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Review: Old fairy tales morph into modern psychological thrillers in the compelling 'Tell Me a Story'

Review: Old fairy tales morph into modern psychological thrillers in the compelling 'Tell Me a Story'
The original series "Tell Me a Story" on CBS All Access revamps old fairy tales, such as "The Three Little Pigs," into a modern psychological thriller. (CBS All Access)

Classic fairy tales are reimagined in present-day New York in the dark, CBS All Access series “Tell Me a Story.” The forests and cottages of those old fables are an urban jungle here, populated with power brokers, male go-go dancers and most shocking, Kim Cattrall playing the role of a protective grandmother.

The series, which premieres Wednesday, deconstructs versions of “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Three Little Pigs” then interweaves bits of each story into a psychological thriller that stretches over 10 hourlong episodes delivered weekly.

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Murder, lust, hope, revenge and greed permeate these chopped and screwed tales, and while some characters are easily identifiable by a red hood or pig snouts, half the allure in this smart and entertaining mystery is discerning who’s the villain and who’s the victim.

“Tell Me a Story” is one of a handful of original series available on the CBS subscription service. The digital platform is full of network hits such as “The Big Bang Theory,” but it’s also a space where CBS is turning out more nuanced material to compete with premium cable and other streaming services. “Star Trek: Discovery” is the platform’s biggest production, while a “Twilight Zone” remake is on the way.

Its most recent effort is written and executive produced by Kevin Williamson of “Dawson’s Creek” and “The Vampire Diaries” fame, along with Aaron Kaplan, Dana Honor and Liz Friedlander, who also directs the series’ first two episodes.

The ambitious pilot successfully weaves multiple story lines, introducing characters while setting them on a converging path toward one another (picnic basket not included).

Driven by a main cast that includes James Wolk, Billy Magnussen, Dania Ramirez, Danielle Campbell, Dorian Missick, Davi Santos, Sam Jaeger and Paul Wesley, the first three episodes available for review are full of treachery, secrets and intriguing twists, and it all unfolds at a brisk pace.

Troubled teen Kayla (Campbell) and her widowed dad (Jaeger) just relocated to New York from California, and it’s been a bumpy transition. They’ve moved in with Kayla’s grandma (Cattrall), a former wild child who’s seen it all. We hardly need to see the hooded, crimson rain poncho in the hallway closet to know who Kayla is. But it is worth the tongue-in-cheek reference when Granny offers the cape to the teen as she ventures out into the predator-filled city on her own.

Siblings Gabe (Santos) and Hannah (Ramirez) may not risk being boiled and eaten by a witch in this story, but they do face another sort of trouble. Party-boy Gabe has messed up, again, and this time it’s serious. His sister, a hard-nosed war vet suffering from PTSD, is pulled into the mess when she comes to his rescue.

And the upscale restaurateur Jordan (Wolk) has it all — a girlfriend he adores, a luxe apartment, a perfect jawline and six-pack abs … until he meets the three pigs.

These men in masks are up to no good so do their best to blend in at police brutality protests where the crowd has come dressed as swine. Then something goes horribly wrong, and, no, it does not involve a cottage made of straw, though one of the pigs does live in a dilapidated trailer with a leaky roof, so perhaps it will be blown down in an ensuing storm. We can only hope.

The beauty of this series is that the characters here aren’t straight interpretations of the traditional figures from children’s storybooks. The piggies start out as the bad guys, for example, and it feels like Little Red Riding Hood could, in fact, turn into the wolf at any turn. And because the series doesn’t drop all at once, the suspense is allowed to build from episode to episode.

“Tell Me a Story” is not another fish-out-of-water story, where fairy-tale characters are transported from a fantasy world to reality. It’s more like the Brothers Grimm meets “13 Reasons Why,” a perfect combination of childhood frightmares, teen angst and adult drama.

“Tell Me a Story” debuts on Halloween during a week when nothing that’s cooked up in a writers’ room could be scarier than what reality has handed us. But these revamped fables don’t aim to scare. They enthrall and entertain while holding up a mirror to the best and worst impulses of mankind. And aren’t those the best kind of fairy tales?

‘Tell Me A Story’

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Where: CBS All Access (www.cbs.com/tellmeastory)

When: Any time, starting Wednesday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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