Friday, April 24, 2015

Recommended: Grimm

NBC's Grimm is the most unlikely successor to Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and that’s partly because the shows have a different tone, and partly because the former seldom reaches the thrilling heights of the latter. Grimm also has a lead who's suddenly “chosen” to receive powers that will help (and force) them to fight supernatural forces. But this series carries the unfamiliar vibe of Portland, Oregon not southern California, and it replaces a developing teen with a cop who is so stable that he can seem a bit too stoic.

In the pilot, we’re introduced to Detective Nicholas Burkhardt. He’s a homicide cop who lives with his longtime veterinarian girlfriend, Juliette. Nick gets a visit from Marie, the aunt who raised him following his parents’ early death. While comforting Marie through the last stages of terminal illness, the Burkhardts are attacked by someone who shapeshifts into some weird animal-human hybrid. They only survive because Marie shows strength and reflexes that are incredible for a middle-aged woman, much less a person at death's door.

When Marie learns that Nick saw "it" change, too, she reveals his family’s secret history: the Brothers Grimm wrote accounts of their battles against real-life monsters, not allegorical tales about obeying societal rules. Nicholas is in a long line of people who randomly develop exceptional physical strength, as well as the ability to see these creatures. And now that he has the “gift” (“curse?”), Officer Burkhardt is responsible for killing “the bad ones” before they harm regular folks. Basically, Nick is having a s---ty day.

As he tries to adjust, Nick hides his visions from his partner, Hank, as well as his boss, Captain Sean Renard. But soon he stumbles upon Monroe, a solitary watch-repairer – who looks like the monster that got Red Riding Hood. Burkhardt is surprised to learn that not only is Monroe non-hostile, but creatures like him fear Grimms. Nick is their bogeyman the same way that The Big Bad Wolf is ours.

Everything that follows is a mad race between competing interests. Nick tries to keep Portland safe while hiding his secrets from everyone. Nick struggles to not break the law although his job can require killing, nor can all these creatures be held in jails. And Nick is also inexorably drawn into the machinations of a set of European nobles who have a mixed past with Grimms; on her deathbed, Aunt Marie gives her nephew the key to an unknown treasure, one that the nobility would gladly kill to acquire.

From this starting point, Grimm has gone on to produce over 80 episodes since 2011, and that in itself is amazing. Buffy was more engaging and exciting, The X-Files had much more ambition and experimented more, and both of those series reached higher highs than Grimm has. What is amazing, however, is that the program has survived for so long on Friday nights, its fourth season now surpassing X-Files in the death slot. Generally, shows that are aired on (or moved to) Friday nights get cancelled within two seasons, but this one chugs along where many, many others have soon perished.

Better still, the program really commits to its source material, so every viewer of Grimm gets a mini language course. Because of the Brothers Grimm, the fantastical elements all have Germanic names – from the word for these animal-human creatures (collectively, “Wesen”), to the names of their individual breeds (e.g., Fuchsbau (“fox burrow”) or Blutbad (“blood bath”)). It’s rare enough for American TV to include foreign speech, but holy s--t, Juliette is totally a white girl - yet she knows Spanish and talks to people in subtitles and everything! Foreign languages are used constantly, and I love that Grimm is willing to risk distancing audiences by it. It’s a chancy, distinct move for a low-profile genre show on network TV.

Although its longevity is miraculous, the pleasant elements at play are pretty clear. The tone of the series is very low-key, which I love; the actions of this week’s antagonist are never awkwardly/unfairly withheld from us; instead of apocalyptic stakes, Nick often confronts familiar problems that have a new face – a scorpion-tailed Wesen might be forcing its kids to undergo brutal ancient rituals, other Wesen might run an organ theft ring, or one type of Wesen might violently settle a long-standing feud with another type.

This show also works hard to establish a rich, broad mythology and backstory. On the supernatural side of things, Grimm usually starts with a few lines of text from a fairy tale. The creatures that the cast encounters come from folklore around the globe - the Filipino Aswang, Persia's manticore, and Krampus are only some of the inhabitants of this strange world. Nick deals with all these more ghastly legends while regularly finding witnesses and suspects who might transform into a lion-boy, a mouse-girl, or a bull-man, among others. The show finds a nice tonal balance with its horror roots, offering dark (sometimes grisly) tales without miring itself in gloom and doom.

Since the show oddly opted to never tackle normal crime, the non-supernatural side of the show centers on those European aristocrats. They're as excited to learn that Nick exists as they are to steal the heirlooms in his possession. While they're not a constant presence, they're an additional, conspiratorial faction that spices thing up considerably. The nobles also play into a much longer plotline that will probably comprise the story's conclusion.

In addition, there are more monsters out there than can be described in the dozens of centuries-old journals left behind by Nick’s ancestors. Each type of Wesen may have advantages or weak spots, yet Nick still faces an uphill battle because he has to first figure out whether this week’s crime is related to Wesen (sigh, it is), then determine which kind of Wesen it is, and finally decide how he’ll address the problem it represents. Through all of it, Burkhardt chafes at having to serve two distinct brands of justice, one of which he's only now learning.

The strength of the series rests chiefly with its cast. David Giuntoli as Nick can seem stiff at times, but I see enough wit and energy in his acting to realize that Nick himself is a calm, contained, confident person. Russell Hornsby plays the fun, bubbly partner, Hank Griffin. Hank may not know what's really happening, but he's a fine cop and a good character, and I find that the weaker eps are often ones where Hornsby is used least. Reggie Lee's Sgt. Wu is an offbeat comedian who keeps pointing out Portland's rash of weird events (no one listens).

Sasha Roiz has a great presence - equally adept at drama, dry comedy, fight scenes... His classic good looks, height, and fluency in multiple languages probably have fans sighing hard and often. And Roiz is a great fit, as Cpt. Renard is a wonderfully-multifaceted figure: poker-faced and adept at dissembling, the mysterious man is crafty, well-mannered, and worldly.

He's such a welcome and compelling character. So much of the series' tension rests on waiting to see what Renard and Nick have in store for each other, all because you're not sure what the former is up to. Although, spoiler alert, it is a bad sign that Sean conspires with Claire Coffee’s vicious and spiteful Adalind Schade, a local lawyer (and witch monster) who is never on the right side of things.

The real revelation here is Silas Weir Mitchell. I knew him solely from the first (and only good) season of 24, as the guy who wanted to rape a sixteen y/o Kim Bauer. There, he made for a vividly-despicable low-level villain, but here he’s a rich, conflicted character - easily one of the best aspects of Grimm. Monroe is a reformed wolfman (thank god he gave up meat), and his transformed face is so fearsome as to freak Nick out. Gruff and standoffish, Monroe just wants to be left alone - until he hears about a problem that he can't turn away from... No matter the emotion conveyed, Silas' energy is always a joy.

One of the most important additions shows up a bit later: Bree Turner as Rosalee Calvert. Tough, smart, passionate and proactive, her role is written so well that you want her on screen constantly. It's so heartening when a female support role could clearly carry her own series. What looked likely to be a one-off character develops an instant chemistry with the cast, and she's an integral piece of the program’s paradigm. I'd want to stop watching if Silas or Bree left the cast.

Unfortunately, this leaves us with a final player, one that is regularly underwritten. Bitsie Tolluch brings some great line readings and subtle comedy to her part as Juliette, but... The writers can forget that she, y'know, has a job or restrict her use to creating drama, and her role is constantly put in the dark. In addition to making her ignorant, this last bit also necessitates a reactive, not a passive, position – if she complains about her lover’s secrets, she’s both correct and unfairly castigating our hero. Although Seasons 3 and 4 go a long way to addressing these issues, her plot for most of season 2 is kind of unbearably painful. Too often, Tulloch’s overshadowed by the rather narrow narrative requirements for her role.

But the comparisons I made at the start also require some discussion. One of Grimm’s creators is David Greenwalt, who was a producer on Buffy, as well as a co-creator of Angel. So while this explains its scary tone and dedication to source material, it's all the more surprising that Grimm is seldom as gripping nor reaches the same end-of-season excitement as the others did. And it’s a bit awkward when you get deja vu for other shows - in Season 1, Nick enters gladiatorial games on selfless behalf of caged Wesen – which the title character also had to do in Angel’s first season.

The series has lots of humor but it’s more down-played or dry than a Whedon effort - and largely pop culture free. Meanwhile, the more serious elements – like the well-choreographed fights and a reluctant “chosen one” who must fight monsters – are handled similarly, though there's more weaponry and less angst in this NBC offering. Unfortunately, Nick doesn’t get emotional for more than 30 seconds at a time, and whenever things do get rough, Burkhardt simply says that he’s okay (or that everything will be okay). It's equally unsatisfying that Nick is so spartan: no hobbies, life, or even days off - the guy is called in on cases the day after he and/or Juliette are attacked. Repeatedly!

These factors keep Grimm from truly taking its place as the next great horror series. There was a real spark to Buffy Anne Summers that made her very watchable, warts and all. Nick Burkhardt lacks that kind of pop most times - which is what makes Monroe such a critical presence. In addition to establishing the show's core issues - trust, change, the contrast between what's outside and what's inside - Silas Weir Mitchell has enough charm and quirk for two characters. Over and over, the program compensates for its imperfections in some other way, and I’m glad for it.

The cast could only go so far without good writing, and they get it. The dialogue is usually quite strong. The plotting is often clever, and handledly confidently. The overall tone may feel a bit more upbeat than you'd expect, but the writers like adding shades of grey to all this black and white, and some rather messed-up things occur regularly.

Yet it's seldom flawless. Some stretches feel unambitious, but the end of any season can feel like it's trying hard to make up for that; this is confounding, as certain elements play out over several episodes, yet others feel rushed. Some eps are skippable, and only by the third season do you need to catch each installment to keep up. I’m also vexed by the fact that Nick constantly runs into crimes involving Wesen. It's too improbable, takes some surprise away from the proceedings, and - most of all - the show would work better thematically if it dealt with normal police work every now and then. This would also make the fantastical elements feel a bit more credible – creatures would inform instead of dominate Burkhardt's world.

These flaws aren’t fatal, nor do they render the series cheap. It’s just that they truly stand out here... actually, I kind of like these weaknesses, ones that are more objective from a writing standpoint than a subjective viewer criticism. It’s nice to be able to see where an otherwise good show made some clearly-poor choices - it helps assure me that these are bumps in the road, not a spiral into mediocrity or awfulness. You never dislike Grimm, you end up saying to yourself "haha, what were you guys thinking?"

My recommendation means that I think this program has much to offer, if you're looking for something fun, scary, and not too heavy. I’m just being open about the failings, as my comparisons above may have set it onto an (unfairly) high pedestal. Season 4 is doing well. Season 3 advances a lot of plots and arcs well, but I hate the motivating events for all that movement. Similarly, I am both surprised by the broad range that can be showcased here, and yet also flustered by the occasionally clumsy plot. All I can say is that these four seasons are, overall, worthwhile entertainment.

Aside from everything I’ve already mentioned, I have to stress that Grimm has a refreshingly-unusual sense of humor that I really like. They do little flashback moments that represent some of the best and funniest usage of that trick in television history. You will respond, one way or another, to all of the characters. And this show does manage to tell some genuinely gruesome and horrific stories, despite the fact that it seems to aim a bit lower than X-Files or Buffy generally did. You can watch all past episodes on Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. Check it out.


  1. I tried watching Grimm when it first came on, but something about it just didn't click with me(altho I do agree that SWM is awesome). The show has really held on there, so glad to hear that there is good reason for it.

    1. Haha, yeah, this is definitely the little horror show that could.

      I can certainly understand not gelling with the series straight away, but it makes a good enough case for itself by midway through that first season. If you ever do the Amazon Prime or Hulu Plus trials, you might want to give it a spin, and I'll make an effort to check out iZombie in the next month or so...

  2. You will like iZombie, I promise!

    1. By the by, I not only do love I zombie, but I have decided not to follow Grimm any longer. I can't say that I no longer like it at all or that it feels kind of painful (as Flash/Arrow became) but I can't justify the time right now. There's something missing that made me not even catch the entirety of this season, and when you deem more than 20% of a season unessential, well...


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