Because I have a particular fondness for fairy tale retellings, and occasionally, a girl’s got to watch television that she doesn’t analyze to death, I’ve been keeping up with both Grimm and Once Upon a Time. Both could be loosely described as fairy tale procedurals. In Grimm, a cop finds out that he’s descended from a long line of fairy-tale creature-fighters, and begins taking out the worst of them with the help of his policing skills and a werewolf who repairs clocks for a living and does pilates in his spare time. In Once Upon a Time, Emma, a bail bondswoman who gave her son up for adoption as an infant, has her life turned upside down when the boy tracks her down and asks her to move to Storybrook. There, Emma becomes the town sheriff, working to solve a number of mysteries caused, unbeknownst to her and the rest of the town’s residents except the mayor, by the fact that all of the citizens are exiled from fairy tales by the Mayor’s — really the Evil Queen’s — curse.
I think there are two reasons Once Upon a Time is working better than Grimm for me. First, the serialization in Once is much stronger than it is in Grimm. In the latter show, Nick is supposed to be part of this long tradition of monster-hunters, enmeshed in a struggle with some sort of monster organization. But the show hasn’t done very much to advance or make meaningful that narrative except to give Nick a van full of evil-vanquishing goodies. Monsters show up, are defeated, and disappear without giving us a sense of the larger world around us.
In Once, by contrast, the episodes are part of a contiguous fairy tale about the rise of a great evil. Every case teaches something about what happened to the characters in the past that contributes to our understanding of where they were when we met them — and our sense of where they’ll go. The interlocking stories feel considered, rather than slapped together. And the fairy tale characters are reconsidered in ways that feel thoughtful and intelligent: Snow White is a forest-dwelling badass after her exile from her cushy castle life; Rumplestiltskin is a grieving father; and Midas is basically a central bank, controlling the economies of entire kingdoms.
Second, I think the re-envisioning of the detective role is more interesting in Once Upon a Time than in Grimm. Nick is basically your standard white-boy detective with a black partner for balance and some extra equipment. It’s true that it’s not totally unusual for blonde white women to be cops either. But Emma’s operating in a world that feels different because it’s largely ruled by women on Once. Women hold the mayor and sheriff’s office. The most notable teacher in town is a woman, as is the proprietor of the local watering hold. There are, of course, men in Storybrook, ranging from the therapist to the newspaper editor. But Rumplestiltskin is the most powerful man in town by a good measure, and he tends to exert power outside the traditional channels rather than holding official office. The show doesn’t hammer it in obsessively, but it is nice to spend time in an environment where the normal assumptions about who controls things are flipped.