Sometimes TV shows drag their unfunny, uninteresting, yet highly rated feet across our living rooms for years. “Who let this happen?” we ponder, as our foreheads turn red from frequent smacks. Other times, the powers that be get things right. That’s where “Brilliantly Canceled” comes in, looking at the shows that didn’t pass their pilot and saved us all a ton of grief.
Remaking The Munsters is a rite of passage for many working within network television, with the show facing reevaluation every time NBC can’t fill a time slot. Though they found success in the show’s golden age run and a surprisingly long-lasting sequel, The Munsters Today, the first family of being actual monsters was subject of five made-for-TV movies, three of which contained some original cast members, and none of them succeeding in putting the show back on the air for good.
While the torch is passed from generation to generation, The Munsters rarely breaks away from its formula. And why should it? A family featuring a Frankenstein, two vampires, a werewolf boy — just shy of his werewolf Bar Mitzvah — and a beautiful girl engaging in a comedy of errors, stumbling from faux pas to faux pas when attempting to eat their neighbors is pretty consistently awesome, especially in fast motion.
Look, NBC is down for all that. They are looking for an authentic re-imagining of The Munsters. No sparkling vampires. No directors talking about how The Dark Knight changed what these characters could be. No musical numbers. Just straight Munsters, like the last forty years. So it’s no wonder they weren’t too hot on Pushing Daisies’ creator Bryan Fuller’s decision to re-imagine the show to his own contemporary, entertaining, and promising specifications.
Bryan Fuller’s Mockingbird Lane is a rare beast for Brilliantly Canceled in that it was foolishly canceled. As directed by Bryan Singer, Mockingbird Lane marries and acknowledges the show’s past and present with humor, heart, and whole lot of potential. The show dares to be funny, scary, moody, and poignant, something that may have had a better payoff had the show continued.
The show’s introduction plays to almost all of those styles, when Eddie (Mason Cook), who sits at the center of the show, turns a camping trip into ravenous display of violence by transforming into a werewolf and attacking the scouts. Eddie’s turn from innocent child to murderous hound is commonplace for the character. In the sixties, his lycanthropy was used as a scared off bullies and defended his use of the resourceful, yet woefully antiquated book belt. Here, it’s used as a metaphor for growing up Munster.
Herman (Jerry O’Connell) and Lily (Portia de La Rossi) decide the best thing to do is uproot and move the family to another town. With Eddie’s changing becoming more commonplace, they wonder what to tell the boy who just wants to be a vegetarian. Yet, Grandpa, as played by a very Hannibal-Lectorian Eddie Izzard, thinks the truth is the only option. Grandpa Munster takes on the ultimate symbol of change in the world of Mockingbird Lane. Singer, Fuller, and Izzard go to the source for the portrayal of Grandpa, making him far more Max Schreck than Bela Lugosi. It’s campy, yes, but it’s a level of camp that reflects the darkness of the character. Rather than Al Lewis’ harmless old kook, Izzard’s Grandpa is a deceitful murderer who savagely drinks the blood of his victims.
The show’s handling of vampiric violence and a modern Prometheus is explicit, keeping the mythology of these monsters in mind. Lily Munster, in her talk with Eddie about the family’s heritage, describes her addiction to blood, but also the biological desire to continue. She is a vampire after all. Herman gets a more human characteristic, as well, despite being mostly Frankensteined together. Though, like Lily’s violent explanation, the focus of Herman’s body issues remain on his desire to love too much, which breaks his heart. Fuller injects these characters with far more humanity than the Addams or even their even more clownish former iterations. This is very much a family drama with monsters, rather than a parody of one.
Mockingbird Lane is far from a realistic portrayal of the characters and rightfully so. Obviously, the world that Fuller creates is not our own. But what he does ascribe to that universe is a set of order, a logic. Given the lessons they attempt to impart to their child, and the way they hope to be perceived by the community, that logic creates an originality not often found in remakes. Fuller remembers the rules of vampires and werewolves when creating his family-oriented show, which puts a spin on the characters that’s both classical and revisionary.
But it might be the show’s originality that made it so unsavory to executives. Despite the tight scripting and frequently beautiful staging, the show’s tone is consistently dark. The first scene alone, while being genuinely scary, also implies that a troop of campers were nearly eaten alive by one of their own. Not necessarily the type of move the struggling NBC is interested in presenting viewers. They’re a family cooperation after all.
Strangely enough, the risks that Fuller takes with Mockingbird Lane might have been risks worth taking. By the end of the episode, when Eddie finds out he’s a werewolf, all of it seemed to work. The more human looking, less bumbling Herman works well as a patchwork version of man. Grandpa, now more resentful, darkly humorous, and with the power to transform into a horrendous man bat, carries the shows humor, with Izzard making the character very much his own, especially alongside Charity Wakefield’s equally game Marilyn. The split between letting Eddie choose between outright Munster-hood and sensitive child, making for an affective example of their family dynamics.
Mockingbird Lane is not the traditional Munster reboot we’ve seen time and time again. By removing some of the bolts and flattops, but hanging onto some key set pieces (the secret dungeon staircase) and heightening some character models to better fit modern trends, the show creates something none of us could have expected: a show that’s equal parts funny, scary, and heartfelt. File this one under “Brilliant but canceled” because The Munsters still have some life in them.