Grimm Assessment: The show that cried “Portland” doesn’t deliver.

Now that "Grimm"'s here to stay, let's talk about where the story's going—and whether Portland can, in good faith, follow.

Recently, Willamette Week’s Jay Horton broke the local media’s code of congeniality and criticized the Portland-set, Portland-shot, constantly-Portland-referencing TV thriller “Grimm,” claiming that the show’s supposed hometown doesn’t take it seriously. At best, he said, we view the show as a sort of Name That Place trivia game, spotting the familiar scenic landmarks that wink in and out of frame while trying to ignore the amateur storytelling in the foreground. He was harsh. He was broad. But he had a point.

How dare you! screamed some of the comment thread. But how much of that hue and cry can defend the show’s specifics, and how much is just based on the belief that having a TV show in town is neat?

Up ’til now, the local media’s gone easy on “Grimm” because we didn’t want to jinx it.  After all, the show employs a lot of creative locals and likely boosts our regional economy. We all have friends who’ve worked on it, and we’re glad they got the gig. In my various critique forums, I personally have never lied about loving “Grimm,” but I’ve skirted giving strong opinions, favoring interviews, mentions, and mere acknowledgements that the show exists. Rather than panning it, Portland as a whole has rooted for “Grimm” to get renewed, to keep our creative friends in work.

But now that the series has fully fledged, kicking off its third season with a reportedly growing following…a detailed critique is long overdue. I’ve personally watched every episode of “Grimm” so far, all the while grasping and scraping for some kind of intellectual or philosophical traction, clinging to the few good ideas that emerged and subsided…but the show keeps disappointing me. And if I have to roll my eyes any further or bite my tongue any harder, I may hurt myself.

I’d hate for “Grimm” to go away. Heck, I’ll be happier if it becomes the next “Star Trek,” spinning on for decades and syndicating into untold frontiers. But if that happens, here’s guessing the die-hard Grimmies of the future will write off these first three seasons as the Dark Ages before the show really got its act together. Portland viewers might as well admit that this whole time, we’ve been laughing behind our hands.

Thematically, "Grimm" is constantly retooling, but it has yet to nail a Portland narrative.

Thematically, “Grimm” is constantly retooling, but it has yet to nail a Portland narrative.

A quick primer

“Grimm” is part crime drama and part monster noir; its central character’s a cop and supporting and cameo characters are mostly police, criminals, animal-human hybrids called “Wesen,” or a combination thereof. “Grimm” is very gory, and very action-y. It’s full of surprises, mainly people jumping out from behind things and suddenly turning into animal-headed goblins who sometimes maim and kill. It’s also full of predictable climaxes and resolutions, when the cops chase and catch bad guys.

Lead character Nick (David Giuntoli) has inherited his obligation to slay Wesen through his ancient bloodline of “Grimms,” and ever since he learned of his calling, Nick has spent his spare time reading ancient texts about Wesen. Sometimes he kills Wesen, and sometimes he befriends them—what a maverick! These activities are the only extraordinary things about Nick. Otherwise, his hobbies include awkwardly wooing his doe-eyed girlfriend Juliette (Bitsie Tulloch) and I guess generally existing. He’s got a sarcastic Black partner named Hank (Russel Hornsby) who’s pretty a’ight, and a quirky White Wesen best friend (look out!) who helps inform him (Silas Weir-Mitchell). He’s constantly in peril, but he has excellent Hero Insurance in the sense that the writers will never let him die. All right, consider yourself caught up!

The lowest drama denominator

Regular viewers have to wonder: are Grimm’s storytellers kinda dumb and vague, or do they just think WE are? Because most of the show’s smaller problems spring from a larger plague: simplistic pandering.

Despite its adult gore and sophisticated special effects, the show’s dialogue and themes rate at about an eighth-grade comprehension level. In a transparent bid for the biggest, broadest audience, the show plays it safe or dumbs it down on many fronts: a cops-and-robbers paradigm of crime, a stiff traditional depiction of gender with plenty of virgin/whore BS, a fuzzy, fearmongering form of foreign politics. This ain’t Portland, pal—nor is it where TV is going.

The usual suspects

Try to look past the flashing lights, loud sounds, and karate throwdowns and actually ask “who do we have here?” Mostly, the series promotes normative tropes: handsome tough guys and sweet concerned girls, sassy friends, a scary boss, a femme fatale, social-outcast criminals, helpless and grateful victims, and token Black and Asian workmates conveniently confined to supporting roles. Same schtick as ever, now with monsters.

Die-hard fans can cite the rare character curveball: the time when Juliette saved the day, or when Hank briefly transcended sassy Black side-dish to star in an episode. The few times when the bluntly scrupulous Nick has bent the law for the greater good. But the fact that these moments stand out as surprises, speaks all the more strongly to the show’s overriding assumptions. Progressive twists like these feel inserted and plagiarized, as if “Grimm” is cheating off other shows’ papers to steal ratings. These are token deviations. Concessions. Capitulations. Punctuation rather than text. They stick out because they’re not well integrated into the show’s general M.O.

“Grimm”‘s self-imposed philosophical limitations aren’t just at odds with progressive Portland, they’re also behind the (r)evolutionary curve of many TV drama contemporaries. From the vastly superior but similarly-themed Brit noir “Misfits,” to “Game of Thrones,” to the just-concluded “Breaking Bad,” shows nowadays tend to go out of their way to destroy Hollywood clichés and present truly complex moral quandaries. Even fairytale drama “Once Upon a Time” has a savvier, more nuanced take on good and evil than the conservative-cored “Grimm.”

Does “Grimm” have a good reason to maintain ye olde status quo? Maybe they’re strategically differentiating from the other shows’ diversity and complexity, hoping to sweep up the challenge-averse viewers those shows have left behind. Conservative or younger demos might still consider monster-versus-man dilemmas impossibly profound, and may be comforted to see that one handsome white guy’s still calling the shots. Or maybe the writers just aren’t literate enough to see how predictable and rote their attempts at “complexity” actually are.

Premise envy

“Grimm”‘s many wild spectacles fail to disguise that its larger vision is patchily woven and full of holes, constantly shapeshifting to solve immediate narrative crises or compete in the show’s marketplace, without looking at the long haul. In its relatively short life, “Grimm” has already reinvented itself more than twice, with plot developments that go well beyond variety and exposition, into identity crisis. This adolescent show is ultimately unsure what it wants to be, so it’s tried a lot of styles.

Another Slayer story?

“Grimm” started off as the story of one alienated hero burdened with a secret mission against a never-ending swarm of supernatural adversaries, a la “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In fact, there’s a high likelihood that that’s how the series was pitched, with “Buffy” executive producer Dave Greenwalt at the helm (but notably not Joss Whedon). In the first season, Nick’s role was eerily Buffyesque, enduring painful pangs of self-discovery and altercations with his (almost literal) personal demons. But this conceit could only be sustained if Nick were interesting enough to keep rooting for—and he isn’t. He seems to have average intelligence, a milquetoast sense of humor, and a simple, macho emotional repertoire. A true dramatic hero evokes both sympathy and worship, but this Nick guy commands neither. He’s the most normal person we’ve ever met, in a bad way.

Law & Monster, PDX?

While flubbing the slayer format, “Grimm” was also in boiler-plate crime drama mode. Nearly every episode, there was a single crime, and the cop(s) brought the culprit(s) to justice. Like every crime drama, this one installed a revolving door of new characters to interact with the main guys in the cop shop. This format’s been a perennial hit for plain ol’ real-life-ish crime shows (Law and Order, Perry Mason) but in “Grimm”‘s case, it required constant invention of new theoretical creature-people, and new ways for them to wield their animal powers to commit crimes. Wesen lore quickly fell into total absurdity. We got things like a goose-woman laying a golden egg in her throat that had to be cut out via c-section/tracheotomy. You can’t make this stuff up—or rather, you shouldn’t. Moving on…

Fugitives, Refugees, Beavers and Bears? (aka, most promising plan)

Midway through its extant body of work, “Grimm” toyed with a regional split narrative like “True Blood”‘s…and this is really where their spinny-wheel of plot possibilities should have permanently stuck. A few equally unique, equally developed different Wesen characters began to recur, relieving the crushing boredom of Detective Nick’s constant company. It looked like we were now going to follow these animal-folk around and learn their unusual ways.

This premise was especially promising as a way to combine Portland’s real subcultures with the show’s fictitious creatures. A fire dancer was shown doing a routine at Dante’s, then revealed to secretly be a dragon-woman; a bunch of crafty DIYers led a double life as beavers; best supporting Wesen Monroe was fighting his natural wolf instincts by going vegan.

Portland—a noted comicbook city that loves trivia, oddballs, wildlife, and double lives—could’ve really gotten into this. We could’ve nerded out on the different Wesens’ quirks, citing similarities to our real-life neighbors and friends. We could’ve watched each new plot development with knowing nods, anticipating how each familiar character would respond. “THAT guy’s not gonna like THIS,” we might say, citing esoteric character facts about that guy and his animal alter-ego. We even could have bet on some Wesen-on-Wesen fights, as when Monroe was confronted by a group of his own for informing on them to his Grimm friend Nick. For a few thrilling episodes, it looked like this was the way “Grimm” was going, and Portland could self-respectingly follow. But then…

Europe foreign, Hitler bad, America number one (aka, worst theme yet)

How’s this for a far-fetched macro-narrative: an international conspiracy. For some bloody reason just as “Grimm” was getting Portland-good, script writers suddenly dumped a big sloppy bucket of international intrigue all over the hyperlocal day-to-day happenings. Get a pen, because this is SO detailed. Ready? Europe. Hitler. A royal family. Mobsters. Gypsies who do witchcraft. Hey, don’t scoff at me; as writ, the explanations of this new overarching storyline are REALLY almost that broad and that vague.  Nick’s police captain turns out to be a descendant of Wesen “European royalty” referred to as “the Verrat.” And these international gang-slash-family conspirators are hunting Nick. So now, in addition to his daily slayings, Nick has to outrun deadly foreign mobsters. …which keeps it interesting?

Why did “Grimm” have to go there of all places? Excess TV-exec testosterone? “Homeland”‘s high ratings? Whatever the reason, “Grimm” did its social studies homework in crayon.

Occasionally the script mentions “Vienna” or “France,” but viewers are most often simply reminded that “royalty” from “Europe” plan…something sinister. Sneering foreigners come and go and telephone from “Europe,” saying threatening things in faint “European” accents, and sometimes (redemptively, almost realistically) slipping into a second language. When this fascinating super-plot was first introduced, we were shown a video of Hitler’s face twitching briefly into Wesen form, and we were told that the Verrat and Hitler went way back. That explains everything. Totes baddies. ‘Nuf said.

But what’s the big racket? Banking? Arms? Human or drug trafficking? Evil. Evil is the racket. Oh, and control. And capturing Nick the Grimm, who apparently is the most important person in the western world.

The “Grimm” wiki tries to delineate details that the show fails to coherently convey, but the real historical events it cites seem like a mixed bag. Monarchies are conflated with republics; union activities, terrorist campaigns, and bloodless coups are all interchanged. (Hey, who’s gonna know? All that was long ago and far away.) Well, while we’re oversimplifying: this whole subplot is callow, grandiose, and unnecessary. It plays on American xenophobia and ignorance in the laziest way. And I’m sorry, but politically-progressive, well-read and well-travelled Portlanders won’t generally fall for it. Likelier dupes are the ilk of right-wing paranoids who recently mistook the new East Indian Miss America for an Arab, who briefly boycotted “French” fries, and who constantly accuse Obama of praying to Mecca. “Grimm” must be happy to stoke these Americans’ fear of fur’ners; they’re a large market. But maybe they shouldn’t be making these dopey political points in Portland’s name.

Beauty school dropouts

Speaking of things we ought to have progressed beyond, can we talk about the show’s style?

From casting to wardrobe to makeup to sets, “Grimm” sports a lot of decade-old dotcom-boom style. The women favor straightened hair, painted-on eyebrows and business-casual solids, the men sport boxy black leather jackets. One episode even had ravers, suggesting the show’s makers hadn’t partied in a very long time. Early on in the series, characters even drove shiny black SUV’s. To be fair, this is a semi-perennial crime-drama style…but it’s a real stretch to pin it on Portland. Couldn’t our collection of Project Runway participants and our army of architects and designers school these styles a little?

Someone seems to have already taken this note. The cars were the first thing to reform, followed by the addition of a few more flannel shirts to wardrobe. Still, a plucked-and-tucked aesthetic pervades the characters’ personal style and even their facial affectations. Close-ups intended to show credible emotion, instead reveal an unnatural preoccupation with trying to look good. Juliette’s painted-on eyebrows overtake her petite face. Nick’s jaw is perma-clenched a la “Zoolander”‘s Blue Steel, Rosalie’s lips are perma-parted as if lusciousness were a plot priority. When the characters run through the rain, their makeup doesn’t. When they hide in the shadows, their hair shines. Sometimes they seem so busy staying commercially attractive, it’s a wonder they have time to fight crime. And in hi-def, the makeup and micro-expressions show more than they used to.

The bone-structured, mud-spattered barbarians of “Game of Thrones,” the street-wise, expressive Brits of “Misfits,” and even the uniformly elfin pretties of Once Upon A Time all make their own kinds of subtle love to the hyper-perceptive closeup camera—but it doesn’t get in the way of believable, complex emotion. Meanwhile, only a handful of longer-running crime and courtroom dramas are on par with “Grimm,” and they’ve got a better excuse: they started making their shows before TV went hi-def—so they don’t realize how well we can see them.

Blood lust: the only kind?

On “Grimm,” I’ve seen beheadings, disembowelments, hand-removal of a still-beating heart. But I hardly ever see characters kiss, let alone go to bed together. What is this, the Inquisition? Wherefore the Puritan sex avoidance amid the gushing torture-porn? It’s perverse, but very American—and not at all Portland.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Portland on the whole prefers sex over violence. To prove it, we have massive peace protests and myriad strip clubs. Does the Mercury have a contest for amateur kung-fu shorts? No. They have HUMP, for pan-sexual, creative, body-positive porn. According to some recent studies, Portland is America’s most promiscuous city. Which makes “Grimm”‘s fictitious characters about the only Portlanders who aren’t doin’ it.

“Grimm”‘s Juliette and Nick have the coldest chemistry since Annakin and Padmé; sometimes the long-term live-ins don’t even share a bed. Single guy Hank almost got some—once—but the romantic rendezvous turned out to be a honey-trap for a monster attack. “Grimm”‘s Monroe had one wolfish romp, and then snuggled into a seemingly sexless hugs-and-pecks arrangement with least-foxy-vixen-ever Rosalie (Bree Turner). Captain Renard (Sasha Roiz) had a couple of steamy flirtations—with a mother and daughter, no less—but we never saw anything saucy. Okay, one second-tier character got knocked up, and she is a “hexenbiest”—basically “Grimm” German for “deadly über-skank.” We see her hit on all the guys before getting what she…deserves? Meanwhile, the “good” characters hardly get any. They fight like animals, but heaven forfend they (to quote Nine Inch Nails) f–k like them, because THAT would be unseemly.

“Game of Thrones” and “Spartacus” find time for canoodling between battles, the Misfits often use their powers to go “on the pull,” and even Walt and Jessie occasionally got a little of the nicer kind of action. Let’s not even start with Don Draper. Is “Grimm” just too goody-goody to get down? American TV decency standards are legendarily stricter about sex than violence, but shows this gory shouldn’t be viewed by prepubescent people anyway. “Grimm” characters might as well start making some sweet love amid all their other visceral shenanigans.

Becoming better neighbors

Hey, there’s no law against shooting an un-Portlandy show in Portland. Leverage even used our streets and buildings while calling us “Boston.” Portlanders are passive and accepting, and we (allegedly) don’t even tend to watch much TV.

But the fact that “Grimm” constantly drops our town’s name hints that it IS trying to portray or please us…in which case, the show has major changes to make. As mentioned above, it’s on the right track in some respects, and in others, it could retrace recent missteps back toward more promising themes. Portland—at least up til recently—has been hallmarked by innovation, individuality, intelligence and humility, as personified pretty well in “Grimm” by renaissance wolf-man and obvious audience favorite Monroe.  He could be the show’s North Star; comparatively, every other main character is changeable—especially tough-guy throwback Nick. While we’re at it, the whole Verrat plot is total BS-pionage—and just like Hitler, it could suddenly die and never be missed. Remember that match-a-species-to-a-subculture model? That was working; why not reopen that door? And why not augment the current okie-doke soundtrack with Portland’s vast array of local indie songs? (Hello; we’re a music Mecca; just ask.) When a show’s already done so many about-faces, for better or worse, anything’s still possible.

Beyond that, it’s the little things: “Vegan salmon?” Please; who eats that? Wrong street and neighborhood names? Why. A lot of the script’s peccadillos and the show’s creative shortcomings could be fixed with just a bit more hometown homework. “Grimm” has yet to do Portland justice…but there’s plenty of time to try.

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