'Tell Me a Story': TV Review

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10/31/2018

Kevin Williamson's CBS All Access drama boasts an attractive cast and an interesting idea in transposing fairy tales to a modern context, but it doesn't do enough with its fun premise.

The enticing logline and lovely, painterly opening credits of CBS All Access' new Kevin Williamson-created drama Tell Me a Story tease a show that, unfortunately, is much more clever, coherent and ultimately fun than what the first five episodes actually deliver.

That isn't to say that Tell Me a Story, premiering on Halloween, is unwatchable. It's a grim (pun intended), self-serious, low-rent Pulp Fiction knockoff full of violence, impossibly attractive actors, fleeting moments of audacity — you have to wait for the fifth episode for both of my favorite scenes — and the occasional attempt to connect to a modern world. It just isn't an especially imaginative or entertaining reworking of beloved fairy tales in a modern context.

Created by Williamson, with frequent collaborator Liz Friedlander directing several early episodes, Tell Me a Story is set in New York City and intercuts three plotlines based nearly unrecognizably on "The Three Little Pigs," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Hansel and Gretel."

In one, a troubled young woman (Danielle Campbell's Kayla) moves to town with her chef father (Sam Jaeger's Tim), taking up residence with the grandmother (Kim Cattrall) she's never really met. Meeting a handsome stranger (Billy Magnussen's Nick) at a club may be what she needs to release some steam, or it may put her life in jeopardy. Coming of age can be troubling stuff.

Jordan (James Wolk) sees his orderly life plans upended when he's a witness to a robbery-gone-bad featuring three gun-toting criminals (Michael Raymond-James, Paul Wesley and Dorian Missick) wearing pig masks. Beneath his veneer of civility, Jordan may turn out to have vicious instincts.

Finally, siblings Hannah (Dania Ramirez) and Gabe (Davi Santos) become intertwined in an increasingly dangerous web of crime, but, hey, this might be exactly the thing they need to repair their strained relationship.

If I had to guess on the thesis Williamson is working with here, it's that in their nascent incarnations, fairy tales were an attempt to help people, young people in particular, cope with the ethical and moral dilemmas of the real world. But what kind of stories can help us make sense of a world of seemingly indiscriminate violence in which family units are strained beyond breaking points and we distrust those meant to protect and govern us? What allows us to make sense of an age in which the nonsensical and incomprehensible is the stuff of unceasing breaking news?

It's a perfectly good thesis and one that could easy withstand the show's strange sense that nobody in history had ever discovered before that pre-Disney fairy tales were twisted, mature and occasionally horrifying. It's just that if you didn't know what Tell Me a Story was supposed to be, probably 95 percent of the time you wouldn't be able to recognize the game Williamson and company are playing. This isn't a direct expansion on fairy tales in the Once Upon a Time or Fables vein, nor subtext-pushing revision like Company of Wolves or even a free-flowing adaptation in which the bones are easily recognizable such as Freeway.

Tell Me a Story exists in a world that is recognizably our own, right down to television coverage of Donald Trump and the latest mass shooting, as well as political protests in the streets. It's also a world in which all of the fairy tales getting a spin here already exist, so characters say things like, "Just how far are you going to take this three little pigs metaphor?" and briefly and superficially debate the gender roles in Cinderella. I don't think pretending the show took place in a Brothers Grimm-free universe would have necessarily been useful, especially since Williamson is a writer who has proved himself adroit at a genre critique. In Scream, every horror movie reference or genre trope underlines that; the movie works as deconstruction, but it is equally impactful as the thing itself. Here, every fairy tale reference is an uncomfortable reminder of how little Tell Me a Story resembles the thing it's commenting on. Maybe by the end of the first season a unifying structure will emerge, one that supplies the neat instructional symmetry of a well-constructed fairy tale and that gives the characters arcs that feel interestingly in conversation with heroic archetypes. It isn't close through what I've seen.

There has just been so much literary theory spun on how fairy tales function, both within the stories themselves and in the way they're received by audiences. That pleasure of the journey is entirely lacking here. What Williamson and Friedlander are doing alternates between revenge thriller, slasher movie and tawdry Lifetime original movie. The only real fairy-tale-derived pleasure comes from the occasional reversal of expectations when it comes to things like "Who is going to turn out to be the Big Bad Wolf?" or "Wait, is this such a ridiculously young, hot cast that Kim Cattrall is seriously playing Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother?"

Otherwise, the pleasure ties in to heightened violence, "Look at us, we're being edgy!" R-rated language and a proliferation of butts that you can get away with on a CBS All Access. So many butts. Seriously, James Wolk is basically taking a cathartic shower in every episode and you can sense each young male actor offscreen doing sit-ups in preparation for their six-pack's next close-up. If there's anything effectively subversive about Tell Me a Story, it's removing the male gaze from the dominant perspective and even that is only subversive if you don't know Company of Wolves, which is practically an essay on gender roles in the genre. Company of Wolves is also astoundingly cinematic and uses the visual language of fairy tales masterfully. Tell Me a Story is visually nondescript and even flat and cheap-looking, despite scenes meant to reflect real opulence.

The strength of the photography is in making the lead actors look good. Campbell is a paragon of poutiness and has good scenes with Jaeger, Cattrall and especially Magnussen, whose character straddles hero and predator in a way that makes me think a Billy Magnussen-fronted American Psycho limited series might not be the worst thing in the world. The "Three Little Pigs" chunk of the story is characterized by intense scruffiness and Raymond-James is the standout there, followed by Wolk's fairly committed unraveling. The "Hansel and Gretel" storyline is the least engaging of the three, though Ramirez has several very good scenes in the fifth episode.

What kept me watching, other than the availability of episodes, was the hope that the pieces were eventually going to add up to something more than a trio of vignettes that sometimes make fairy tale references that don't add much. So I guess you'll be watching for the cast, the bloodshed and the butts. The premise and the opening credits promise so much more.

Cast: Billy Magnussen, Kim Cattrall, Danielle Campbell, Paul Wesley, James Wolk, Dania Ramirez, Sam Jaeger, Davi Santos, Zabryna Guevara, Dorian Missick, Michael Raymond-James, Kurt Yaeger, Rarmian Newton, Paulina Singer

Creator: Kevin Williamson

Episodes premiere Wednesdays on CBS All Access starting Oct. 31.