Television

Tell Me a Story Contemplates Moral Responsibility in Bloodcurdling Fashion

The fairy-tale foundation never materializes, but the show will rattle your bones.

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Tell Me a Story. The CW. Tuesday, July 28, 9 p.m.

Tell Me a Story is probably the oddest debut of the summer TV season, because it's not actually a debut at all. This series has actually been running for two years on the streaming service CBS All Access, and every episode that will air on The CW is, not-so-technically speaking, a rerun.

But somebody at CBS apparently figured Tell Me a Story—a sort of armed soap opera with a significant high school hot-bod component—could do bigger business on its over-the-air cousin The CW.

This was probably a pretty good guess. Tell Me a Story is not the reinvention of TV that producer-writer Kevin Williamson apparently hoped when he announced he was creating a program based on the Jungian dread of fairy tales.

But the veteran Williamson—who's masterminded everything from the maniacal Scream franchise, to the terrifying murder-cult drama The Following, to more teenage vampire claptrap than can be listed on cyberspace—can really rattle your bones even when he's not necessarily engaging your intellect.

And he certainly does so with Tell Me a Story, in which a bunch of dull and seemingly unrelated stories suddenly merge into a shudder-filled whole.

Tell Me a Story starts with four story arcs. In one, three seedy goofballs (including Michael Raymond-James of True Blood) are planning something unspecified but grim. In another, a moody teenage girl (Danielle Campbell, Runaways) has moved from California to New York, where she immediately clashes with her take-no-shit grandma (Kim Cattrall; yes, that Kim Cattrall). Cattrall, gleefully riffing on her own TV past, dismisses the girl's first-day-at-school outfit: "I was slutty when I was your age, too."

Then there's Jordan (James Wolk, Zoo) and Beth (grown-up teen star Spencer Grammer), whose mundane arguments over friends' at-home videos hint at the pair's dying relationship.

Last and arguably least, trainer Hannah (Dania Ramirez, Devious Maids) and her sleazy go-go dancer brother Gabe (Davi Santos—surely you remember him as the gold Power Ranger?) blunder into a crime that starts small and ends big and then turns huge.

For the first hour, these stories—inching forward in excruciatingly tiny bits because there are so many of them—range from dull to tedious to where's-the-remote? Telling the characters apart is way more work than it ought to be. And the closest thing to a laugh from the dialogue is a dotty line from a placard somebody's carrying at an anti-Trump demonstration: "THIS is my resting bitch face!"

But as the tales intersect and the characters collide, Tell Me a Story gains bloodcurdling momentum.

The supposed fairy-tale foundation of the show—it's theoretically built around Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, and Hansel and Gretel—never materializes in a meaningful way. (Unless you count wondering whether Cattrall is going to actually be eaten by a wolf.)

Instead, Tell Me a Story is more like a contemplation of the moral responsibility of tossing, or even accidentally dropping, a pebble in a pond. Who's responsible for the ripples, or that "one tiny thread pulled in the universe that triggers a human hell of suffering," as one character puts it.

Though Tell Me a Story originally aired on a considerably more racy premium cable network, there doesn't seem to have been much cutting involved in bringing it to The CW, just a little blurring of some bare butts and bad words. It left me wondering whether The CW censors just missed, or deliberately left intact, a joke made after a teenage three-way: "It's like we're a triangle on one of those teen shows on a network I don't watch."

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