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Jill Rudy

Fairy-Tale TV

Routledge Press, 2020

This concise and accessible critical introduction examines the world of popular fairy-tale television, tracing how fairy tales and their social and cultural implications manifest within series, television events, anthologies, and episodes, and as freestanding motifs.

Providing a model of televisual analysis, Rudy and Greenhill emphasize that fairy-tale longevity in general, and particularly on TV, results from malleability—morphing from extremely complex narratives to the simple quotation of a name (like Cinderella) or phrase (like “happily ever after”)—as well as its perennial value as a form that is good to think with. The global reach and popularity of fairy tales is reflected in the book’s selection of diverse examples from genres such as political, lifestyle, reality, and science fiction TV.

With a select mediagraphy, discussion questions, and detailed bibliography for further study, this book is an ideal guide for students and scholars of television studies, popular culture, and media studies, as well as dedicated fairy-tale fans.

Review by Jamie Horrocks at Faculty Book Lunch

I was grateful for the chance to review this latest installment in Jill’s series of publications associated with the fairy tale project she’s been collaborating on with Pauline Greenhill from U of Winnipeg. Some of you may remember their Channeling Wonder, an edited collection of essays on fairy tales on tv. This book provides a kind of companion to that collection, offering more case studies and analyses of individual programs like those in Channeling Wonder but more importantly adding to all the individual articles and chapters written by scholars in this field a handbook of theory, contextual and disciplinary history, and what the authors call a FTTV “mediagraphy.”

FTTV is part of a Routledge television guidebook series, which includes titles like Food TV, Reality TV, Political TV, the Sitcom. But the interesting thing about Jill and Pauline’s book is that unlike these other television genres, FTTV is both an independent genre and a category container that has the potential to operate within all television genres. As the authors point out, fairy tale motifs, themes, names, titles, narrative patterns, and characters find their way into everything. So writing on FTTV really means writing on TV generally, and thinking especially about transcultural, transnational, and transmedial adaptation.

The book is organized as a travel guide that takes readers through 5 instances of FTTV: TV series (like Once Upon a Time or Grimm), anthology programs (like Shelly Duval’s FTT, my own introduction to FTTV, or Henson’s Storyteller), event programs (like Roger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella), individual episodes of series that are not fairytale based (like the Cinderella shorts in the Carol Burnett Show), and ads (like this one). But I think the most interesting chapters for me were the ones that considered shows that use fairy tale motifs or themes even when there’s no overarching FT narrative premise. (you’ll recognize some of these but probably didn’t realize that they all use FT elements)

Jill and Pauline also consider non-anglophone examples, like the Italian Carosello shorts, the Russian series Masha’s Tales, or Japanese anime Yona of the Dawn. What happens, when Jill and Pauline cite example after example after example, is that you very quickly realize the versatility of FT as media mainstay, the range of ways FT manage to adapt themselves to adaptation, and the way that FT offer writers, producers, and actors a template on which almost any kind of television narrative can be laid. Even though most of the tales originated centuries before the advent of television, they are uniquely suited to this medium.

Tales aside, I’ll end by quickly mentioning a couple of paratextual features of the book that I think will make it especially appealing for classroom use. First, the book supplements its chapters with a very readable theoretical and historical overview (which covers television studies, FT studies, and adaptation studies). It also includes an extensive “mediagraphy” which lists many, many shows and movies that use FT devices (along with dates, directors, producers) that students can turn to if they want ideas for a project. Just before this mediagraphy, there is a list of discussion questions relating to each chapter, which can be used for in-class discussion or homework writing prompts. And throughout the chapters, there are these little text boxes that offer readers well-cited historical, contextual, generic, or theoretical information that introduce students to key ideas/concepts that add complexity to the discussions.

All told, FTTV is fascinating, a perfect example of what Foster and Tolbert call the folkloresque (the product created when popular culture appropriates or reinvents folkloric themes, characters, and images). And it’s a lovely example of quality collaborative and interdisciplinary research. So join me in giving a silent round of applause to Jill’s head on Zoom.