Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I Don't Remember Fairy Tales Being This Dark (The 10th Kingdom)


I first watched The Tenth Kingdom when I was a freshman in college, which was a fair amount of time ago. Enough that while I could remember liking it, certainly, I didn’t really remember anything specific. So, Netflix Instant being what it is, I decided to give it another watch.

It is, for the record, both better and worse than I remembered. It’s a lot cheesier than I thought, and the effects look a lot crappier now than they did six years ago and they weren’t too fresh then. The plot is meandering and occasionally silly, but it’s also got a depth that I didn’t remember, and some real emotional heft. Oh, and it is, without any doubt, way darker than I could possibly remember.

But let me back up and explain what’s going on before we get into that. The Tenth Kingdom is a miniseries, aired eleven years ago, on NBC. It got bad ratings but good reviews, and garnered an artistic Emmy. It’s a fairytale fantasy story, that follows a young woman, Virginia, and her father, Tony, when they find a magic dog and chase him through a portal in Central Park that leads to the magical Nine Kingdoms.

Hence the title. It refers to New York City.

Anyway, the plot is pretty convoluted and complicated, as befits a five episode miniseries, but it boils down to this: Prince Wendell has been turned into a dog by his evil stepmother. The stepmother wants to take over his kingdom, and really all of the Nine Kingdoms, for herself. To do so, she has to kill dog!Wendell, but he escapes and enlists Tony and Virginia to help him. The stepmother sends Wolf, a wolf in human form, after them. Wolf falls in love with Virginia, and hijinks ensue.

Mostly, it’s about our motley band of heroes trampling all over the kingdoms looking for a magic mirror to get them home, and possibly a way to stop the evil stepmother, who, SPOILER ALERT, we find out is actually Virginia’s disappeared mother.

Yeah. It’s a bit weird.

For the record, this is what I was referring to when I say that the show is really a lot darker than I remembered. You see, Virginia remembers her mother only vaguely, but the abandonment, which happened when she was seven, has clearly set a pall on the rest of her life. She’s devoted to her father, who feels like a failure, and can’t even begin to open herself up to love or even a new experience, because she’s so mired in her feelings of abandonment and unworthiness. After all, if her own mother couldn’t love her, how could anyone else.

And in case you think I’m reading too deeply into this show, I would just like to say that none of this is really subtext. In fact, most of it is said really explicitly during a very enjoyable, if completely baffling, scene between Virginia and the long-dead Snow White.

As far as I can tell, Virginia’s mother (Christine) was a high society woman who married for love and then fell deeply into what I can only assume was post-partum depression or something of the sort after she had Virginia. According to Tony, she was getting worse and worse, and then, when Virginia was seven, Christine tried to drown her in the bathtub. Again, not subtext. We see this in flashback.

Distraught that she nearly killed her daughter, Christine ran away and fell into a portal in Central Park. That portal took her to the original evil stepmother, Snow White’s, who bought Christine’s soul in exchange for taking away her pain.

Heavy.

Now, aside from having a new level of respect for the show for really going there with the tragic backstory angle, it’s not precisely what I respect about this series. No, what I really respect is the way that it leveraged that tragedy into a great story with some really amazing female characters.

Virginia might be defined by her pain, in a way, but as the story goes on, you see her overcoming it. It’s a story about personal growth and triumph. In fact, her final confrontation with her mother is all about Virginia using her love and forgiveness to triumph. Excuse me if I think that’s a really awesome thing to see.

It’s not just that though. What really sets The Tenth Kingdom apart is that it tells a very female-centric story, without making it feel like it’s actually trying to, or alienating any men in the audience. That is both impressive and cool. So here’s how they did it.

By centering the conflict between Virginia and her mother in the story, the narrative gained a clear emotional thread, even before we knew that Christine and the evil stepmother were the same person. We had a female protagonist and a female antagonist. As the story developed, it became clear that the final conflict would be between these two.

But the story didn’t leave men out altogether. We followed the adventures of Tony, her bumbling father who learned to overcome his own greed and bitterness, Prince Wendell, who learned humility and the importance of having your paws on the ground of reality, and Wolf, who learned not to eat people. Basically. With each of these stories, there was intersection with the main female story, and with each other.

Tony and Wendell become very close and really help each other to grow. Wolf starts out as a real outsider to them, despised by Wendell because he’s a common wolf, and by Tony because Wolf is so obviously into his daughter. By the end of the adventure, however, Wolf has proven himself and is recognized as such.

So even though the protagonist is a girl, there’s still quite a lot for the guys to relate to and enjoy in the story. And, really, Virginia being a girl is not the most important thing about her. Which is very important to remember.

I feel like I rant about this a lot, but there is a very clear difference between a character who is strong and also happens to be a woman, and a character who is a Strong Woman. One of them is well-written and says interesting things about the story she’s placed in, and the other is a bit patronizing, and usually means that the writers weren’t sure how to make a woman a person.

Because that is the difference. Virginia is a woman, sure and obviously, but she’s mostly just a person. She’s a screwed up person who has trouble opening up and misses her mommy, which, for the record, is genderless. Sure, she has her moments of damseldom, and she has her moments of kicking ass. What she has is the complete package, a fully realized, faulty character who can grow into her own and become a really amazing person.

Yay!

To this end, her romantic story is never really the focus of the main plot. It’s always about trying to get home or save Wendell, never really being driven by her romance with Wolf. While Wolf is obviously smitten with her, and very verbal about it, Virginia remains incredibly (rightly) wary of him up until quite near the end. This makes the romance both meaningful, because it had to be fought for, and touching, because they made it in the end.

Romance wasn’t the focus of the story, but it is a nice icing to add on top. Virginia came into her own, and she opened up enough to have a love story too. Sweet.

Of course, it is pretty unusual that the story has a pretty clear consummation of said romance and a mention of an out of wedlock little cub for the couple before she’s even said yes to his proposal, but whatever. The show clearly didn’t mind breaking a few taboos!

Or commenting on the weirdness of self-help books and shoe obsessions.

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