Kevin Williamson’s latest drama, “Tell Me a Story,” blends versions of three classic fairy tales — “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “The Three Little Pigs” — but he didn’t just want to rely on versions of stories already known. Instead, he set out to “write something that was relevant today” for his CBS All Access series and create characters that lived and breathed in the modern world.
The real world became inspiration for “Tell Me a Story” on a number of levels. Within the first few minutes of the premiere episode he incorporates news footage of a Sarah Huckabee Sanders press conference along with commentary about “another shooting” from one of the characters.
“We live in such a world of unrest, such a divided time, such an angry time,” Williamson says. “We’re stuck in this moment in time where we’re just waiting for things to change so we can get on with it, not realizing this is it — the new reality.”
That feeling of unrest most fed into his version of the Three Little Pigs’ story. In his version, those characters are three men who don pig masks to pull off a robbery. While the show starts off with them as villains, it will pull back the curtain to “get into their lives and see who they are and what led them down the road to do what they did,” Williamson says. Similarly, the seeming hero of the story, Jordan (James Wolk), will be led on a “quest of vengeance” after his encounter with the Three Little Pigs.
“Every one of these fairy tales is black and white, right and wrong. They were cautionary tales for children to abide [by] and obey their parents and not stray from the path or do the wrong thing,” he explains. “But we don’t live in a world of what’s right and wrong anymore because if you turn on the news, the truth is fake and lies are the truth, and right and wrong are upside down. We really are living in some murky gray.”
Williamson says he chose those three fairy tales because of the way their morals and themes complemented each other. He also liked how they were “very diverse” in their stories and characters, which allowed him room to subvert expectations.
For example, he notes that typically “Little Red Riding Hood” tackles themes of temptation, but he also wanted to play with “who is the wolf?” and the idea that “the wolf that lurks within us.”
And his version of Hansel and Gretel is still a “tale of survival” but one where they have to claw their way out of a life-changing bad decision. His brother-sister duo of Gabe (Davi Santos) and Hannah (Dania Ramirez) are characters who feel like they had “been tossed aside.”
“Hansel and Gretel were thrown away by their parents [and Hannah] was thrown away by her country in a lot of ways,” he says of the recently-returned veteran. “Here they are, lost in the woods of New York, and they make a decision they regret and try to get out of.”
While Williamson admits the way the show plays with right and wrong results in some tragic events for its characters, the reason he wanted to go dark was to “make the hope that much more poignant.”
“The fun part of this show is who gets the happy ending,” he says. “In these fairy tales they don’t really have happy endings, and yet if you subscribe to the Disney version, they always have happy endings.”
The first season of “Tell Me a Story” is a close-ended piece for these characters, so Williamson did feel an obligation to provide answers to questions like “Are Hansel and Gretel going to get out of their situation?” and “Is the wolf going to kill grandmother?”
But mostly, he was excited to dive into themes of “love and hope and death” that have defined his career since the early days of “Dawson’s Creek.”
“[That] was a show about longing,” Williamson says. “Even ‘The Vampire Diaries’ was a relationship show in the midst of a supernatural [world]…about grief and pain and rebirth. ‘Scream,’ yes it was a horror movie, but it was still a movie about a young girl dealing with the death of her mother, and I wrote it from that point of view.”
With “Tell Me a Story,” he was “excited to flex new muscles and also flex some old ones — and hopefully start a new chapter as a storyteller.”
“Tell Me a Story” premieres Oct. 31 on CBS All Access.