Thu
Oct 25 2012 3:00pm

Don’t Touch That Dial: Monsters and Magic

Welcome to “Don’t Touch That Dial,” a new mini-series in which I, your friendly neighborhood television addict, will break down some of the shows screaming for your attention. In this very special episode we’re tackling SFF, namely Grimm, Once Upon a Time, Supernatural, and The Vampire Diaries. Be warned, these reviews contain moderate SPOILERS for previous seasons, nothing worse than what you’d get by checking out the show’s summary on its network site, but still, don’t come into this post expecting to keep your televisual virginity intact. Any shows in particular you’d like me to cover? Drop me a line in the comments.

Grimm

The Road So Far: Grimm (NBC, Fri 9pm) is a drama series ostensibly inspired by the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. Portland homicide detective Nick Burkhardt is the latest in an ancient line of “Grimms,” aka monster hunters, who can see monsters in their human form. Season two deals with the fallout of his friend and fellow cop, Hank, and his fiancée, Juliette (last seen trapped in a magic-induced coma that was eating away her memories), finding out there really are things that go bump in the night and that Nick is the only thing that stands between them and death. Also, his boss might be a monster, his mother faked her own death, and his friend is the world’s tallest/least scary Blutbad (aka werewolf).

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Grimm could be a good show. It certainly isn’t a bad show. Heck, I burned through most of the first season while doing laundry one Sunday afternoon. Couldn’t tell you much about what happened - I dunno, something about bear people and a witch with a zombie face or whatever - but it was on and it wasn’t distracting enough to require constant attention or offensive enough that I had to turn it off. At this point, Portland suddenly becoming the epicenter of all German-based supernatural activity, and why no one else seems to be bothered that a whole mansion was turned into a giant beehive is a plot hole so large it’s threatening to rip apart the fabric of the universe. But since the writers don’t seem to be interested in even hanging a lampshade on it, then I can’t be arsed either.

The problem with Grimm is that it’s on the wrong channel. On NBC, Grimm is trapped between wanting to have this vast internal mythology and meddling studio execs keeping it on the well-worn path of a serialized procedural (it’s easier - or so the rationalization goes - to get ratings if people can pop in and out at random and still keep up, than if they’re forced to tune in every week or risk being left behind). Put it on Fox, with it’s crass, glib, “look at all the fucks I do not give” attitude and out comes the slow second cousin of Dollhouse. Move it to ABC and you’d end up with a nifty but likely problematic little show half-Castle and half-Pushing Daisies. A station like CBS doesn’t care if no one takes it seriously. It has long since accepted that it will air nothing but visual cotton candy, and, frankly, with their ratings they can afford to stick with base humor. Put Grimm there where it really belongs and you’ve basically got Moonlight, a show that was never going to be quality television but did exactly what it said on the box. It was formulaic, the stars were nice to look at, and there were worse ways to spend an hour of primetime. Or be daring and move it to the CW. Age down the leads about five years, crank up the camp and you’ve got basically Supernatural or seasons 1 and 2 of Buffy and Angel (otherwise known as Alex’s favorite seasons, because how can you hate on Angel Investigations or cheerleader!Buffy?).

TL;DR: If your Friday night date cancels on you and you find yourself out of library books to read, then sure, why not.

 

Once Upon a Time

The Road So Far: In Once Upon a Time (ABC, Sun 8pm), Snow White’s evil queen stepmother gets revenge by casting a dark spell on Fairy Tale Land. Everyone’s memories but hers are erased and they are all sent to Storybrooke, ME, where time stands still. I’m all sorts of confused by the rules of her magic system because they keep changing it every 2 minutes (when the writers run into a plot hole they can’t dig their way out of), but basically Snow White and Prince Charming’s kid is a magic baby Jesus who is the key to saving them all from having to live in Maine. Dr. Cameron from House shows up after being backwards kidnapped by the son she gave up for adoption to the evil queen. At the beginning of season 2, she’s cured the town’s amnesia and brought magic to the north Atlantic. She’s also ripped a hole in the magic/real world space-time continuum and hijinks ensue.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Surprisingly, Once Upon a Time isn’t half bad. I tried breezing through it but found myself drawn in, at least when it was set in the modern world. The fairy tale stuff still feels jarring and unnecessary and completely ridiculous, and everytime they turn to Mulan pining over Prince Philip, I start wandering over to see what’s happening on Tumblr. I get it, they’re trying to be all Disney princess about it, but that has less than zero appeal for me. The good thing about the new season is now the flashbacks have caught up to the present and it’s really more like looking into a parallel dimension - confusing, I know, but it somehow kinda works.

The meat of the show is the modern world, and Cameron in particular. (Yes, I know she has a different name on this show, but for the life of me I’ll never remember her as anything else.) She’s surrounded by all these eternally cheerful characters and instead of getting sucked into their world of mindless joy, she gets pissy about it. When she’s reunited with the family she always dreamt of, instead of hugs and tears she’s real enough to understand that new circumstances don’t change 28 years of loneliness and abandonment issues. She’s as real as everyone else is fake, and it’s wonderful in how rare that is to see on TV.

My major grievances come down to Once Upon a Time being trapped on Disney-owned ABC. It’s a show that needs to be bold, to have characters with fiery personalities, to be helmed by a station willing to go out on a limb. ABC takes chances with it, but they’re always the most un-riskiest risks (hello black Lancelot). An evil queen set on destroying the world should be chewing scenery right and left, not behaving like the bitchy trophy wife at the PTA. The fairy tale characters aren’t acting like any old fairy tale characters, but Disney characters. It screws with the whole dynamic of the show. If Tiana or Flynn Ryder show up in season 2 I would not be surprised, but I’d also be more irritated than I already am.

TL;DR: It ain’t the best thing on air, not by a longshot, but out of the glut of SFF hogging up the channels right now, it’s definitely worth your eyeballs. The season 2 premiere will bring you up to speed; save catching up on season 1 for summer vacay.

 

Supernatural

The Road So Far: Supernatural (CW, Wed 9pm) opens in 1983 as Sam and Dean Winchester’s mother dies a horrific, fiery death. Their dad, John, started hunting his wife’s killer and anything else monstrous and evil that got in the way, until one day he vanished. In 2005, Dean and Sam reunited for what was supposed to be a temporary road trip to track down dear old dad, and ended up being a seven-year-long journey full of demons, angels, prophets, witches, werewolves, vampires, shapeshifters, gods, djinn, and everything in between. By season 8, the mythology’s way too involved to summarize, but all you need to know is both brothers are back together after Dean’s extended absence in Purgatory, the King of Hell has the Word of God but no prophet to translate it, and Sam is in love with a puppy.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: You have no idea how hard it was to not turn this column into a 5,000 word essay on why I love Supernatural. Since it premiered in 2005, a friend of mine had nagged me non-stop to watch it, said it would be right up my alley and could fill the void left when Angel was unceremoniously kicked off the air. For 7 years I waffled, and when I finally sat down this past August with the first disc of season 1 from Netflix, I died right there on the couch. As soon as the pilot ended, I went to my laptop, hopped over to Amazon, and bought the entire series. It took me 6 weeks to get through. I did nothing but watch Sam and Dean and Cas and have my heart broken over and over. And I loved every frakking second.

The mythology is great. It starts out small - the boys want to find their missing dad - and spirals into this vast conspiracy of loss and abandonment and lies, theology and philosophy, destiny and free will, love and hate and sex and violence. As the mythology deepends and the cast of characters expand and intertwine, it becomes clear that in this ’verse, the Big Bads unapologetically enjoy being wicked, the good guys will always disappoint you, and no one is ever what you think they are. Villains help the protags just as frequently as the heroes betray them. True, season 6 and 7 are kind of a drag in the middle bits (though 6 contains one of my favorite episodes of television ever, and Sammy’s adorably afraid of clowns), but seasons 4 and 5 are pretty darn awesome and season gr8 is off to a fantastic start.

But the best part of the show is Sam and Dean - more accurately, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. Their real life chemistry is astounding, and over the last 8 years they’ve not only gotten closer as friends but they’ve also grown with their characters. Jensen in particular does these little off-handed expressions and gestures, things that Dean would do as a real person but that an actor wouldn’t think to do because it’s not in the script. I can ignore the repetitive use of the same sets, the reductive dialogue, and the tire-spinning eps - if I can deal with that nonsense in Moffat’s Doctor Who, I can certainly deal with it on Supernatural. J2 is really what keeps me coming back. And I haven’t even touched on the unrelenting hurt/comfort that is Misha Collins’ Castiel, sarcastic awesomeness that is Mark Sheppard’s Crowley, and the general badassery that is Osric Chau’s Kevin Tran.

TL;DR: How’s your tolerance for cheap sets, less-than-stellar dialogue, and campy Monster of the Week story lines? This, like The Vampire Diaries, is not a show for everyone, but if you can get over the sillier aspects of it and accept Supernatural into your heart, it will leave a bawling mess of tears and slash fic.

 

The Vampire Diaries

The Road So Far: Very broadly, The Vampire Diaries (CW, Thurs 8pm) - based on a bunch of YA novels by L. J. Smith - is about two vampire brothers both in varying degrees of love, lust, and obsession with Elena, a girl who looks exactly like Katherine, the crazy evil chick they both pined over in 1864. A ton of stuff happened in the first three seasons - seriously, dude, this show goes through plots like there’s a half off sale - all of which leads up to Elena turning vamp and her newfound kin getting outed to the local townsfolk. And on top of all that, Elena has to deal with senior year of high school.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Nothing about this show is Emmy-worthy, but frankly I think that says more about the awards than the show. Few shows on tv are this much damn fun. The first season sucked, and I drifted out midway through (much like I did with Fringe...), but with my newly minted obsession with Teen Wolf, I decided to check back in with the little vampire soap that could, and was not disappointed. So much about this show is so bad it’s good. The actors only have two modes: “Kristen Stewart taught me that shouting is the same as emoting” and “Advanced Placement Scenery Chewing.” The flashbacks look like a high school theater production of The Scarlet Letter - the wigs, Christ Almighty, the terrible, terrible wigs!

The Vampire Diaries does bad so well, but it also does good well, too. (Yes, that grammar hurt me as much as it hurt you.) Every ep features at least 15 different crazy town banana pants story arcs, all of which have important and deadly ramifications. In this show, if you do something stupid, more often than not you are punished harsly for it. Tied in with that, the villains are actually villainous, and the heroes are too busy doing battle with them to waste much time brooding. But the thing this show does the best are cliffhangers. An episode doesn’t just end, it teases out the next one. Trust me when I tell you it is freakishly easy to unexpectedly devote an entire weekend to a Vampire Diaries marathon.

TL;DR: Season 1 is skippable, and if you’re really hard up for time start with the latest season (4). But in season 2 the main character has an evil twin. AN EVIL TWIN. And there are werewolves and witches and ghosts and magic rings that bring people back from the dead. I swear to God, it’s so much fun. It has everything True Blood never quite got the hang of.


Alex Brown is an archivist, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

21 comments
nicole rich
1. nrich
Heh. Eventually, I will get you to watch Fringe again. That show is crazy pants awesome once you get through the first season of monster of the weeks and hit the main insane plot thread. It has only gotten better the last couple of seasons, IMO.

Supernatural. Is. The. Best. You are welcome.
Joseph Kingsmill
2. JFKingsmill16
Supernatural is lightyears better than these three other shows.
Alex Brown
3. AlexBrown
@Adelle and JFK: Supernatural is made of win and awesome and I hate you, Adelle, I hate you so frakking much for turning me onto that show. You are a life ruiner.
Alex Brown
5. AlexBrown
***Edited because trollish post was deleted, but I think my response holds merit in and of itself, so...***

The remarkable thing about art is that it is subjective. I'm so glad you loved (someone has to), but just because you did doesn't make your opinion the definitive judgement anymore than my opinion does. Hence calling it a "review" rather than "the only completely accurate description this show will and can ever have for the rest of eternity."

Instead of being angry about why I personally found incredibly meh, why not tell people why you liked it so much? What about it appeals to you? It's easier to get people interested in something you like by telling them why you like it rather than yelling about someone else who doesn't.
Shelly wb
6. shellywb
Grimm and Once Upon a Time bored us a bit. Grimm was too 'were-thing of the week', and after the were-bees we just couldn't take anymore. Once Upon a Time had all these interesting characters and possibilities and *didn't do anything with them*. It was too frustrating to watch.

My husband and I love Supernatural. Or, we loved 1-5, thought 6 meh, hated 7, and are glad 8 is back on track. It's got a great cast, great monsters/scares, is very funny at times, and has a great sound track and cars (what were they think, getting rid of those last season?). But you've got to admit, they have some serious problems with female characters. Still, I'll keep coming back because of the chemistry of the whole ensemble cast. Crowley, Kevin, the new guy are all great (but oh how I miss Bobby...).
Emma
7. margaery
The CW, gettin' it done!
I love Supernatural and though I'm often embarassed to admit it, The Vampire Diaries kinda rocks.
Alan Brown
8. AlanBrown
I like Grimm, and other than the first episode this year, that had way to many expository lumps, this second season was pretty good.
Once Upon A Time is also good, although it is hard to see where it wants to go this year, and there are some things about the setting that bug me (if no one can visit or leave Storybrooke, where do they get their modern products and spare parts and gasoline for vehicles, for example). But there has been some good acting, and interesting story lines.
The other shows I don't watch, so I can't comment on.
I do like Haven, the SyFy show set in a remote Maine town, it is a fun show.
What happened to Teresa, our previous fantasy show reviewer for Tor.com?
Alex Brown
9. AlexBrown
@shelly: I agree totally with you on just about everything you've said. Supernatural does have a pretty major problem with female characters, and I'm not sure it'll ever get fixed in a way that will satisfy those of us bothered by it.

@margaery: Don't be embarrassed at enjoying The Vampire Diaries. There's no shame in enjoying television candy :)

@Alan: The gaping plot holes in the practicalities of Storybrooke also nag at me, but I try not to think about it because when I do I get very upset and annoyed and it throws off the whole show for me.

If by Teresa you mean Teresa Jusino, she and I and many others have regularly reviewed SFF shows for Tor.com for a few years now. We all happily co-exist.
Kainos
10. Kainos
You may chalk my comment up to anger but how can we take a reviewer serious when they write.

"Heck, I burned through most of the first season while doing laundry one Sunday afternoon. Couldn’t tell you much about what happened."

Seriously how are we to view this opinion? How can a website I read daily even think this is worthy of their readership.
Bridget McGovern
11. BMcGovern
@Kainos: If you disagree with a review, please feel free to say so, but do not attack or berate the reviewer. If it's helpful, here's a link to our moderation policy; there's no reason to be disrespectful or uncivil. Thanks.
Kainos
12. B.
I enjoy three out of four of these. I haven't watched Supernatural at all, but judging by a lot of the fan response I read at various sites, it's worth the time. I remember when it first started on CW (was it called WB back then?) and thinking I'd give it a try and never got around to it. Hello, Netflix!

I thought season 1 of TVD was quite good. We watched the whole thing during a beach trip. Season 2 was much better, IMO. Season 3 was good, but not quite as strong but I keep watching cause it's just so much fun!

Once and Grimm are also in the "fun" category. They may have their issues, but it's better than nothing. I can hardly find anything else that isn't a straight up procedural or reality show that holds my interest.

Looking forward to more of your columns!
Alex Brown
13. AlexBrown
@B: Def crack Supernatural out of the box and give it a try. The 1st season is very heavy on the MotW (which I personally love), but it's killer by the 5th season. Shelly@6 is right that seasons 6-7 are far less impressive, but currently airing season GR8 is back to season 5-level awesomeness.

For me, Once Upon a Time is much more fun than Grimm, but I didn't hate Grimm either. As much as I love MotW, I still want some sort of season-covering story arc, and what it's offering isn't interesting enough to keep me willingly coming back. I have so many other things to watch that Grimm just doesn't have enough to compete. But I'll probably come back to it next summer and burn through season 2 on Netflix.

And if you thought this post caused a minor kerfuffle, wait 'til you read the next one...
Thomas Simeroth
14. a smart guy
Just curious, but are they ever going to bring back the Battle of the Fairy Tale Shows? That was an awesome series
Alan Brown
15. AlanBrown
@14 That's what I was saying! We want Teresa Jusino!
(Nothing against you Alex, but that Battle of the Fairy Tale Shows format was a fun way to review the programs.)
john mullen
16. johntheirishmongol
I am a terrible critic, since I normally love genre shows, especially over the same insipid garbage that comes out most of the time. Any more detective shows anyone? How about medical shows? Something different is almost always more entertaining to me.
Alex Brown
17. AlexBrown
@john: Not the next post but the one after that I'm covering mysteries and procedurals (Castle, Elementary, Dexter). Got any others you'd like me to throw in? I probably won't do medical since that doesn't really fit the Tor.com program (also, since House went off the air there's nota single medical show left I have any interest in)...
Justin Levitt
18. TyranAmiros
While I agree Supernatural has a problem with female characters, I appreciate it more for not introducing the WB/CW-staple bland, whining leading lady who brings down the rest of the show. Sam and Dean's love story (not like that!) and Dean and Castiel (maybe like that) is enough. I wouldn't be opposed to a major female character on the side of good, but I don't think it could be a love interest for Sam or Dean.
Alex Brown
20. AlexBrown
@Tyran: After Meg's turnabout last season, I was kinda hoping she'd end up as the new Jo/Ellen, but she has yet to turn up... And as much as I love Destiel (and I do so loooooove Destiel), I think a romance of sorts between Meg and Cas would be really interesting, even if it stayed un-acted-upon.
john mullen
21. johntheirishmongol
@ Alex...you might try to do one on the cable networks original programming. Things like Sons of Anarchy, Walking Dead, Justified, Haven, Burn Notice or even lighter ones like White Collar. I do like Castle, which reminds me a bit of Thin Man movies, more than just a procedural.
Alex Brown
22. AlexBrown
@john: Got The Walking Dead covered, Justified is between seasons, Burn Notice doesn't come back 'til Nov. 8, White Collar just ended, and I'm not sure Sons of Anarcy (though it is frakking awesome) qualifies as a genre show. But great suggestions all around. I've also got sitcoms and comedies for nerds in the offing that should satisfy the desire for something offbeat...
Kainos
23. MysaNal
Grimm has really found itself this season - we skipped several eps in first season, but now The Hubby and I love it.

I adore Once Upon A Time. For me, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that it's probably the most feminist show on TV since Buffy.

Supernatural... yes. It's The Boys that make this show work, even when it was a goofy MotW show. And Castiel breaks my heart too.

Haven is worth checking out. They constantly surprise me.

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