This article contains spoilers.
“What if all of the stories we’ve heard about, they’re not stories. What if they’re real?”
So goes the premise of NBC’s Grimm, one of the lucky few supernatural shows from the class of 2011 that made it to a second season commission. Set and filmed in modern day Portland, Oregon, Grimm comes from Buffy and Angel alumni David Greenwalt and Jim Kouf, and Stephen Carpenter (it’s probably not polite to mention that he was the writer/director of 2001’s Soul Survivors, but there’s really no getting away from it).
As the story of a city-dwelling detective fighting a supernatural monster-of-the-week while his position in the ongoing battle between good and evil is slowly revealed, in its best moments, Grimm feels like the natural successor to Angel. It may lack in a little of its predecessor’s wit and charisma (if you’ll pardon the pun), but it’s still early days for Grimm, and its first season showed more than enough promise to make a second run worth getting excited about.
The set-up runs thusly: nineteenth century brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm weren’t just folklorists collecting fairy tales to preserve for generations to come, but fighters-of-evil with a gift for seeing the true forms, and disposing, of the various beasties living amongst us. Their power, legacy, and weaponry passed down through the generations of their descendants, known as Grimms.
The most recently awoken Grimm? Pretty boy homicide detective, Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli), who receives news of his heritage from dying Aunt Marie, the woman who raised him, and who bequeaths to him an Airstream trailer chock-full of supernatural research and useful doohickies to aid him in his quest.
What that quest is, aside from Aunt Marie’s instruction to “hunt down the bad ones”, is as-yet undefined at the close of season one. Burkhardt was given a mystical-looking key early on, which is yet to divulge its purpose. His blood appears to be able to divest at least one type of fairy tale monster of its supernatural powers. His parents, it turns out, are not both quite as dead as first thought. And his Captain at the precinct, Sean Renard (Sasha Roiz), plays an undisclosed part in Burkhardt’s gradually unfolding mystery.
In the meantime, there are murders to solve, girlfriends to rescue, and many, many The X-Files-style dark corridors down which to walk waving a gun and a torch.
Burkhardt’s first stirrings of his Grimm identity are quite a scary affair. Suddenly, the streets of Portland aren’t just home to murderers and serial killers, but to murderers and serial killers with faces that CG-morph from human to evil Sylvanian Family doll at the drop of a hat (it’s less hat-dropping, more a momentary lack of control that causes the beasties’ human disguises to drop so Grimms can see them).
The creatures, or Wesen as they’re known (the show has its own Germanic vocabulary), vary in their fear-factor. You’ve got your top-drawer scary beasts, the wolves (Blutbaden), witches (Hexenbiest), bears (Jägerbär), and dragons (Dämonfeuer), as well as the more peaceful varieties, including some pretty cute beaver and mice people (Eisbiber and Mauseherz, respectively) who usually try to stay out of trouble.
Burkhardt has to be the least curious inheritor of a mystical legacy in the history of fiction. He greets his new-found Grimm-ness with a kind of bovine acceptance, neither freaking out nor denying his part in the on-going battle between Grimm and Wesen. He takes possession of Aunt Marie’s magical Airstream, and sets about methodically spotting and arresting killer badger people and irascible shrew-men, seeking out frustratingly little about his supernatural legacy as he goes.
Last autumn’s season opener showed off Grimm’s horror chops with a creepy Little Red Riding Hood-inspired story that boasted more than a few genuinely scary moments. Thanks to its pre-credits body count and taste for gore (the Pied Piper of Hamelin’s rats gorge themselves on delicious human eyeball, an Amy Acker spider-beast vomits into a chap’s mouth to predigest his organs before sucking them out through his chest…) Grimm is well-deserving of its late evening timeslot.
Like the horror moments, a Buffy-inspired sense of humour also runs through Grimm. The show reimagines lawyers as snakes, trolls as mobster heavies who run bridge construction firms, and policemen as, well, pigs. Burkhardt trains Buffy-style, pitting his crossbow against a watermelon sporting a scary felt-tip pen face. Witches wear Nigella-style aprons to prepare their potions in upper middle class designer kitchens. The Wesen go to impulse-control AA meetings and read self-help books about confronting their inner man. Oh, and the group of Wesen committed to hunting down Nick and his type? Grimm reapers of course, complete with scythes.
The best character in the show by far is Silas Weir Mitchell’s Monroe, a reformed Blutbad who’s waved goodbye to his toothy murderer days in exchange for a life of Pilates, clock-making, and fine wine. Monroe quickly becomes Burkhardt’s right-hand man in all matters Wesen, helping out with investigations, schooling him on the ways of the various species, and doing the odd spot of work in the field.
Mitchell’s a much more agile handler of some of the script’s clunkier moments than his co-stars, and without his likeable, often comic performance, the show might well collapse under the weight of its own sobriety. Though Giuntoli definitely improved as the first season progressed, there’s only so much ‘shocked face’ one series can take from its lead, even from one with such blue-eyed good looks. Think of Monroe as part-Lorne, part-Xander, or perhaps even a more animated Oz (seeing as they share the whole wolf thing).
What series one really lacked, especially after the demise of poor Aunt Marie, were any female characters worth a look. Bitsie Tulloch plays Burkhardt’s not-quite-fiancée Juliette, a vet by trade, whose ignorance of her man’s supernatural calling became more and more of a brick wall for her character as the first season persisted. Every so often Juliette would do something useful like look down a microscope, take up the investigation of Nick’s parents’ death, or inject a puppy, but mostly her season one role was limited to accepting increasingly thin excuses for why her boyfriend was out late with his new wolfy friend.
Increasingly, Nick and Juliette’s relationship became Grimm’s weakest link, with his continued night-time jaunts barely causing a wrinkle in Juliette’s static forehead. His confession in the season finale was followed sharpish by her falling into a witch-induced coma, and if the writers use that to conveniently reset her back to ignorance, I’m sure I won’t be the only one disappointed.
There’s also evil lawyer Adalind (Claire Coffee), who, until she ingested Burkhardt’s blood and was de-Hexenbiested for her trouble (a plot point they’ll hopefully pick up in the next season), was restricted to strutting around in tight skirt suits, making magic cookies and using her true face to grimace at Nick as if she’d just bitten the inside of her cheek. Sans her powers, Adalind didn’t do an Anya and join the good guys at the end of season one, but instead took her revenge on Burkhardt by putting his not-fiancée into that magical coma.
Of course, the arrival of Nick’s presumed-dead kickass mother (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) in the season one finale may well put pay to Grimm’s dearth of decent women characters, as might the tantalising glimpse of Juliette-the-vet’s magic coma eyes… could she now be a Wesen of some kind? A smooth-foreheaded she-vole perhaps? Fingers crossed, people.
One other promising female character tipped up at the mid-point of the season, and with her came a pleasing love interest for Monroe, and a developing Scooby Gang dynamic. White-hat Fuchsbau Rosalee played by Bree Turner, (a fox in more senses than one) entered the show when her brother was murdered, and news that she’s to return as a series regular in season two comes very welcome indeed.
In a couple of episodes, Rosalee’s spice shop served as a Magic Box/Hyperion Hotel-style setting for Grimm, one of the show’s many successful elements harking back to Angel and Buffy (add to that list a Wolfram and Hart-style evil law firm, a trend for authority figures harbouring dark secrets, and individual stories such as Organ Grinder, which bore more than a passing resemblance to Buffy’s season 3 opener, Anne, and Last Grimm Standing, which was so like Angel’s season 1 The Ring someone should have been sent a fruit basket by way of apology).
The Portland PD provides most of the other show regulars, including Burkhardt’s official partner Hank Griffin (Russell Hornsby), whom we last saw losing his nut after being exposed to one too many freaky shenanigans, wise-cracking Sgt. Wu (Reggie Lee), and the aforementioned mysterious Captain Sean Renard, who has an undefined dastardly plan up his polyglot sleeve.
The show’s mythology is still ironing out its kinks. Unlike True Blood, say, which used vampires coming out of the closet as an analogy for racial and sexual otherness, or Buffy’s literal take on the ‘high school can be hell’ truism, Grimm has yet to establish a wider meaning beyond its beast-of-the-week format.
While there are plenty of reasons to pick on Grimm, its face-punchingly frustrating use of flashbacks, sometimes ropey FX, quick establishment of a formulaic weekly pattern, and that very silly business involving Hitler and those magic coins not least… there’s also a great deal to celebrate.
Grimm is inventive, using fairy tales as a loose framework from which to develop surprising week-by-week cases. Its script is often witty, its scares real, its cast – especially Mitchell – decent, and its action sequences greatly improved as the series went on, all of which kept a fair few of us watching.
Best of all, it did well enough to earn another run, and so now has the chance to hopefully take one more leaf out of Buffy and Angel’s books, by delivering a better, fuller second season.
Grimm returns to NBC tonight at 10pm.