Sunday, October 28, 2012


The Mad Doctor
So.  Friday night was the premiere of Mockingbird Lane, the $10-million-dollar Munsters reboot conceived by Bryan Fuller and directed by Bryan Singer.  Or rather, it was the premiere of ML's pilot.  As promised, we at the Monster Shop decided to remain neutral on this until we actually saw what the fuss was about.

The originals
The major reasons for the fuss, of course, was the pilot being a reboot of the much-loved and venerable 1964-66 sitcom The Munsters, which depicted the adventures of a family of monsters: Herman, a Frankenstein monster, his vampire wife Lily, his vampire father-in-law Count Sam "Grandpa" Dracula, his werewolf son Eddie, and their cousin Marilyn, the normal (or abnormal, depending on your point of view) member of the family.  Fuller, who is renowned for the brief but critically acclaimed TV shows Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me, drew fire from Munsters fans by promising an hour-long reimagining of the clan that he described as "True Blood meets Modern Family" and would also be more dramatic than comedic.  Despite all this, NBC, which for many years now has been trying to recreate the success of The Munsters, gave the green light to a pilot.  (It is still not clear exactly what NBC wants or expects from this, but Ye Writer surmises that it involves nothing short of resurrection of the original cast, most of whom are now dead.  I also believe that is pretty much the only thing that would please most Munsters fans.)

So two years and 10 million dollars later, Mockingbird Lane was completed and NBC was reportedly unhappy with the final product.  However, to save face, NBC agreed to premiere the pilot as a Halloween special leading into its fairy-tale horror/police procedural hit Grimm, which frankly was a decent fit for ML.

The new family on the block
Much of what we discussed in our first post on this experiment did come to pass.  Our story begins with a disastrous "baby bear attack" at a Scout troop campout, said Scout troop having one Eddie Munster (Mason Cook), a prepubescent werewolf, in its membership.  Responding to the signal of werewolf puberty, the Munsters quickly relocate themselves to Mockingbird Lane and send the "normal" cousin Marilyn (Charity Wakefield) to scoop up a great deal on the local "Hobo Murder House," which reportedly was the home of a serial killer who preyed on hobos.  Apart from the conflict of Eddie's sudden dislocation, the Frankensteinesque "made-Munster" Herman (Jerry O'Connell) has some problems of his own: his heart is breaking down because he loves too much, and he requires a new heart.  Since Herman is unable to tell his vampiric, shapeshifting wife Lily (Portia De Rossi) about what is happening to him, Grandpa "D" (Eddie Izzard, and yes, "D" is who you think it is), who is jubilant about Eddie's monster lineage asserting itself and looking forward to feeding from humans again, takes it upon himself to recruit a new heart from the local neighborhood's population--and finds a worthy successor in Eddie's widowed and unattached scoutmaster Steve (Cheyenne Jackson) whose heart skips a beat, just as Herman's does, when he sees Lily.  Of course, this means that Scoutmaster Steve has to die, and cue supernatural mayhem, Tortured Family moments a la Parenthood and discussions of morality, since neither Herman nor Lily can bring themselves to tell Eddie who the "baby bear" really is, and everyone (except Grandpa) has problems with just how they're going to get Herman's new heart.

So there's the backstory and the plot, and here's the skinny:  We at the Monster Shop are, unfortunately, still neutral on this show.  It was neither completely without redemption nor truly awful; in fact, it was much like New Coke.  It's not that it was terrible, just that it wasn't there.  And believe it or not, the major problem for Mockingbird Lane is the new Munsters themselves.

In the end, it's all about heart, which is part of the problem
As per the new Hollywood attitude toward monsters (all monsters must now look fairly realistic, normal and attractive, instead of like monsters), none of the Munsters look or act like the ones we're used to.  O'Connell's Herman is fairly nondescript despite the scars and convenient zipper in the chest (the better to operate the plot device), and even though there is a certain irony present in having Hollywood's most average-looking leading man play TV history's most abnormal-looking dad, O'Connell is unfortunately not Herman.  I am, however, pleased with the maturity that Herman shows in this pilot: there is none of the broad humor or man-child shtick that Fred Gwynne used to do, which sometimes made the show a bit hard to watch (for me, anyway).

The good and the bad get ugly
Cook's Eddie is remarkably stagnant for a child who is undergoing werewolf puberty; while he asks the right pointed questions, he comes across as the standard pre-adolescent suffering from the unhappiness of growing up.  De Rossi's Lily, while providing some nice eye candy and terrific vampire imagery (she arrives by reforming from a cloud of fog, then having her dress spun by spiders), does not really have much to do in the show, and neither does Wakefield's Marilyn, who comes across as creepier and more ghoulish than her Sixties counterpart.  The main thrust of the plot is the moral struggle between O'Connell's conflicted Herman and Izzard's blithely evil version of Grandpa, whose character suffers the worst in the pilot.  Gone is the crafty but kindly mad scientist/vampire who may or may not be Count Dracula; instead, Izzard is Count Dracula: ancient, demonic, devoid of morality and possessing much intellectual intelligence but no significant emotional growth.  And the sets and house, while magnificent, unfortunately bring to mind the Addams Family more than the Munsters, and often led me to think that Bryan Fuller was confused as to which show he was actually remaking.

Better Neighbors
So why are these new Munsters, who seem to be closer to actual monsters, the main problem?  Because Mockingbird Lane is not The Munsters, and unfortunately never will be.  The major mistake here is not really this show's central idea--monster family moves into normal human neighborhood, then begins to act like monsters--but its attachment to the Munsters legacy.  If this show had been given some other name besides Mockingbird Lane and the characters other names besides Herman and Lily and so forth, it could have become a nice horror-themed satire on not only Troubled Family shows like Parenthood but also the current crop of horror shows on TV today, which are in need of a good ribbing from time to time (the constant emotional turmoil of The Vampire Diaries and the relentless sturm und drang of American Horror Story immediately come to mind).  If one wants a show that is reminiscent of the early days of the Munsters, I would instead turn to ABC's The Neighbors, the current Wednesday night sitcom which depicts a New Jersey family who move to a gated community populated by a race of aliens stranded on Earth.  This show, a complete inversion of the aliens-among-us trope--humans, rather than aliens, must be the teachers, and the super-intelligent aliens unfortunately lack common sense--needs viewers, and I think it would serve well for people who expected more from Mockingbird Lane.  As for Mockingbird Lane itself, the show's central idea still has a chance to be accepted.  The solution is obvious: just quit trying to make lightning strike twice.

There you go.

For those who are interested, The Neighbors appears Wednesday nights on ABC at 8:30 (7:30 central).  Check your local listings for time.  More information can be found here.