This week brings two new network shows that draw from a well one might have thought run dry: the most popular European folktales. ABC’s Once Upon A Time and NBC’s Grimm both attempt ‘gritty’ updates on their subjects, and each one recycles familiar TV tropes in the process. Once transplants the storybook characters to a serial-mystery format (its showrunners are veterans of Lost) while Grimm spins familiar fairy tales into a supernatural police procedural. And they share something else besides: the seeming influence of an earlier reimagining of the tales.
In 2002, artist and writer Bill Willingham created the long-running and critically acclaimed comic book series Fables for DC’s arty Vertigo imprint. In Fables, which now has 110 issues (and counting) to its credit, the storybook legends have been exiled from their homelands by the mysterious and evil Adversary; they live in secrecy in contemporary New York, where they fight for a way to return home.
The similarities between Fables and both of the new series are not hard to spot. In Once Upon A Time, fairy-tale characters—including Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, and Geppetto—have been cursed by the Evil Queen to live in Storybrooke (get it?), Maine. In Grimm, a by-the-books cop discovers he is the last in a long line of supernatural detectives charged with defending normal citizens from the real-life fairy-tale monsters living in secret all around us. In the pilot, said cop teams up with a reformed Big Bad Wolf to solve the murders of young women in red hoodies. As a point of reference, the first collection of Fables comics involves the reformed Big Bad Wolf solving the murder of Snow White’s sister, Rose Red, a party girl in red attire. What’s more: In Once, the Sheriff of Storybrooke appears to be a Big Bad Wolf as well.
Fans have previously remarked upon the similarities; the creators of Once Upon a Time have dismissed them. It’s worth noting, however, that both NBC (in 2005) and ABC (in 2008) separately optioned Fables for development. And though the two networks eventually abandoned those deals, they each ended up with a series that shares significant similarities to Willingham’s creation. The specifics of the failed negotiations are not public at this point (on the subject of overlapping ideas, Willingham has talked much more about Shrek), but whatever happened, the whole affair seems emblematic of one of Hollywood’s most pervasive current trends: properties winning out over ideas.
Next year will see three Snow White updates. There are as many as 10 Frankenstein movies in the works. Among the 10 highest grossing films from this year are adaptations of comic books, action figures, children’s cartoons, theme-park rides, and a book series. And all but one film on that list is a sequel (or the second part of the sixth sequel) or an adaptation.
This point has been made many times before, and at much greater length. But what happened to Fables (or seemed to) presents an interesting case study—maybe even a cautionary tale. Willingham’s concept blended recognizable properties with a complex and innovative storyline and excitingly off-kilter characterization. The shows that actually made it to air, on the other hand, have whittled that high concept (or something like it) into more familiar TV conventions. If you haven’t seen it before, the reigning conventional wisdom seems to be, why would you watch it at all?