TELL ME A STORY
Chapter 1: Hope
Starring: James Wolk, Spencer Grammer, Dania Ramirez, Davi Santos, Danielle Campbell, Sam Jaeger, Kim Cattrall, Billy Magnussen, Paul Wesley
Director: Liz Friedlander
Writers: Kevin Williamson
Reviewed by Sidney Morgan
This review CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
When it was first announced, I was intrigued by Tell Me a Story. Sold as a re-imagining and convergence of classic fairy tales in modern day New York, I wondered if it could be something to fill the gap left by the cancellation of Once Upon a Time. That Kevin Williamson (Scream, Dawson’s Creek, The Vampire Diaries) was the writing force behind it, piqued my interest even more. And finally, with CBS All Access involved, home of some recent (and upcoming) exciting and quality shows such as Star Trek Discovery, Strange Angel, The Stand, and the untitled Jean-Luc Picard Star Trek series, I expected the production value would excel.
After watching the first episode, I have to say, what a whirlwind. On top of presenting the various plot elements, there’s nudity, swearing, drug use, rioting, and various not so subtle criticisms of issues including veteran, abuse of police power, and of course, Trump. Oh, and most of it happens in the first ten minutes. Unfortunately, just like Rachel Green who tried to make a delicious trifle, but ended up making a trifle/shepherd’s pie recipe, all these ingredients don’t add up to a good final result.
As this is a re-imagining of fairy tales, I made a mental note to look for influences as I watched. Chapter 1: Hope starts with three brothers, one of whom lives in a trailer with a leaky roof, who plan to rob a jewellery store, wearing… pig masks! Well then, surely this would have Three Little Pigs elements in it, right? Remember, they’re the ones who had each built a house, the laziest of the three building the straw one, while the smarter built the brick one, helping them fend off the big bad wolf. But wait, these brothers are criminals, committing robbery and murder. So, who is the big bad wolf then? Is it society? Life? To be honest, a leaky roof and pig masks aren’t enough to make this a retelling.
Another story involves Kayla (Danielle Campbell), the obnoxious rebellious teen whose father, Tim (Sam Jaeger) moves them from California to New York City because their mom died. There, they move in with grandma Colleen (Kim Cattrall), who, just in case it wasn’t obvious enough, offers Kayla a red raincoat. Ok, ok. It’s a direct recall to Little Red Riding Hood, no? But on her first night, Kayla sneaks out of the house, meets up with a new friend and goes to a nightclub. While there, she meets a creepy looking guy with whom she decides to go home and sleep with. And I won’t spoil what happens next. But again, who’s the big bad wolf in this case? Is it NYC itself? Is that the danger that threatens to eat her and grandma? It’s a tenuous link at best.
A third story involves a brother (Davi Santos) / sister (Dania Ramirez) duo who’ve had to cover up an accident that turned to tragedy. She’s a veteran suffering from PTSD, and he’s a coke-addicted dancer at a club. According to CBS All Access’ site, the story of Hansel and Gretel is also supposed to be part of this series, but if this is it, I’m not sure how it relates. Have they been rejected by their parents? Is NYC the woods in which they were deliberately brought and are now lost in? Where’s the witch? Oh, but wait… in one scene, the sister does watch television during which we can see someone assembling a gingerbread house. I guess that’s all it takes to link to the fairy tale.
And finally, there’s the story involving Jordan (James Wolk) and Beth (Spencer Grammer). It’s the strangest of them all. It’s abundantly clear that Jordan wants to start a family. He and Beth have been together for some time and seem happy. Except that Beth is appalled by the state of society. She fears the violence that is breeding and the terror attacks that are taking place (cue the not-so-subtle Trump attacks). But she fears losing the man she loves even more so, and in a typical I-need-a-man-to-be-happy plot element, she asks him to marry her. Unfortunately, there is no happily-ever-after for these two as they find themselves in the middle of a sticky situation. Any link to a fairy tale in this arc has not been made clear yet.
Even though it’s titled Hope, the events so far offer anything but hope. But aren’t fairy tales supposed to offer hope and happiness? Thanks in part to Disney, most of our fairy tales have happy endings. But that hasn’t always been the case. In the older version of Cinderella, she actually commits murder. In an original version of The Little Mermaid, after all the sacrifices made to be “human,” the prince charming marries another woman. Oh, and in Snow White? The queen who sends out the Huntsman is Snow White’s mother. And she doesn’t just want Snow White. She wants the Huntsman to bring back her liver and her lungs so the queen can eat them.
These aren’t parts of fun, Disney-like fairy tales. And maybe Kevin Williamson is trying to get back to those old roots. But to claim that these stories are a retelling of fairy tales is just setting the viewer up with certain expectations. I don’t buy into that idea. Yet. But what if we stripped the show from its fairy tale DNA, would it work then? Well, I’m afraid the answer is still no.
Tell Me a Story drops viewers into the lives of various characters, without context. Too many of them are experiencing miseries for which we haven’t been given any satisfying explanation. And the behaviors the characters engage in lead to too many questions, ones that context could begin to answer, but doesn’t. This quick cascade of presenting characters and their miserable lives leaves no time to build an appreciation for them, and none of them are charismatic enough to elicit immediate sympathy. And there are quite a few characters. Maybe after a few more episodes, I’ll be more invested in them. But not at this point. Perhaps, as the title seems to indicate, there’s hope this will all work out and become a fulfilling story.
Tell Me a Story does, in fact, tell a story. Many stories. Just don’t expect fairy tales. And though it’s very early in the series, it appears to have been set up so that these stories can’t have happy endings. At least not if the show wants to remain grounded in reality. The characters are uninspiring as of this first episode. And Williamson threw in too many social issues. It felt more like a teaser trailer for a documentary about some of the political, social and economical failings affecting society today than a strong first entry to a series.
On the other hand, Tell Me a Story is developed and told over a ten-episode arc. The ingredients for some interesting storytelling are there. However, whether it does end up becoming something unique remains to be seen. Williamson is behind some great television stories, and there is still time for this one to develop. The problem in today’s television landscape is that if it doesn’t start with a bang, success isn’t guaranteed. But who knows, maybe Tell Me a Story is meant for its own fairy tale ending after all. So, give it a try, but temper your expectations, and maybe you’ll see some merit, as well as some improvement over the next few episodes.