TV networks LOVE blowing the dust off of old and familiar properties and giving them a spit polish for a new audience. Their thinking is obvious: "Y'all are so dumb that you'll flock to anything vaguely familiar or nostalgic because your pea-sized brains are incapable of engaging in anything that's fresh and original, so here's a hot plate of something we dug up and changed the font on." Sequels! Prequels! "Re-imaginings!" Re-morphosizings! Old crap thrown in a blender and squeezed into a tube top with some lipstick!
One of this season's "old is new" offerings was NBC's Mockingbird Lane, a splashy update on the black-and-white-and-later-colorized The Munsters, the classic sitcom of the mid-1960s and television's love affair with creature clans. This take came from Bryan Fuller, the mad genius behind the whimsical and twisted offerings Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls. Originally designed to go through the typical pilot process, NBC changed its mind and decided to air the pilot as a one-off Halloween special last night, with the idea that good ratings and a positive reaction could maybe (but probably not) lead to a series order after deeming the conventional route wasn't viable. Pilots are typically million-dollar coin flips, so the idea that NBC would put this out into the real world as a standalone special with no real conclusion—plus the fact that it's a Bryan Fuller project—made it a television experiment that I just had to be part of.
And you know what!? It was totally good to okay! (Professional opinion.) At its best, Mockingbird Lane is an affectionate, campy admission of doofishness with carved-out characters that viewers could imagine spending Friday evenings with. Visually there's a whole lot to love, such as the Burtonish (Tim, not Richard) sets and costumes, and in particular the extra pizazz sprinkled on the visual effects (Lily's spider-woven dress is something any production house could be proud of). But most importantly, it's something fresh, daring, and (mostly) original.
The Munster family comes pre-built with plenty of theme to last at least half a season, so there's no shortage of places for Mockingbird Lane to go. Herman (Jerry O'Connell) is a Frankenstein monster who just wants to feel complete, a modern-day Tin Man whose ticker clunked out like a MacBook three days after its warranty expired. Eddie (Mason Cook) is a big, waving red flag for puberty as his werewolfism sprouts hair all over his body, and no matter how many times it's done, lycanthropy will never get old as a metaphor for those awkward years. Grandpa (Eddie Izzard) is old-school, the creature that just can't adjust to normal living (in his day, when he invited people over for dinner, they were dinner, etc., etc.). Marilyn (Charity Wakefield) is the normal-looking cousin, the oddball in the family because she doesn't drink blood (weirdo!). And Lily (Portia de Rossi) is still Lily, and still the least interesting character despite being in a prime role as the mother of the family. It's a solid cast that works in some cases (Izzard is perfect), doesn't work in others (de Rossi is underused), and is way-too open-collared in yet others (O'Connell). Why they changed Herman from a goofy stiff into a sensitive cologne model is beyond my limits of understanding.
Still, the good parts of the pilot were GREAT, and about 15 minutes into Mockingbird Lane I wondered why NBC didn't immediately move forward with it. You know, aside from the fact that it probably wouldn't fly with most of the country.
But as it progressed, the pilot became so manic and busy and unsure of whether it was supposed to fright or delight that tonally, it came off as a trick-or-treater's bag full of both yummy sugary snacks AND crummy organic fruit bars. The show's darkness—the best aspect of the pilot—was brightened up too often when the episode went into light-hearted family sitcom mode, giving the pilot a strobe-light effect that caused my emotional well-being to go into epileptic fits and never allowed anything sentimental to develop. The cold open of Eddie Munster as a werewolf terrorizing his scout troop was FANTASTIC, with its visceral violence and campy sleeping bag explosions, but by the end of the episode, too many uninteresting Halloween-themed family-dramedy moments declawed the tone set by its rockin' start.
Fuller's over-the-top whimsy works well with real-world situations in need of some levity (Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls), but when that style was draped over the portal to Hell opened in Mockingbird Lane, the opposing forces clashed a wee bit too often. However, that could merely be the result of it being a pilot, because there was a formula that could really work; Mockingbird Lane just needs to get the right balance of Eye of Newt and Puppy-Dog Tails. The show would probably be better off if it ditched the Disneyland haunted house music and uplifting ditties from The Magnetic Fields, too.
However, all these nitpicks are endemic of almost every television pilot, so to criminalize Mockingbird Lane for not getting everything perfect in its first outing would be just plain stupid. What we should focus on are the things that it did well, like the unapologetic campiness and overall look of the whole thing, which really made the hour stand out from a generally dreary broadcast television landscape. Despite being a souped-up retread of an old classic, Mockingbird Lane is one of the most original attempts at new programming I've seen in a while, and I think we can all agree we'd like to see more of that.
TRICKS AND TREATS
– Don't get your hopes up that this will actually become a series. The numbers are in and the special drew a 1.5 rating in the important adult demo and just under 5.5 million viewers. It's also rather expensive and too niche to warrant any long-term commitment. It's great that NBC gave it a shot, though, and I'd love to see more networks just throw their unaired pilots out there.
– Speaking of unaired pilots, what we really want to see, NBC, is the Wonder Woman pilot of 2011! C'mon, do us a solid!
– Most of the time when a network remakes a property, it does so almost exclusively for the familiarity of the brand name. Yet here, the creative decision to rename the show Mockingbird Lane seems counter-intuitive to the business decision.
– Gotta say, if you know your kid is a werewolf and you send him camping with his scout troop during a full moon, you're kind of a bad parent.
– The sleeping-bag explosion? An homage to one of the greatest horror-movie moments ever, from the late-'70s film The Prophecy: