First episode impressions: ‘Grimm’ (TV review)

Just like a musician doesn’t have to pay for the rights to record a song written before 1922, I assume a similar law holds true for “Grimm” (8 p.m. Central Fridays on NBC) and its use of characters from the 1812 collection “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

If so, I can’t blame the production company for finding a way to save money. But on the other hand, every time classic fairy tale characters are directly invoked in an “original” story, it makes me think of bad children’s theater. In the pilot episode, “Grimm” suffers a bit from the dredging up of old yarns, although that is offset by some strong qualities that I’ll get to in a moment.

First, the premise: Detectives Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) and Hank Griffin (Russell Hornsby) are the type of duo you’d find on any cop show, up until the point when Nick starts seeing the true nature of fairy tale monsters passing as human (he sees the zombie-like face of a beautiful blonde lawyer, for example). Because his aunt goes into a coma, the ability to see monsters has been passed down to him; he is, in this show’s parlance, a Grimm.

Since Nick is flustered by his newfound ability, he keeps Griffin in the dark and enlists the help of a good Blaubart (roughly, a Big Bad Wolf), Eddie (Silas Weir Mitchell), to help catch a bad Blaubart who is keeping red-clad girls in his basement. Nick hasn’t told his wife, Juliette (Bitsie Tulloch from “quarterlife”) about his ability, either. I hope he tells Griffin and Juliette soon; I find “secret ability” plots somewhat dull.

It looks like “Grimm” will unfold sort of like “Medium,” except with Nick seeing criminals in brief flashes that show their monster face whereas Allison saw criminals in her dreams. The format seems flawed on the surface: As a viewer, where’s the suspense if you already know whodunit? Still, “Medium” was good for several years (although the undercutting of the weekly mysteries wasn’t a strong point).

“Grimm’s” redeeming quality is its visual style — it’s both set in and filmed in Portland, Ore., and the city totally lives up to its reputation as one of the country’s most visually striking. In the pilot episode, we get a sense of a bustling city and a sense of quaint neighborhoods. The detectives patrol a residential block when they cut through a park, and suddenly they are in a patch of woods. Later, they come upon a cabin on a large enough plot of land that it seems to be in the country, but it’s still in the city. Through it all, the cinematographer makes use of reds, greens and oranges. Sometimes it’s too dark and I had trouble making out characters’ faces, but I may have had my TV on the wrong settings. Generally, “Grimm” looks great.

(I admit that the variety of settings isn’t unique to Portland; whatever city you are in right now probably has a mix of old and new, developed and undeveloped. But most series don’t use the entire city, and make it look so lush, like “Grimm” does.)

The next step will be the characters. On “Medium,” Allison’s relationship with her family carried us through the formulaic plots. After one episode, “Grimm” isn’t there yet, but I do like the actors, so I think it could grow into something.

I’m not big into fairy-tale history, but if that’s your thing, “Grimm” offers up a smorgasbord. “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” alone served up more than 200 yarns. Still, as much as I don’t like when shows “cover” old material, “Grimm” at least puts a modern spin on it; true, the “Little Red Riding Hood” plot from the pilot is literally about a guy who fattens up and eats girls and young women (who happen to be wearing red), but the parallel to a sex-offender plot is hard to miss. This story would’ve played out similarly on, say, “Law & Order: SVU” — or “Medium” for that matter.

I think I’d like “Grimm” more if this wasn’t already such a strong year for genre TV, with “The Secret Circle,” “Terra Nova” and “American Horror Story” already capturing my fancy. On the other hand, “Grimm” is significantly better than ABC’s juvenile and boring “Once Upon a Time,” which I canceled halfway through the pilot episode. So I’ve seen how bad fairy-tale updates can be.

As such, it seems only fair that I give “Grimm” a few more episodes, even if I’m not totally sold yet.