Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas in a scene from "Once Upon a Time." (Jack Rowand / ABC )
NBC's "Grimm" and ABC's "Once Upon a Time" are two structurally different shows — one is a police procedural, the other a family drama — that share the same twist: fairy tales as historical nonfiction.
In "Grimm," David Giuntoli plays Nick Burckhardt, a Portland, Ore., police detective who discovers that he is the latest in a long line of second-sighted slayers, sort of like Buffy only with fairy-tale monsters instead of vampires. In "Once Upon a Time," Jennifer Morrison (late of "House") plays Emma Swan, a bail bondswoman who will discover, eventually, that she is the child of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) and is the only one who can lift the curse that has trapped her parents and the rest of their storybook friends in a place "with no happy endings." As in "Enchanted," that would be modern-day America, this time New England rather than New York.
If only Bruno Bettelheim were alive to note the current climate of financial and socio-political unease and wonder aloud if our return to the tales of childhood isn't an attempt to boil things down to the basics and fight our fears through metaphor.
Nah. TV is a business, business is about making money, and fantasy, still riding the cloak-tails of Harry Potter, remains hot enough for writers and network execs to cast about for the next way to package it. HBO's "True Blood" started off with vampires and werewolves and branched out into witches and fairies; the CW gave us "Vampire Diaries" and, this season, teen witches in "The Secret Circle"; AMC raised it a zombie with "The Walking Dead"; MTV remade "Teen Wolf"; and FX resurrected ghosts with "American Horror Story." So having run through Bram Stoker, Lon Chaney, Nathaniel Hawthorne and George Romero, a return to the primary source, fairy tales, was inevitable — but still quite risky, as both "Grimm" and "Once Upon a Time" make clear, relying on old formulas in the hopes of toning down the inevitable, and audience-narrowing, lace-and-leather requirements of the genre.
"Grimm," which premieres Friday, is the most pat of the two. Nick is a self-admitted "happy-ending guy," engaged to the lovely Juliette (Bitsie Tulloch) and exchanging crime-scene quips with his partner Hank (Russell Hornsby) when the aunt who raised him (the always marvelous Kate Burton) shows up. Practically dead from cancer, she informs him that he is a Grimm, capable of seeing, and killing, monsters that pose as humans (including the one currently attacking young women wearing red hoodies). There's an old book, a family talisman, special weapons and an informative funny confidant — an evolved werewolf named Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell) who is, not surprisingly, the best thing about the pilot. All of which adds up to a nice, moody, entertaining-enough hour and the troublesome question of how interesting this will be by the third episode. Joss Whedon had the tense longings of adolescence (not to mention the living nightmare of high school) to give "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" depth; in "Grimm," it will depend on the cleverness of the crimes and how effectively creators David Greenwalt (who worked on "Buffy" and its spinoff "Angel") and Jim Kouf (also "Angel") can convince us that the terrors of our childhood imaginations are actual forces of evil at work in the world.
"Once Upon a Time," which premieres Sunday and comes from Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis (both of "Lost"), has that part nailed; it's surviving the fairy-tale opening that takes some doing. Goodwin is as good a Snow White as you're going to get this side of animation, but the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) seems to think she's Maleficent (different fairy tale if anyone's keeping track, which clearly no one is). After the Evil Queen promises a happiness-ending curse, Snow consults an incarcerated Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle), who explains that only her unborn child can save characters as disparate as Jiminy Cricket and Red Riding Hood from their fate, which is to be transported to the modern world with no knowledge of who they are. (Their essential personalities remain intact, however; Snow White is a teacher, Rumpelstiltskin goes by Mr. Gold, etc.)
Once the action leaves the overly Maxfield Parrish-ized world of magic trees and drooping pregnant princesses, things pick up considerably. There's a book; there an enlightened boy, Henry (Jared Gilmore); and best of all, there's Morrison. Her Emma is predictably cynical and prickly — fairy-tale princess, my Aunt Fanny — but she's sharp and lively enough to keep audiences begging for "just a few more pages" before they go to bed.