Grumpy of Seven Dwarfs fame early on, and his attitude is true to his name. Sure the characters are a little stereotypical, but I certainly prefer simple, stock, memorable characters to ones that are simple, bland and forgettable.

 

Let’s briefly look at the plots behind the first three episodes of these series. Grimm started with a big bad werewolf who was attacking girls in red hoodies, moved on to a family of werebears for whom human-hunting was a coming of age ritual and finished their triad with a bee queen who was a messenger of non-human creatures. There was something at least slightly clever about the red riding hoodies, but I was certainly disappointed with the other two stories.

Somebody's been sleeping in my bed...and I guess I'm supposed to be okay with that.

 

The second episode was pretty much a straight retelling of the goldilocks story with the moral changed from “don’t break into strangers houses and use their things without permission” to “werebears shouldn’t kill people”. The whole point of fairy tales was to teach a lesson and Grimm seems to circumvent that premise simply to avoid a moral gray area, which seems like the interesting thing to do with the Grimms’ fairy tales.

 

I don’t personally know anything about the Queen Bee story from which the third episode’s villain originates, but I do know that the episode was pretty dull, and mostly a vehicle to have Nick protect someone who tried to kill his aunt, which bugged me tremendously. He saw the woman try to kill his aunt, and she even attacked him, why does he refuse to tell anyone that she attempted murder? She wasn’t even using supernatural powers at the time, it was old school murder!

 

Meanwhile, ABC’s fairy tale outing offers a more serialized story. The first episode introduces our chief cast of characters and brings the protagonist into the fold, where she already has a positive affect on the cursed town. In the second episode, the evil queen/manipulative mayor tries to turn Emma’s son against her and drive her out of town. Lastly we learn that prince charming is in a coma in the modern world and Snow White’s reincarnation has to bring him back to life.

 

I will admit that Once Upon A Time has been hitting the same note pretty hard in each episode about the tension between Emma, the mayor and their clashing interest in Henry (Emma’s biological son, and the Mayor’s adopted one), and it wasn’t until the third episode that we got the first real taste of how the modern fairy tale aspects play out. Still, the world and its tone are really well defined, and even the fleeting glimpses of beloved fairy tale characters are fun and leave you excited for more.

I said the idea of adaptation, not the movie adaptation! I haven't even seen it, to be honest.

 

I really like the idea of adaptation, which may seem like a strange thing to say. The thing is a clever adaptation can really highlight interesting connections between the source material and a time period, a culture or almost anything, really. An effective adaptation can either make you smile at something funny you may not have thought of or make you think about the underlying symbolism. Ultimately, with both of these series originating from similar source material, their individual quality hinges mainly on how effective they are at the art of adaptation.

 

The writers of Grimm seem confused about how they want to handle their adaptation, and they don’t exactly show signs of finding their way, which doesn’t bode well. I think they should focus less on the procedural police drama shell, which hasn’t been meshing all that well with the whole monster hunting vibe anyway. Instead, I think the focus of the story should be the fairy tales from which these creatures are derived.

 

By doing something interesting and creative with the elements of the story and/or its moral you create something that feels new, but also true to the original, plus it lends your show a distinct identity. If you subvert fairy tales to teach a more modernized lesson, for example, it gives your show a definite tone and feel that set it apart from bland police procedurals. It would also be more engaging and thought provoking than the current model where the lesson from an episode may be, “grr, bears are bad”.

It's true that the evil queen could afford to be a little more subtle. I could literally see this curse coming from a mile away.

 

On the other hand, I’m a big fan of some of the creative choices on OUAT. It’s a nice little touch that Jiminy Cricket, for example, is Archie Hopper – town therapist.  Sometimes the references are a little over the top, such as the evil queen’s ridiculous apple motif, but even those times don’t exactly feel inappropriate for a world full of fairy tale characters without their memories who are driven largely by instinct.

 

Hopefully this has lent you some insight into one of the basic ways I use to evaluate the many TV shows I watch. If you were at all interested in either of these shows, I would definitely recommend Once Upon a Time. It certainly has some flaws, but it both feels more true to the fairy tales on which it is based and feels more creative in its execution. Grimm is nothing more than a sub par ripoff of the series Supernatural, and while I’m not a huge fan of that show either I would easily recommend it over Grimm.

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