Every time the entertainment industry gets on a genre trend, there are critics who announce that the trend has some connection to current cultural/social/political/economic anxieties. Witness the review by Ginia Bellafante of The New York Times; discussing the plethora of new fantasy offerings on television (Terra Nova, Grimm, Once Upon a Time), Bellafonte draws vague but unsubstantiated parallels to paranoia, debt-ceilings and, inevitably, the post 9/11 world.
I have something of a bee in my bonnet regarding this type of genre criticism. Of course genres have relationships to their surrounding cultures but this all-too-easy “cultural anxiety” commentary offers little actual insight into the reasons that certain kinds of stories arise and return. I want suggest that we consider the idea of “fashion,” by which I mean that sometimes story-telling trends develop without a traumatic socio-psychoanalytic origin story. A trend can manifest in a given season for no other reason than that it seems to be the popular (and profitable) thing.
The NBC series Grimm is a case in point. A lifelong aficionado of the fantasy genre, I have watched most of Grimm’s first season, initially with hope but mostly with a waning determination to see it through. Grimm is an old-fashioned police procedural with a fantasy gloss. The premise is that police detective Nick Burkhardt is a “Grimm,” possessing a special sight that enables him to distinguish humans from various fantastical creatures disguised as humans. Naturally, these monsters will run afoul of the law.
Critics have described Grimm as (yet another) reimagination of fairy tales, which it is, yet everything about this series says “classic police procedural”: Nick has a crotchety (albeit mysterious) captain, an African-American sidekick, and a lovely live-in girlfriend. His special sight gives him virtually no advantage in solving crimes (with the exception of the pilot, seen in the video above). The fairy tale element, although often clever, has limited narrative purpose. In fact, most of the cases are solved by straightforward investigation and team work – the trappings of the procedural. It just so happens that there is this “other” world accessorizing the (also conventional) gritty urban landscape; likewise the fantasy elements are draped over the procedural.
Is there anything wrong with this? In principle, no, but let’s call Grimm what it is: an old genre spinster tarted up in the latest hipster chic.