If you want to see an example of “trying too hard,” watch the trailer for CBS All Access’ new series, Tell Me a Story. It’s touted as a gritty update on three classic fairy tales, set in modern-day New York, replacing moonlit walks in the woods and houses made of straw with cocaine, sex clubs, and armed robberies in piggy masks. Not only does it look ridiculous, it’s also totally unnecessary.
Tell Me a Story is a serialized drama from Paul Wesley and Kevin Williamson (Vampire Diaries) that interweaves the stories of The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, and Hansel and Gretel into a gritty drama about, well, insert something dark and sexified here. Oh, but don’t forget the street protests against “The Man.” I know it’s supposed to be taken seriously, but I can’t stop laughing. It’s like they walked over to the Bookshelf of Tropes, pulled out the Mature Audiences Only playbook, and used every rule they could find.
I’m all for making fairy tales for adults. I love Vertigo Comics’ Fables, and there’s a reason I watched Once Upon a Time until the bitter end. This just isn’t how you go about it. Fairy tales work because of how they use fantasy to represent reality. For example, look at how Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (the Johnny Depp-less version) uses the Red Riding Hood tale to represent sexual awakening. Or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Its monsters were connected to the characters’ own struggles, externalizing their internal battles.
Take away the metaphor, and you take away the message. Then, what are you left with? Some dude snorting cocaine and fucking someone in a hot tub to make us understand he’s an intimidating figure?
It’s not impossible to take the fairy out of fairy tales, but it’s really, really hard to make it work. And I’m sorry, nothing about Tell Me a Story indicates that they’ve succeeded where so many others have failed. You want to make fairy tales for adults? I’m game. But I’m not interested in being pandered to with sexy adult content when fairy tales are plenty mature on their own. Maybe try sticking with the source material next time. They’ve got cannibalistic witches, plucked-out eyeballs, and happy endings nowhere.
Tell Me a Story debuts on CBS All Access on October 31.