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Television Reviews

Fairy-tale characters come to life

Top: Lana Parrilla and Jamie Dornan in ABC’s “Once Upon a Time.’’ Above: David Giuntoli (left) and Russell Hornsby star in NBC’s “Grimm.’’ Top: Lana Parrilla and Jamie Dornan in ABC’s “Once Upon a Time.’’ Above: David Giuntoli (left) and Russell Hornsby star in NBC’s “Grimm.’’ (jack rowand/abc (top); scott green/nbc)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / October 21, 2011

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Back stories: We’ve all got ’em. They used to be known simply as histories, or biographies, or background, but since the popularity of “Lost,’’ the word has become commonplace in regard to TV storytelling. As we get to know a character, we flash back to significant scenes from his or her past, to explain current motivations. The back story helps to explain the now story, which of course will go on to determine the later story, which we just might get to see in a flash-forward.

Two new series, ABC’s “Once Upon a Time’’ and NBC’s “Grimm,’’ offer big-time twists in the back story department - they use fairy tales as the back stories for their major characters. The dramas are quite different in tone, but both of them give us a cast of contemporary characters whose histories reach into the world of sleeping princesses and big bad wolves. In the process, they play with the possibilities of actually having a fairy-tale happy ending in today’s less-than-ideal world.

The better of the two shows is “Once Upon a Time,’’ which premieres on Sunday night at 8 on Channel 5. The “Enchanted’’-esque premise is hard to describe - which isn’t automatically a bad thing. Some of TV’s best shows resist easy categorization, as they ambitiously piece together genres and styles. But “Once Upon a Time’’ is also a little convoluted, which, at least in the pilot, works against it. Created by a pair of “Lost’’ writers, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, the script rests on a conceit that’s so elaborate it could give John Donne and his fleas a headache.

Here we go: Fairy-tale characters, including Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin, have been banished from their world by the Evil Queen, and sent to the quaint Maine town of Storybrooke. Their memories have been wiped clean, so they have no idea that they were once magical inventions. The show’s narrative toggles back and forth between the fairy tale world and Storybrooke, so, for instance, we see Ginnifer Goodwin (from “Big Love’’) as both Snow White and as schoolteacher Mary Margaret. The Evil Queen is also Regina, the mayor of Storybrooke (she’s played by Lana Parrilla of “Swingtown’’), and she appears to be one of the few who knows the truth.

Meanwhile, in contemporary Boston, Jennifer Morrison from “House’’ plays Emma, who doesn’t know she is the daughter of Prince Charming and Snow White. She is lured to Storybrooke by the son she gave up for adoption 10 years ago. That son, Henry (Jared Gilmore), is obsessed with fairy tales, and he seems to know the truth about everyone’s past. Emma is a skeptic, but, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear at the end of the pilot, she decides to stay in Storybrooke and look into Henry’s theory.

I expect that some viewers will be enthralled with all this twisted whimsy, and ABC has scheduled the show for a family audience. It’s the kind of story that just might make perfect sense to kids, while it doesn’t stand up to much adult logic. Like “Pushing Daisies,’’ the show is certainly original, and that’s quite something in our age of TV procedural overload.

“Grimm,’’ which premieres next Friday at 9 on Channel 7, is less appealing. It’s a glum series with a forced sense of dark atmosphere. The idea is that the Grimm Brothers weren’t fiction writers - they were chronicling what they actually saw in order to warn the world. Homicide detective Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) of Portland, Ore., is one of their descendants, and he now has the power to track down the supernatural beings who wander among us disguised as humans. Nick isn’t particularly pleased when he learns about his familial obligations, but he accepts them.

Each week, Nick will be finding a different creature, which means that, deep down, “Grimm’’ is a procedural. Along the way, he will get sage advice from a reformed wolf named Monroe, who struggles not to shape-shift and attack. Indeed, Monroe has taken up vegetarianism - the kind of humorous flourish that this bland show so desperately needs.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.

ONCE UPON A TIME

Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison, Lana Parrilla, Jared Gilmore, Josh Dallas, Robert Carlyle

On: ABC, Channel 5

Time: Sunday night, 8-9

GRIMM

Starring: David Giuntoli, Russell Hornsby, Silas Weir Mitchell, Bitsie Tulloch

On: NBC, Channel 7

Time: Next Friday night, 9-10