Which is better, “Grimm” or “Once Upon a Time”?

 
 


Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) in Once Upon a Time

So there are two fairy tale-themed TV shows debuting in the days ahead, NBC’s Grimm and ABC’s Once Upon a Time, and naturally everyone is comparing them, making a conclusion about which one is better, even as the producers and networks insist they’re both totally different.

The truth is, there are some differences — one is basically a crime-drama-with-a-twist and the other is much more outright contemporary fantasy. But they are remarkably similar. When was the last time there was a primetime network show that dealt with fairy tales? (That said, let’s face it: with the movies Beastly, two Snow Whites, all the various Shreks, and Red Riding Hood, fairy tale retellings are clearly all the rage.)

So which is better, Grimm or Once Upon a Time? The truth is, neither show shook me to the core of my being, at least based on the pilot (which are always difficult to judge a show by), but I thought Once Upon a Time was much better.

The problem with Grimm is that it’s an obvious premise broadly done.

Nick is a detective investigating a particularly weird case: people who seem to have been eaten by wild animals in the middle of the city. It doesn’t help that he is personally seeing weird things — glimpses of creature-like beings superimposed on the faces of the people around him. Just when he thinks he’s starting to go insane, the aunt who raised him shares with him an important detail about his heritage: fairy tales are real, and while the evil creatures are hidden from most human’s eyes, he’s a “Grimm,” a human born with the ability to see them for what they are. It’s also his destiny to fight these otherworldly creatures.

Along with this ordinary person making a very Buffy-like discovery, the gimmick of the show is apparently that each week Nick will investigate some fairy-tale related case, even if the rest of the folks in the real world don’t see it that way. But I found the fairy tales too literal — in the pilot, the villain literally lives in a fairy-tale like cottage in the woods — but the police-work is too fantasy: the detectives routinely violate basic police guidelines without thought or consequence.

There’s a nice surprise midway through the pilot, when one of the villains isn’t exactly who he seems to be. But for the most part, everything else felt really dumbed down. It seems like just another crime procedural, except with a twist, and a bit of an over-arching story that we’ve seen too many times before, on Buffy and elsewhere.


David Giuntoli (right) as Nick in Grimm

Once Upon a Time seems both smarter and more ambitious. But it also requires more of a suspension of disbelief.

The pilot has alternating storylines — one in a land of fairy tales where mythical folks like Red Riding Hood and Rumpelstiltskin live. On the day that Snow White and Prince Charming are marrying, they’re interrupted by an evil queen who vows to curse all the fairy tale creatures: they’ll find themselves trapped in a world without happy endings — what we know as the “real” world — and they won’t remember who they are.

But before the curse is complete, Snow (which is actually what she’s called here!) and Prince manage to magically send their baby daughter Emma to a “safe” place.

Meanwhile, a second storyline tells of an adult woman also named Emma who is drawn into the goings-on in a sleepy town called Storybrooke. A boy who reads too many fairy tales is convinced that all the residents of his town are these mythical fairy tale beings who do not age. But he can’t convince Emma that she’s actually the grown-up daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, mostly because she’s lived the exact opposite of a fairy tale life.

If you’re determined to find all this ridiculous, you absolutely will. But if you approach it with an open mind (and ignore a few admittedly clunky moments), you’ll be surprised by the show’s promise. While Grimm has a ham-fisted approach to fairy tales, there’s some genuine wit in Once Upon a Time: in the real world, the Woman Formerly Known as Snow White has a particular way with birds, for example, and she makes a point to eat pears, not apples.

While Grimm mostly squanders its real-world setting, I thought Once Upon a Time did a great job of taking fairy tales and blending in some serious real-world angst. By the end of the pilot I cared about these former fairy tale folk. Jennifer Morrison, who played Zoey on How I Met Your Mother, is particularly effective as world-weary Emma.

And while Grimm is one of those pilots that sets up the show’s situation and offers little more, except the promise of some vague future battle to be waged, Once Upon a Time introduces all kinds of weird characters and mysteries that I’m genuinely interested in learning more about. And you can’t do much better than Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin — a villain in the world of fairy tales, but a rich and powerful man in the “real” world. Meanwhile, Lana Parrilla (Swingtown) chews the scenery as both the evil queen and the mayor of Storybrooke — a role that has massive camp potential.

The success of both Grimm and Once Upon a Time depend, of course, on their executions. But in the first round of this smack-down, based on the pilot alone, I’m declaring the latter show the clear winner.

Grimm airs Fridays, premiering October 21, 2011 on NBC, and Once Upon a Time airs Sundays, premiering October 23, on ABC.

 
 

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