Monday, April 19, 2010

TV Review: The 10th Kingdom

On paper, this really should've worked better than it did.

"The 10th Kingdom" is a ten-hour TV miniseries adopting the same subversive, iconoclastic approach to fairy tales that's become both popular and common over the last decade, from "Shrek" to "Enchanted" to "Fables". Broadly speaking, the premise is that all those tales really happened, but in the distant past - the common realm shared by such figures as Snow White, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood and so on has been split into nine kingdoms, ruled by the descendants of those legendary women. This is a world where, as one character puts it, "Happy Ever After didn't last as long as we'd hoped."

When a new Evil Queen escapes her imprisonment, Virginia Lewis and her father Tony - a pair of thoroughly ordinary people living in New York (the titular Tenth Kingdom) - are drawn into this fantasy world, dodging trolls, dwarves, gypsies, the Queen's Huntsman and all sorts of stock fairy tale types. Accompanied by the Big Bad Wolf and Snow White's grandson (trapped in the form of a dog, naturally), Virginia and Tony must stop the Evil Queen's plans and save the nine kingdoms.

That's an excellent premise, especially for such an extensive series. And to its credit, "The 10th Kingdom" makes the most of its fantastic settings without becoming a Tolkienesque travelogue. Since the plot hinges mostly on the Queen's machinations, our protagonists are constantly moving from one exotic location to the other, trying to stay ahead of her. The effects are pretty impressive for a TV miniseries: the opening montage deserves special attention, as New York transforms into a fairy tale kingdom. It's absolutely stunning, even if that particular scene never actually happens in the story.

Unfortunately, the casting is a bit... off. Which isn't to say there aren't some superb performances: Scott Cohen's Wolf is a neurotic mess who can't decide whether to court Virginia or gnaw on her bones, and despite initially coming off as a squicky pseudo-rapist, he actually ends up becoming one of the most sympathetic cast members largely due to Cohen's endearing tics. And Ed O'Neill as the Troll King? Wow. Of course, the real surprise is Dianne Wiest as the Queen. After seeing her in movies like "Edward Scissorhands", "Practical Magic" or "The Associate", you could be forgiven for writing Wiest off as a typical "Nice Mom" actress... but I had a feeling she could go further, especially when she went nuclear on Gabriel Byrne at the end of "In Treatment". And that's exactly what happens here: Wiest seems like she'd be more suited for a Fairy Godmother type of role, making her more imperious moments even more shocking and commanding. When she tells her stepson he'll be begging at her feet for food, she does so in a very pleasant tone - which makes her even scarier.

Sadly, the series is also saddled with two protagonists who are utterly wrong for the roles: Kimberly Williams is painfully limited as Virginia, playing her scenes in a dull monotony to the point where she can't muster enough real emotion for the film's most climactic revelations. Williams seems completely out of her element, even before the fairy tale aspects come into play: as the series' main focalizer, we spend time with her before she becomes involved in the adventure, and there's just nothing interesting about her. And then there's John Larroquette as Virginia's father Tony: a mere annoyance at first, Tony's character just gets more and more grating and abrasive as the series progresses, and since he's a protagonist there's no getting away from him.

It's no exaggeration to say that Williams and Larroquette derail the series: at first, they're generic fish-out-of-water adventurers, but midway through the storyline their characters become personally involved in the plot, except both Virginia and her father are so flat and unengaging that the whole thing falls apart.

And that's a shame, because the story has some rather surprising feminist overtones: traditional victims like Snow White and Red Riding Hood are rewritten as powerful, beloved monarchs whose contribution to the realm went beyond just getting their own Happy Ever After. Camryn Manheim has a cameo as the spirit of a grown-up Snow White: older, flawed, but still adored and respected - not because of how she looks but because of who she is and what she did. And her advice to Virginia deserves to be quoted verbatim: "Lonely, lost girls like us can rescue themselves." Also? One of the three trolls chasing Virginia and Tony is female, and no one says a word about it.

"The 10th Kingdom" is exactly the kind of postmodern fairy tale I want to see. There's nothing wrong with parody per se - "Shrek" certainly did it well enough - but weaving together all those fragments into a coherent whole is impressive, even moreso when clear efforts are made to put a fresher spin on the moral and gender issues inherent in the classic fables. But once Virginia and Tony take center stage, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain interest in the unfolding events. This is one instance where bad casting decisions really bring the whole thing down a notch or two.