Critic's Notebook: NBC welcomes 'Grimm' development

In the endless prelude to the premiere of "Smash," the hand-wringing over the state of NBC was something to behold. After canning "Prime Suspect," its big ticket fall show, in what can be called only a panic, and bombing with its presumed John Grisham shoo-in "The Firm," the network needs a hit more than a flower needs rain, etc.

Obviously NBC is hoping that "Smash" will be that hit, pouring money into the sort of ad campaign usually reserved for Harvey Weinstein's Oscar projects. It's too early to tell; the premiere did well enough but life is short and the television season is long.

As a critic, I am often baffled by the viewing habits of the American public and never more so than when I consider NBC. Because NBC has a lot of surprisingly good shows. As in: good shows that surprise you. Last year it was "Harry's Law," this year it's "Grimm." If there were an award for the new show that best sustained, and occasionally surpassed, the promise of its very well-done pilot (and I think maybe there should be), "Grimm" would win, hands down.

A creepy campfire story wrapped around a police procedural and set in the forests primeval of Portland, Ore., "Grimm" follows the adventures of one Nick Burkhardt (David Guintoli), a regular guy police detective who discovers that he is also a Grimm, able to see the monsters of this world — all the better to kill the bad ones, my dear.

It opened with a fine twist on "Red Riding Hood" so beautifully produced that I, cynical TV critic that I am, could not imagine the creators would be able to keep the thing going for more than a few episodes.

Delightfully, I was wrong. Delivering quite well on its "Here there be monsters" hook, "Grimm" also hits all the notes of a classic hero-in-disguise story — recently discovered powers, magical talisman (a book, some really wicked looking weaponry), loyal if quirky sidekick (a "tame" werewolf named Monroe played by Silas Weir Mitchell), a gal in peril (Nick's fiancé, who it has been recommended he ditch to protect) and, of course, a series of obstacles that must be overcome in secret because no one can know he is a Grimm.

Although some of the monster plots come directly from fairy tales, others have been either cleverly re-imagined or simply invented. There's also a tantalizing narrative involving Nick's boss, who is some sort of creature with ambiguous intent; the fact that Nick can't "see" him remains intriguing.

And though there is the problem of Portland suddenly becoming the Grisly and Weird Crime Center of the World, well, that's a suspension of disbelief we're all willing to make in exchange for those shaggy forests and thundering waterways. And I say "we're all" because the show did pretty well in the ratings — stellar, actually, for a Friday night — and looks good for a new season.

And "Grimm" is not the only show worth watching on the network parched for a hit. "Harry's Law" is still going strong, "Parenthood" keeps getting better every season, and even in the face of upstarts like "Modern Family" and "New Girl," NBC has some of the best comedies on TV (listed here in order of my personal preference): "Parks and Recreation," "30 Rock," "The Office," "Community" and "Up All Night."

Yeah, of course it has some dogs — "Are You There, Chelsea?" "Whitney," "The Firm," "The Playboy Club" … OK, that's a lot — but everyone has dogs. CBS executives, many of them probably college graduates, thought "Rob" was funny enough to air. Someone at top-rated Fox considered "I Hate My Teenage Daughter" not just a good title but a good show and believed that "Terra Nova" needed dinosaurs more than it needed decent dialogue. Mistakes are made. That's how we learn!

In a way, NBC is just too smart for its own good. "30 Rock" has the Emmy count, and the ratings, of a cable show. "The Office" originated in Britain as did "Prime Suspect," which NBC promoted just as if 10 million or 12 million Americans had ever heard of the original, instead of just saying, "Hey, we've got the next super-hot, super-smart 'Police Woman' here and she's played by Maria Bello! Who is a movie star!"

That's pretty much the definition of being too smart for your own good. Making intelligent, finely drawn shows, promoting them to a PBS-like audience and then expecting big, broad, primary-colors-only TV numbers.

So here's hoping that "Smash" is a hit. Not only could it usher in a better general marketing plan, it might bring more viewers to all the NBC shows so we can all stop worrying so much about the numbers and worry more about the stories.

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