Tell Me A Story, a web series written and produced by Kevin Williamson that first aired on CBS All-Access in 2018, arrives on The CW on July 28th. The show advertises itself as a dark and twisted modernization of classic fairytales, with the first season focusing on Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and the Three Little Pigs. Unfortunately, besides the eye-catching animated opening credits, those source fairytales are barely present in this generic, pulpy drama.
Tell Me A Story
Liz Friedlander (direct0r), Doug Emmett, Name (editor), Kevin Williamson (creator and writer)
James Wolk, Danielle Campbell, Kim Cattrall, Billy Magnussen (cast)
Released October 31, 2018 (CBS All Access); July 28, 2020 (The CW)
The pilot episode introduces the viewers to three loosely-connected stories: a high school girl adjusting to life in New York City after moving across the country, a young nightclub dancer who barely shows up until his plot starts towards the end of the episode, and a man whose girlfriend is expressing doubts about their long term plan. Sadly, none of their stories bear anything but the most superficial resemblance to the fairytales they claim to be based on.
I realized Kayla, the high school girl, was meant to be Red Riding Hood after her grandmother (played by Kim Cattrall) suggests she wear a bright red raincoat to school and Kayla refuses. She does have a tattoo of a wolf on her leg as a second reminder of the Red Riding Hood story, but that’s about it.
Kayla’s plot isn’t a deconstruction or inversion of the traditional Red Riding Hood formula because she doesn’t behave like a big bad wolf cruelly manipulating an innocent older man for her own gain, for example. Tell Me a Story doesn’t play the formula straight either, though. Kayla is far from innocent or gullible as she sneaks out of the house to go clubbing, and the guy she hooks up with isn’t framed as inherently evil or wolfish. Maybe the moral gray area of their connection is intended to be subversive, but in the pilot episode, it’s just confusing. Aria’s arc in Pretty Little Liars did the “high schooler accidentally hooking up with an older guy who ends up being her teacher” thing better back in 2010, because Aria at least had a personality beyond just “bored and annoyed,” and the chemistry with the teacher was, though not condonable, at least believable.
The other two storylines suffer similar problems. If I hadn’t been told in advance that Hannah and Gabe were supposed to be Hansel and Gretel, I never would have guessed that they were. And I kept getting distracted by wondering when the Three Little Pigs thing would come into play, until they finally did in the last few minutes of the episode. Which makes me wonder: why bother with this adaptation? Why use these fairytales if you aren’t clearly going to say something about the stories themselves, or use the stories to say something about the real world?
My other major issue with the pilot episode is the use of a protest against police brutality to poorly move the plot forward. For most of the episode, the Three Little Pigs storyline follows a rich white man named Jordan and his beautiful girlfriend Beth, who isn’t sure she wants to marry him and start a family because of all the terrible things going on in the world right now. (There are news broadcasts on their TV about Trump, making it clear that Tell Me a Story is firmly set in our present.) Beth asks Jordan to accompany her to a protest against police brutality, where of course everyone is wearing pig masks. It’s a pointed statement, but the moment they reach the crowd, Beth suddenly changes her mind and takes Jordan to a jewelry store to pick out engagement rings instead. That’s when three robbers burst in, using the cover of the protests to justify wearing pig masks in broad daylight.
Beth’s activism is portrayed as vague and nebulous, and worse, the narrative punishes her for it by making her presence at the protest lead to her untimely death. I understand that this show first aired in 2018, but to release it again now, after months of protesting and nationwide discussions about racism and police brutality, has questionable optics at best.
If we ignore the fairytale gimmick and the strange (and borderline offensive) use of activism as a plot element, what we have is an anthology-format gritty drama where none of the characters are particularly compelling, and nothing that happens seems to happen for a reason. It’s watchable; both the men and women in the cast are conventionally attractive and occasionally shirtless, so that provides some fun. Ultimately though, Tell Me a Story doesn’t live up to the fascinating premise the title and opening credits suggested.