In theory and logline, “Tell Me a Story” is about the intertwining lives of New Yorkers that resemble some of the most famous fairy tales of yore. The new girl in town is an unwitting Red Riding Hood with a wolf tattooed on her thigh, surrounded by predatory men. A brother and sister, long estranged from and somehow still dependent upon each other, find themselves running from forces bigger than them in a twist on Hansel and Gretel. Three men in pig masks attempt a robbery that goes horribly wrong, ending in accidental death and a vengeful man hunting them, threatening to huff and puff and blow their lives to the ground. As per the series’ marketing and self-consciously “edgy” tone, “Tell Me a Story” wants to make sure you know that you’ve never seen these fairy tales play out like this before. And yes: all their lives have something to do with each other’s, whether or not they know it (yet).
In actuality, that doesn’t quite bear out. The new CBS All Access drama from thriller connoisseur Kevin Williamson ends up indulging more cliches than not. Red Riding Hood, aka Kayla (Danielle Campbell), accidentally on purpose ends up in an illicit relationship with her teacher (Billy Magnusson) while playing out “Gossip Girl” sideplots with her new rich friends. Eddie (Paul Wesley), one of the three little pigs, struggles with his conscience and addiction in a series of tight tank tops as grieving husband Jordan (James Wolk) tries to prove his guilt. Hansel and Gretel, aka Gabe (Davi Santos) and Hannah (Dania Ramirez), come with more interesting backstories of abandonment and sacrifice, but they quickly get swallowed up in the story of them skipping town.
Linking all these stories is a pervasive, palpable sense of unrest and paranoia. As Jordan’s antsy wife (Spencer Grammer) tells him in the pilot, they’re living in an increasingly unsettling world. Who knows when, or how, or why, the next crisis will come crashing into their lives? Occasionally, “Tell Me a Story” finds a way to tap into this theme in a way that links its heightened world to our own. Catastrophic news reports (some true) blare on in the background; anger comes into sharper focus; the show’s directing style veers in and out of the horror handbook. But with every passing episode, the plot gets lost in “twists” too obvious to truly shock, and in the attempt to underline the show’s themes, the lines get clunkier and clunkier. By the fifth episode, in fact, I didn’t actually care about the inner lives of just about anyone onscreen. (Slight exception: Kim Cattrall as Kayla’s wary grandmother, if only because she’s a pro stranded in the show’s worst storyline by a mile, not to mention that the casting choice of her as a wary grandmother feels both inspired and completely bizarre in general.)
I will, however, give “Tell Me a Story” this: for as little investment as I had in the characters, I blazed through half the season in a single afternoon almost without thinking. For all its faults, the series is enthusiastically pulpy, moving with a propulsive energy that, to be frank, most streaming dramas lack. It’s not nearly operating on the same prescient level as, say, “The Good Fight,” nor quite the radical re-imagining of fairy tales as advertised. But if nothing else, “Tell Me a Story’s” got a wicked bite that might serve it well when trying to grab curious viewers on a streaming platform that doesn’t quite have anything else like it.
Drama, 60 minutes. Premieres Wednesday, October 31 on CBS All Access.
Cast: James Wolk, Billy Magnussen, Dania Ramirez, Danielle Campbell, Dorian Missick, Michael Raymond-James, Davi Santos, Sam Jaeger, Zabryna Guevara, Paul Wesley, Kim Cattrall.
Crew: Executive producers: Kevin Williamson, Liz Friedlander, Dana Honor, Aaron Kaplan.