At the start of this television season, I boldly pronounced that of the two fairytale shows competing for attention, Grimm was the superior, a cult series in the making, while Once Upon A Time lacked the punch it needed to take off. As we start rounding the corner and heading towards season finales, it’s time to look back over series debuts and determine which made it through the tough hazing process, as well as which shows ended up having the staying power to keep viewers interested. And, of course, we get to determine which of my predictions was accurate, and which were woefully out of touch.
To my surprise, Grimm went rapidly downhill after my initial optimism for the show, while Once Upon A Time held steady. I’m not entirely in love with ABC’s entry in the fairy tale sweepstakes, but the creators have played much more with fairytales and haven’t been afraid to build a dark, complex, dynamic, and above all interesting world populated with a myriad of characters who all hold their own on screen. Grimm has experienced dipping ratings, while Once Upon A Time is holding a strong lead with viewers, despite a wealth of competing content on Sunday nights.
So where did Grimm go wrong?
One of the mistakes the creators appear to have made is turning the show into a garden variety procedural, rather than playing up the fairytale aspect. Grimm seems to be first and foremost a narrative about detective work. With a twist, but it’s not enough of a twist to make it stand out from the array of procedurals already airing. Viewers have lots of choices when it comes to procedurals, and honestly, if NBC had to choose between Prime Suspect and Grimm, they’d have been better off sticking with Prime Suspect; at least that show was funny.
Too much of this show focuses around Nick’s manpain, which makes it hard to distinguish from an assortment of other offerings. It’s telling that he was initially pitched as the only major character and Monroe was only added as a regular after the fact, when the creators realised he had a lot of potential. Everyone else is a sidekick, and the show lacks the ensemble feel that can turn something into a cult classic. Viewers have a hard time identifying with a show when there’s only one lead, and they don’t feel like part of a team; they can’t put themselves into the action because there’s no space for them.
As Nick agonises over his secret life as a Grimm, both his human and supernatural friends take backseats to his primary narratives. His girlfriend and detective partner don’t feel very fleshed out, and Monroe is a great character actor, but isn’t quite strong enough to be considered a team member. Especially since Nick is constantly using and abusing him; like Hank, he’s treated as subservient to Nick and his needs, as a mere vehicle for something rather than as his own character with individual wants and needs.
The hero rescuing women in distress complex also gets rather old rather quickly; so much of Grimm is either about Nick saving hapless ladies from evil monsters, when it’s not evil monsters who are ladies. When the only prominent recurring female character is Juliette and she’s basically a cypher—she’s a veterinarian, ostensibly, but have we ever seen her practice?—the overriding message in the show is that women are set pieces, props, and narrative tools, not human beings.
Early Grimm had a very Buffy feel, not surprising because the shows shared some creative talent. Unlike Buffy, though, Grimm failed to play with the stereotypes and scenes it was depicting, and it didn’t push at some of the classic mythology about things that go bump in the night. Instead, it reinforced it, and added a heavy layer of dull procedural on top of it for exactly the sort of dense, knobbly cake that everyone wisely avoids at the buffet table because it’s probably got carob hiding in it somewhere.
Police work and detection can be fun, especially in a supernatural setting, but they’re more fun with a team, and Grimm lacks that. This is a show that’s primarily about one person, and Nick honestly isn’t that interesting, which makes it hard to engage with him on a weekly basis. The show needs something to draw viewers.
It can’t be the relationships, because they aren’t really allowed to develop and they’re primarily one-sided, focusing on Nick and his feelings. It can’t be the things that go bump in the night, because they’re treated as cases of the week with no real depth. It can’t be the detection work, because the show mainly consists of Nick being led around by a long-suffering Monroe until he finally falls by accident into a pool of solutions. And it can’t be the worldbuilding, because there really isn’t any; Buffy at least had a hellmouth going for it.
The takeaway with Grimm seems to be that simply throwing supernatural elements at a board and seeing if they stick isn’t quite enough, even with moody sets and a delightful sense of camp. Someone, somewhere, has to do some actual plot and character development.