Mid-Season Check-In: Grimm

So, Grimm‘s managed to thwart the naysayers who said it was going to die a quick death, and has become the first freshman drama on NBC to be picked up for a full season. Whereas Playboy Club was justifiably taken out behind the shed and shot, and Prime Suspect allowed to run out the string before sadly fading away, Grimm‘s mix of supernatural elements and police procedural have done well enough by the network’s standards to survive into 2012. Most likely NBC is just starved for any piece of good news they can get in yet another dismal year, but I’m sure no one who works on the show (and by extension the city of Portland) will question their good fortune.

As a critic though, I have to ask the question: Has Grimm done enough to deserve this extended lease on life? Now that the show’s completed seven episodes it’s certainly gone past the point of my “televitmus test,” and given that I’ve watched every single one of those episodes it should be obvious it’s passed. It’s developed into a competent supernatural procedural, one that’s gotten better with passing weeks and that’s found new things to do with both its setting and source material. At the same time however, the show’s foundation is nowhere near as solid as it needs to be, and there are a few cracks appearing that they’re going to need to patch if it wants me to keep watching on a weekly basis.

After seven episodes, Grimm‘s clearly established the formula for how it wants to conduct itself week to week. A crime will be committed with some unexplained elements, and Nick and Hank will begin investigating it. In the process of said investigation, Nick will glimpse a monster losing control of their human image, and enlist the help of a reluctant Eddie to track down more information. From there, things will continue to build to a point where Nick (alone or with one of his partners depending on circumstance) is forced to confront the monster and defeat it in a manner that still allows Nick to keep his secret intact. And through the course of the episode, we’ll get more hints of the overarching plot that Nick’s captain (and the fantasy world by extension) is deeply involved in, either by tying it directly to the case-of-the-week or by getting an unconnected b-plot.

For the most part, this structure has been working out well for the Grimm team, as they’ve been able to execute each of these steps competently if not amazingly. The execution each week moves at a compelling pace – save the semi-regular exposition dumps that come from the police’s research – and each week there’s been at least one moment that’s been legitimately unsettling or even frightening. In terms of story, after the somewhat disappointing pilot the writers have been getting more creative in how they tweak the fairy tales to mesh with the real world. In the more memorable examples, “Lonelyhearts” took the Bluebeard folktale and made a story on par with a Law and Order: SVU story, while “Let Down Your Hair” completely revised Rapunzel into a wild child story that touched on themes of nature v. nuture.

And aesthetically, the show’s also managed to move past the SyFy-style cheapness many critics docked it for when it first aired. Some of the monsters – particularly the Mellifers and Ziegvolk – were actually legitimately unnerving* in their presentation, and they’ve avoided having to be too elaborate with any of their otherworldly powers. The setting has also gone a long way toward making the show look better, and compliments to whoever runs the show’s location scouting. Its use of Portland’s wooded areas helps give it the convincing feel of Germanic fantasy, and episodes like “Beeware” and “Danse Macabre” have incorporated appropriately foreboding warehouses and boiler rooms to emphasize the horror atmosphere.

*Not to say they’ve been perfect by any stretch of the imagination – at the scene where Eddie and his old flame are leaping through the woods, transforming under the moonlight as they run, it appeared fake enough I couldn’t stop myself from commenting “Oh no Paul! You is warwilf!”

While the weekly execution has been working out well for the show, it’s not doing such a good job handling the introduction of an overarching narrative. Ever since the start, it’s been hinting at some turmoil in the world of the fantasy beings, in which Nick’s commanding officer and his associate Adalind Shade are playing a key part. After seven episodes, I have no idea what that turmoil is or why I should even care – Grimm‘s been doling out details very sparingly, with only “Beeware” devoted to Renard’s machinations and other episodes having him act completely aside from the week’s narration. We still don’t know who Renard is and what he wants, and having him threaten a Reaper or glance threateningly from his car door isn’t enough to engage. Obviously they shouldn’t overplay their hand if there is a big picture to work towards, but I still can’t shake the niggling urge that there’s a much better way to play this than the way Greenwalt and company have chosen.

This is actually a problem endemic to Grimm, in that it feels like the show is turning out to be too reactive in its plotting. Nick has little agency in the show that isn’t forced on him by circumstances: he glimpses the monsters change* out of the corner of his eye and then gets into a standard investigation, sticking only to his instincts as a detective and Eddie’s counsel to get anything done. His only reactive moments come when he’s prodding a monster into revealing their true form, be it his aunt’s attempted assassin or a corrupt arson investigator, and the rest of the time he’s just playing detective. For being someone who’s got the blood of a fantasy warrior – and a trailer loaded to the brim with medieval weapons – being a Grimm doesn’t seem like it makes you into a warrior, and Nick’s not trying to learn beyond his weekly research.

*This is also raising a question: Nick can identify the monsters when they let their guard down, but how can they identify him? The rat-catcher’s son was quick to identify him, but Hap had no idea until his sister pointed him out. It’s one of the show’s more annoying inconsistencies.

I am beginning to wonder, however, if the passivity of Nick is because Greenwalt and company are starting to realize just how dull of an actor David Giuntoli is. Seven episodes in, it’s sadly clear he doesn’t have the range necessary for a protagonist, as I’m not convinced he’s modified the tone of his voice once or demonstrated more than three facial expressions. While he’s been able to build a rapport with Russell Hornsby’s Hank that wouldn’t be out of place on a more realistic procedural, there’s absolutely no investment in his relationship with Bitsie Tulloch who, as a top-billed actress, is starting to feel as unnecessary to the show marshals Tim and Rachel on Justified. It’s a problem for the show going forward – certainly not on the level of The Cape and David Lyons’ laughable seriousness, but the show’s still shackled to a leading man who doesn’t seem to have the energy to lead.

Fortunately, Silas Weir Mitchell has been picking up the slack in his absence, as Eddie Monroe remains the funniest and strongest character on the show. Each episode shows us something new about him that makes the character more interesting: he’s a wine snob who can be bribed with a quality bottle of Bordeaux, an accomplished cello player with an ear for good talent, and enjoys Christmas to the point of recreating Santa’s workshop in his house. He manages to coax a sense of humor out of Nick (the latter’s “Good boy” was one of the funnier moments) and his resignation at having to help the latter out has been giving way to curiosity as time goes on. If the show’s going to find a new gear in the coming weeks, it’d be smart to center more episodes on Eddie and the connections he’s been making – a vengeful ex-girlfriend on a motorcycle, a semi-feral Blutbad teenager – are certainly ones that would be welcomed if they formed a larger part of the action.

So between him, the Portland scenery and the competent storytelling, there’s still enough to keep Grimm worth checking out on a regular basis. Unlike ABC’s Once Upon A Time, which I’ve jettisoned after watching the whimsy and mishmash of fantasy elements quickly run out of steam, this show feels like it has the foundation to make something more out of itself if it can ever find the jolt to push its story forward. And until it does, watching Eddie wisecrack is enough to stick with it.

Other Thoughts:

  • From a professional standpoint, it remains to be seen where Grimm‘s going to wind up this season. NBC gave it a trial run after their Thursday comedy block early on, and with the flat-on-its-face debut of The Firm that slot’s likely to be vacant in the near future. But with a few other shows still waiting for a slot I’d put money on it staying where it is, especially with Chuck‘s upcoming finale leaving more Friday real estate.
  • It’s become harder to draw parallels between this and Once Upon A Time as each show has developed its own take on the fantasy world, but I was very taken aback by discovering Eddie Monroe and Emma Swan both drive battered yellow Volkswagen Beetles. Is there a symbolism to them I’m missing?
  • This Week in Portland, “Beeware”: Using the Portland streetcar as a murder scene is a very distinct detail, and if you wanted to you could pinpoint the exact location of the the flash mob/murder thanks to the mention of street names. We also get some good opening shots of downtown and see that Nick is storing his aunt’s trailer in the shadow of the Fremont Bridge.
  • This Week in Portland, “Lonelyhearts”: Product placement returns as Eddie orders a Rogue Brewery Double Dead Guy Ale at the bar, and the grocery store scenes were shot in a co-op where a friend of mine works. Also, much of the episode’s climax takes place outside Multnomah Falls, which happens to be one of the most scenic locations in the Columbia River Gorge and a location well worth your time.
  • This Week in Portland. “Danse Macabre:”: A stellar view of my favorite bridge in Portland, the St. John’s Bridge, in the shadow of which the Geigers make their home. Plus, more evidence Eddie enjoys himself some Rogue at home.
  • This Week in Portland, “The Three Bad Wolves”: Positive confirmation of where Grimm locates its police station, right off of the park blocks in the United States Customhouse.
  • This Week in Portland, “Let Your Hair Down”: Mentions of Mount Hood and Beaverton help establish some geography, and also correctly observe that driving from the former to the latter if you have a medical emergency is a bad idea.
  • Portland Miscues: The Blue Moon bar depicted in “Lonelyhearts” is far too upscale to be the real bar of that name in Portland, a cozy location happens to be only a block from my apartment for all you stalkers. And I’m the only person this bothers, but the location of the Geiger family’s home is in North Portland, not Northeast. Get your facts straight!
  • Who’s That Guy #1: the Ziegevolk was played by Patrick Fischler, recognizable as comedian Jimmy Barrett from season two of Mad Men.
  • Who’s That Guy #2: Eddie’s old friend Hap was played by Brad William Henke, most recently seen on Justified‘s last season as dimwitted pot grower Coover Bennett.
  • Some of Eddie’s better delivery: “This is so the part of the horror movie where the sidekick gets it.” “I should complain, but I’m just not in that place right now.” “The only bleeding heart I ever had was… well, that’s in the past.” “How did I know you were going to ask me that?”

About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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3 Responses to Mid-Season Check-In: Grimm

  1. Pingback: Recap/Review: Once Upon A Time, “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree” | A Helpless Compiler

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  3. Pingback: A.V. Club Review: Grimm, “Cat And Mouse” | A Helpless Compiler

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