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The cheesy fairy-tale appeal of The 10th Kingdom and how it shaped my pop culture tastes

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Jul 3, 2019

When I was about 9 or 10 years old, my parents got satellite TV. This gave us access to a veritable feast of new television — usually with the worst picture quality possible, because my dad never got around to moving the dish from a rocky corner in our garden. That didn’t matter, though, because my sister and I had new episodes of The Simpsons and trashy true crime specials to consume feverishly.

But there was one show that the network Sky One advertised more heavily than the others. It seemed to appear in every ad break, and I can even recall hearing plugs for it on the radio. It was called The 10th Kingdom, and it spoke to me. When you're a bookish girl whose great loves are Disney movies, Labyrinth, vampire stories, and The Addams Family, some things just seem tailor-made for you, and this hotly hyped miniseries about fairy tales, magic mirrors, and evil queens practically had my name on it.

I begged my parents to let me watch it, although I didn't get to see all the episodes until I was older. For a show that didn’t exactly set the world alight and never seemed to attract much of a cult audience, The 10th Kingdom remained ever-present in the back of my brain as I got older and helped develop my pop culture tastes. Close to two decades since it debuted, I still watch it at least once a year, delighting in its kitschy joys and always trying to figure out what it was about this series that stuck with me so forcefully beyond the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

Written by Simon Moore — who also worked on another early-2000s genre miniseries I was very into, Dinotopia — The 10th Kingdom tells the story of an alternate world where all your childhood fairy tales were real. The great queens of those stories, including Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Red Riding Hood, once ruled the nine kingdoms and brought peace to the land. But now they’re all gone (except for Cinderella, who has gone into seclusion), and, as is befitting such a tale, an evil queen seeks vengeance and domination. Dropped into this world are Virginia Lewis (Kimberley Williams-Paisley) and her father Tony (John Larroquette), two jaded New Yorkers who tripped through a magic mirror and become embroiled in a story of magical proportions before they can find their way home. The fate of the nine kingdoms, and the future king who has been turned into a dog, rests in their clueless hands.

Watching The 10th Kingdom in 2019 — I scheduled my annual rewatch to coincide with this piece — is a fun experience of viewing a highly specific pop culture time capsule. At a time when Disney was the dominant voice in mainstream family-oriented entertainment, it makes total sense why a series like this would exist. During the '90s, The Walt Disney Company famously experienced a critical and commercial resurgence in its animation department, a period of creative expansion that is typically referred to as their Renaissance. The foundations of this new empire were the ones Disney made its name on: fairy tales and reimaginings of classic stories. From The Little Mermaid to Beauty and the Beast, from Aladdin to Tarzan, Disney made its fortune in that decade from reviving nostalgic favorites in its own oft-imitated style.

Plenty of people riffed on this, dissecting its appeal and often outright mocking it. What is Shrek if not a massive takedown of the Disney fairy tale? The 10th Kingdom is less sardonic in its approach, but it’s definitely working from a similar handbook. It’s a pastiche that’s also earnest enough to understand what made all those stories so popular in the first place. To even the most embittered of us, there is an undeniable level of sheer visceral pleasure to be found in an old-school happy-ever-after. Of course, all the notable jokes are rooted in ribbing the stuff in fairy tales that make you roll your eyes once you’re old enough to know just how weird the concepts of glass slippers and poison apples are. When the gang arrive in the picturesque village run by the corrupt Bo Peep family and are forced to enter a shepherdess competition, Virginia leads the crowd in a stomping chant of “We Will Shear You.” A witch curses Virginia with endlessly growing hair, and the painful reality of someone using it as a rope gets a big laugh. The trolls sent to capture the group are easily hindered in their plans by elevator doors and the Bee Gees song “Night Fever.”

For me, another confusingly appealing element of the show when I was a kid was the character of Wolf. As played by Scott Cohen, who you may recognize from Gilmore Girls, this world’s version of the big bad wolf is a human-lupine hybrid in a ragged suit who puts the fairy-tale’s psychosexual subtext to the forefront in a safely comedic fashion. He growls and openly queries whether his lust for Virginia is sexual or food-based (hmm, a romantic hero who doesn’t know whether he wants to f*ck or eat his great love, where have I seen that before?). Wolf is utterly ridiculous, which is probably why the sexual dynamic at play didn’t wholly register with me as a kid, even though it was as subtle as a brick to the face. He literally chases her through a forest before they bone down. And also Virginia gets pregnant after their first time together. Happy ever after?

Ultimately, I think what keeps me returning to The 10th Kingdom is the gentle twist on the achingly simple morality of fairy tales. These stories were created to teach and preach, often in ways that verge on ethically questionable, be it positioning the familial abuse Cinderella suffers through as a means to demonstrate her impeccable virtue or portraying a young woman’s virginity as prey for monstrous sexual predators who can’t control themselves. Disney softened most of the edges with its adaptations — nobody dies dancing on red-hot iron shoes, for one — but the lines of good and evil remain clear.

But in The 10th Kingdom, the whole point is that Happy Ever After overlooks the hard work that follows a great triumph. Snow White may have escaped her evil stepmother, but she still had a kingdom to run, laws to delegate, and enemies to fend off in ways that would continue long after her death. And when those great queens of legends past died, the people left to take over their jobs seem to have universally sucked. What has been left in their places are childlike ethics that people can’t or won’t follow, in part because they just don’t make sense anymore. Poverty and corruption seem rampant, the prison system looks like the most well-funded institution in the nine kingdoms, and bigotry is everywhere. You can’t exactly root for the evil queen who wants to massacre the elites and rule in their place, but at least her point makes sense.

The evil queen in this instance is played by two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest, who you may recognize from The Lost Boys and Practical Magic. She is steely and regal, embittered to her core, but also deeply damaged. It later transpires that she is Virginia’s long-lost mother, an immensely troubled woman who had a nervous breakdown and accidentally found her way to the nine kingdoms, courtesy of the original evil witch from Snow White’s past. She seeks power not for any ingrained reasons or motivation rooted in her own past. Rather, it is a task she has been given, one she mostly seems to do because she feels too broken to refute the idea of herself as evil. It’s an intriguing new element to the age-old trope of the bad mother, although, disappointingly, the series wraps up that plot thread a tad too quickly, especially when it comes to how Virginia has been deeply scarred from her abandonment issues. Running away to a magical kingdom leaves behind a whole host of problems.

The moment that makes me cry every single time is Virginia’s meeting with the spirit of Snow White (and it forever delights me that canonically, the most beautiful woman who ever lived in this universe is plus size!). She offers a much-needed morale boost to our lost heroine and reminds Virginia that she need not be scared. She has worth and pride and she doesn’t have to dig far to find it. We may not all get fairy godmothers, but who wouldn’t want a queen to remind them every now and then that things will be OK?

I’m 29 now, and I still spend a huge chunk of my pop culture consumption time surrounded by the fairy tales and subversions that made The 10th Kingdom must-watch TV for me way back in 2000. At its best, literature and television and the stories we tell offer gateways to worlds that reflect our own and offer guiding lights through our troubles. I feel most in my element in stories of the speculative where the grandiosity of kings and witches are metaphors of immense flexibility for the mundane crap I deal with daily. I love stories of immense emotional turmoil rooted in the unreal, but sometimes I just want that happy ending. Looking at all my essential pop-culture faves — vampire stories, romance novels, David Bowie and Labyrinth, Marina Warner's studies of folklore, Angela Carter — I can practically follow these various roads back to The 10th Kingdom. Is it the best thing I ever watched as a kid? Probably not. Does it hold up to my professional critic scrutiny? Not even close. But of everything I loved as a child, out of the stories that molded me, it’s this one that casts the largest shadow, and it's the one I always want to return to.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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