TV Reviews

Peak TV Cheat Sheet: Tell Me a Story

If we’re all drowning in the sea of Peak TV, consider this new feature on the site a life preserver. I’m going to do a series of Peak TV Cheat Sheet articles very briefly breaking down TV shows, new and old, and hopefully helping those out there who just want to find something to watch.

Today, I turn my attention to a strange CBS All Access series which has a big name producer, some recognizable cast members, a quick renewal for a second season, and yet surprisingly little buzz. Or maybe it’s not so surprising once you’ve actually watched the show.

Tell Me a Story (2018-Present)

CREATED BY | Kevin Williamson, a big name who was on a bit of a cold streak since his last two TV shows – Stalker and Time After Timewere each canceled after one season.

SOURCE MATERIAL | A 2017 Mexican crime drama series called Érase una vez

NUMBER OF EPISODES | 10

EPISODE LENGTH | Varies from 42-53 minutes

NOTABLE CAST MEMBERS | Kim Cattrall, James Wolk from Zoo, Billy Magnussen, Dania Ramirez, Danielle Campbell (her first post-The Originals project), Paul Wesley (his first post-Vampire Diaries project), Dorian Crossmond Missick and his wife Simone Missick (aka Luke Cage’s Misty Knight), and that’s just the tip of the iceberg in this sprawling ensemble

PREMISE | Tell Me a Story takes “the world’s most beloved fairy tales and reimagines them as a dark and twisted psychological thriller. Set in modern-day New York City, the first season of this serialized drama interweaves The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, and Hansel and Gretel into an epic and subversive tale of love, loss, greed, revenge and murder.”

IT’S KIND OF LIKE | An especially trashy TV version of Crash but with shoehorned fairytale tropes.

The three little pigs=bank robbers

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? | If you take away the fairytale hook, Tell Me a Story is really just a trashy thriller about a disparate group of pissed off/troubled New Yorkers whose lives improbably intersect. Unlike Crash where the connective tissue is racism, these characters are thematically connected by their collective anger at the world and/or inability to cope with life. So, you have:

A husband who has just lost his wife right as they were shopping for engagement rings, an ailing soldier who only enlisted to provide for her family but has come home to a dead dad, absent mom, and ungrateful, drug-addicted brother, and a grieving teenage girl who can’t cope with her mom’s death and turns to sex to dull the pain. Before long, that husband becomes a vigilante. The soldier and her brother go on the run from some very irate drug dealers. And the teenage girl ends up in a Pretty Little Liars plotline.

Part of the initial fun is attempting to figure out which specific fairy tale characters these people are supposed to represent. For example, you think you have Danielle Campbell pegged right away as Little Red Riding Hood, especially since her grandmother (Cattrall) tries to dress her in a red-hooded rain slicker in the first episode. However, as her sexually aggressive ways reveal themselves – by the end of the second episode, she’s already had sex with one of her teachers AND initiated a threesome with her only two friends at her new school – you’re meant to wonder if maybe she’s actually the wolf in this scenario.

This guessing game largely falls away after a couple of episodes, though, partially because the show has characters outright make the connections for us, with someone literally telling another person, “So, are you the big bad wolf blowing the three little pigs’ house down?” Similarly, the Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel & Gretel parallels become overly obvious and any hope of the show truly offering clever updates on these old familiar stories falls away.

That leaves you with an over-written, sometimes poorly-acted bit of sensationalistic fluff that entertains mostly in the same way old prime time soaps like Melrose Place would entertain. I personally enjoyed it on that level, but I also watched this while laid up sick in a bed for a week. I wasn’t exactly looking for challenging or groundbreaking material at the time, and Tell Me a Story’s various twists (spoiler: one benign love interest/hotel manager turns out to be a money-mongering monster who’d literally sell her mother’s life for a big score!) and turns kept me going.

WORTH YOUR TIME IF YOU ENJOY… | Twisty narratives about ensembles whose connections to one another only become clear over time. Plus, shirtless men. Lots of ‘em.

And that’s just in the pilot. This is very much so a show which indulges the female gaze.

YOU SHOULD PROBABLY KNOW… | Someone actually says the line: “It’s like we’re a triangle on one of those teen shows on that network I don’t watch. In dramatic turns, it’s what’s known as a ‘trope.’” Oh, Kevin Williamson dialogue, you haven’t changed.

He also says that while putting on this hat

YOU SHOULD PROBABLY ALSO KNOW… | Paul Wesley, so central to Vampire Diaries, again proves adept at playing addicts, but he’s also not in this show as much as you might expect.  The same goes for Kim Cattrall, who doesn’t factor into the plot significantly until the final two episodes.

IS IT COMING BACK? | Yes. Despite mediocre reviews, Tell Me a Story was renewed for a second season, one which likely promises to unite an entirely new cast. Here’s the official press release from the network: “The first season of Tell Me A Story turned conventional fairy tales on their heads, interweaving and modernizing three classic stories into a compelling thriller for today’s audiences, in a way only Kevin Williamson can. We can’t wait to surprise and entertain viewers with a whole new set of tales next season.”

WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? | CBS All Access

Next Up: Get Shorty

What do you think? Does Tell Me a Story sound right for you? Or not so much? Let me know in the comments.

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