I know that Grimm is old news now, having ended in 2017, but I never got to watch it when it came out, mostly because I was in college and didn’t have a TV. But I love fairy tales. And I love retellings of fairy tales. And I love new stories in the fairy tale tradition (like Pan’s Labyrinth). I think fairy tales don’t even have to be that good for me to like them (though it’s appreciated). So now that I have finally had a chance to watch Grimm, this is not really an assessment of its strengths and weaknesses as a show, so much as its strengths and weaknesses in its use of fairy tales.
As you can guess, Grimm is heavily inspired by Grimm’s fairy tales. All the “fairy tale monsters” turn out to be people who have some additional animal form that also informs their personality (Galapagos turtle people tend to be peaceful, mouse people are skittish, goat people are carousers, and wolf and snake people are often aggressive and predatory, the list goes on.) And then there are grimms, who who can recognize the animal forms and are tasked with keeping the peace between them and humans (which in the past mostly meant mindlessly slaughtering other species.)
This is not the first show to lay itself on a foundation of fairy tales, or even on Grimm’s fairy tales for that matter, but unlike some of its predecessors, the creators were not lazy about their choices. First of all, there’s the title of the show. Not only is it cluing the audience in to the fantastical element, it is telling them what to expect. The show is… well… grim. And they make that clear in the first few seconds of the pilot by starting with a quote from Little Red Riding Hood: “And the wolf thought to himself, what a tender young creature, what a nice plump mouthful… –The Brothers Grimm, 1812.” Then there’s the fact that the brothers Grimm were German, which they utilize by giving most of the monsters German names, like blutbad and hexenbiest. As you learn more about the world, more and more terminology is introduced, and the show uses it in ways that wouldn’t work with just any language. German is notorious for its long words, and the show goes as far as to have people tripping over new terms while old hands code-switch between English and German as if expecting everyone to understand. It’s the kind of humor that, surrounded by the terrors outside the door, is reminiscent of running across Clever Gretel wedged in between the likes of Snow White and The Maiden Without Hands in the Grimm’s anthology. But my favorite tonal aspect of Grimm? There is a secret society that kills Grimms, known as reapers, and thus we have the Grimm Reapers.
But beyond all that, they went there with fairy tales. These are not the Disney stories, and this is not Once Upon a Time. Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood all receive eerie, modern retellings. I love what they did with Cinderella. And if you care about details, you will find their Rumpelstiltskin a work of art. They include everything from the young queen’s promise to three days to guess the name, from her toying with him once she’s figured it out to him splitting down the middle. They even include the bit where he’s dancing around a fire, along with a reference to the miller’s daughter, and a character named Spinner.
You don’t see this level of detail in TV shows much anymore. Creators tend to skim the surface of familiar stories, which is how we end up with episodes like “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester,” (Supernatural S04E07) and “Look Who’s Barking” (Charmed S03E21)… or for that matter, any episode of Charmed. Don’t get me wrong, it can be refreshing to see a new spin on an old ideas, such as in iZombie, when zombies take on the personality of the brains they have eaten. But it’s a rare delight when someone has taken the care to dig into the source material. And I think there’s certainly room for both of those in one place. Take Sherlock, for example, or since we’re talking fantasy, Lost Girl, which made changes such as making sirens neither strictly evil nor strictly female, while also remembering that though the cry of a banshee predicts death, banshees are not themselves malevolent. Now, Lost Girl is far from perfect. One particularly egregious episode is “Groundhog Fae” (S04E08), in which we discover that’s it’s important to celebrate Christmas in July, and Krampus is a dude in a Hawaiian shirt who creates time loops and turns regretful people into candy…. Which made it all the more satisfying when Grimm depicted a goat-man in a Santa suit whipping children for stealing Christmas presents and then throwing them into his sack.
Of course, Krampus is not a Grimm’s fairy tale. Because once Grimm gets going, it expands beyond the Grimm’s canon, including episodes on The Little Mermaid, The Three Little Pigs, and La Llorona. Or, perhaps, it does this even before it gets going, as episode two is based on the story of The Three Bears, which is actually an English folktale. Now, I don’t begrudge Grimm its right to go beyond the original collection. It’s a show about folklore, and as I said before, the title is as much about the tone of the show as it is about the source material. In fact, having grown up in New Mexico, I was excited about the La Llorona episode because I felt like it was digging into my childhood fears. But remember that quote from Little Red Riding Hood in episode one? Well, those quotes show up in every episode. But after episode one, they never have citations.
It is as if Grimm figured that, after the first episode, audiences would just assume all the quotes came from Grimm’s fairy tales. And probably most of them do. But one quote is in Spanish (S03E05 “El Cucuy). Another is “Oh Christmas Tree” (S03E08 “Twelve Days of Krampus”) No one is going to mistake these for quotes from Grimm’s fairy tales. Nor is anyone going to mistake an episode about gladiators or La Llorona. And while there’s nothing wrong with having an episode based on The Little Mermaid, especially when you show the level of attention that Grimm does to the original story, there is a problem with failing to note that The Little Mermaid is a story by Hans Christian Anderson. Now it is possible that some of these episodes feature Grimm’s quotes and stories from others, but this doesn’t exactly solve the problem, as it conflates the two stories. The lack of citations seems to attribute each story to Grimm’s, like some sort of second-hand plagiarism.
And why bother passing off another story as a Grimm’s tale when there are already so many Grimm’s stories out there? This is a great chance to play with some of the more obscure fairy tales in the canon. After all, The Donkey is perfect for the premise they set up. Or they could remind us that in the original Frog Prince, the frog is a total creep! And where’s the episode on Fitcher’s Bird? Personally, I prefer a show with an expansive set of folklore, especially if they are going to show that folklore the respect of digging into it properly. But citing sources is also a way of paying respect to the original material, and it is no less important.