[29 August 2012]
Somewhere around episode 19, Grimm finally finds its darker edge. That’s the episode where our protagonist, Nick, kills two assassins and sends their heads back to their boss.
But first a little backstory. Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) is a homicide detective in Portland, Oregon, who finds out that he’s actually a Grimm. He’s a descendant of the Brothers Grimm, who, it turns out, were not just collectors of fairy tales but also deadly hunters.
The fairy tales were true, and generations of Grimms have been the scourge of trolls, witches, and big bad wolves. Nick, like anyone, would have a little trouble believing this if he hadn’t started seeing the faces of random people on the street changing into monstrous visages. As a Grimm, he can see the true nature of the Wesen, the creatures that the Grimms traditionally hunt. Plus, his dying aunt (a Grimm herself) comes into town and survives more assassination attempts than Rasputin, including one by a scythe-wielding assassin known as a Reaper.
So Nick is forced into the life of a Grimm, but he’s also a cop, which means that he’s constrained by a different set of rules than the Grimms before him. As far as the Wesen are concerned, Grimms are either (at best) a boogieman useful for keeping their kids in line or (at worst) a bloodline of indiscriminate, homicidal maniacs.
With the aid of Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell) a wolf-like Wesen called a Blutbad (“Bloodbath”), Nick begins to navigate this new world. Oh, it’s OK for Nick to fraternize with a Blutbad. Monroe’s reformed, a vegan, and more than a little OCD. Plus, it turns out that the vast majority of Wesen live productive, law-abiding lives. Just ask the beaver folk (“Eisbiber” in Wesen parlance) who dominate Portland’s blue-collar workforce. So at its heart, Grimm is a police procedural, only with Wesen committing the crimes.
Each episode starts off with a fresh murder, Nick gets introduced to a new element of the Wesen world, and things are wrapped up by episode’s end. The pilot episode finds Nick tracking down a killer who’s abducted a little girl, and who seems to have a fondness for red cloaks. Another episode comes sideways at the Goldilocks story, while another combines the Bluebeard legend with a satyr-like creature. Yet another explores the tense relationship between Blutbad and the pig-like Bauerschwein, as well as the conflict that can arise when some Blutbad stay wild while others domesticate themselves.
Still, it could be argued that many of the crimes in Grimm aren’t that different than what you’d see on an episode of Law & Order, or even Matlock. The police angle provides a convenient way for Nick to investigate Wesen crimes (it certainly seems like not a week goes by that he and his unsuspecting partner Hank (Russell Hornsby) aren’t called out to one). You’d think, though, that as often as Nick guns down a Wesen while on duty, that he’d spend most of his Grimm life in internal review hearings.
The true test for any show like this lies in how well it transcends the “monster of the week” syndrome and presents a larger arc worth caring about. With Grimm, there’s Nick’s relationship with Juliette (Bitsie Tulloch), who naturally is unaware of Nick’s new destiny. There are the Reapers, a secret society of assassins with the sole purpose of wiping out the Grimms. There are royal families of the Wesen world with their own agendas. There are the murmurings of a war coming on the horizon. So Grimm seems to have bigger things in mind, but even if those things happen, it’s not clear if we’ll care.
There’s often precious little character development, apart from Juliette acting suspicious of Nick, Hank mostly shrugging his shoulders at the weirdness around him, and Nick becoming more comfortable with his role as a Grimm. The only character who seems to move forward is Monroe. Initially presented as fussy comic relief, Monroe actually seems to wage an internal war with the wolf-like beast who can’t resist the color red. He comes across as a character whose decisions have cost him.
It doesn’t help that the first season of Grimm feels very reactive. It’s not until very late in the season that we see Nick actually bothering to write down his experiences like all the Grimms before him, or practicing with any of the medieval weaponry that his aunt left him (along with enough potions and leather-bound volumes of lore to make Gandalf giddy). And then there are those heads Nick mails to Germany.
As the season winds down, Nick isn’t able to neatly line up his police and Grimm duties. He has to make some hard choices, and they’re not always the ones that help the stats back at the station. But he’s finally starting to seize control of this new identity and its responsibilities. This is much more satisfying than lamely feigning ignorance when grateful Eisbiber flood his and Juliette’s house with quilts and pies. Season 1 ends in bang-up style, raising as many questions as it answers, so it will be interesting to see how Season 2 fares.
Beautifully shot (the show’s Portland locale is incredibly lush and vibrant), Grimm‘s first season relies heavily on its atmosphere and basic conceit without delving too deeply into the world it’s created. Apart from the stray troll or demon, all of the Wesen have animal corollaries, and it remains to be seen whether they’re actually a separate race of creatures or just humans with some extra DNA switched on. There are very few nods to the possibility that these are truly magical creatures. The only exception might be Hexenbeasts, demonic witches who craft a mean love potion and who always seem to pop up in Nick’s life.
As such, it feels hard to argue that Grimm belongs in the current crop of fairy tale revisions like Once Upon a Time or Snow White and the Huntsman. In the Grimm universe, the Grimm tales came about because certain Wesen lost control way back when and showed their true selves, at which point human imagination took care of the rest. Nearly everything has a logical explanation, even if we are seeing human faces morph into the likenesses of cats, mice, or snakes.
Maybe as time goes on, Grimm will embrace its inner weirdness and let a little magic happen. It definitely needs to stray from the path a little more, into the dark heart of the forest that surrounds it.