Mockingbird Lane: The Munsters that should have been

I have seen everything featuring the original Munsters: All 72 episodes of the tv series, the color pilot, and the two movies: Munster, Go Home! (1966) and The Munsters' Revenge (1981).  Pat Priest who played Marilyn for most of the series?  We've met her.  Got her autograph.  Have pictures of her with my kid.  We even dressed up as Herman, Lily, and Eddie for Halloween the year Mockingbird Lane premiered.  Still, I wouldn't say I'm a fan.  I love the look of the show.  I love that they're all based on the Universal Monsters.  But the humor is very low-brow, and the characters are two-dimensional and cartoonish.  The writing was never clever in terms of plotting or wordplay.  Sure, it was ostensibly a kid's show, but so was its contemporary, The Addams Family, and that series managed to incorporate much more sophisticated humor and subtext.  In fact, most people I ask will say they prefer the latter precisely for this reason.  They just weren't as dumb.


Almost 50 years later, we finally had a chance to update the series so that it took the best elements of a supernaturally-inspired series and wove snarky humor that The Munsters lacked.  Written by Bryan Fuller and directed by Bryan Singer, Mockingbird Lane is absolutely genius.

So what happened?

The sequence of events seems to be as follows:
A noteworthy event I'm leaving out of the above timeline is the post-broadcast reaction of the bloggers: They loved it!  I've read blogs that pulled a complete 180.  Mockingbird Lane was a complete departure from the silliness of the original, which didn't really appeal to me either.  We laughed at the old show when we were young enough to enjoy that kind of humor, but this was modern and sophisticated.  One of the Halloween/monster blogs I read had a whole series of diatribes (four of them!) about the show leading up to its airing.  After it premiered?  Total turn-around.  They  recanted every objection and admitted the creators got it right.

I think we were all in a state of cognitive dissonance about how they were going to take a show that grounded in its era and make something fresh out of it.  We couldn't imagine a "gritty" version of The Munsters anymore than we could imagine watching Adam West as Batman and reading that Christopher Nolan was going to do a "gritty" update of the superhero.  In that case we had several other versions in between (including the Burton movies, Frank Miller's comic books, and several well-executed animated series), but even then I remember the reaction when they announced that heart-throb Heath Ledger was going to be the Joker.  There was a collective "WTF?" at the time, and we were proven so very, very wrong with the very first trailer.

The same thing should have happened here, but how many promos did NBC air?  There was nothing to silence the critics in the run-up to the series.

What they fixed
Herman isn't stupid.  This was generally the most grating thing about the original, and the update solved this by turning the character into something the original lacked: an everyman, albeit one that was made out of spare parts.  He's much easier to identify with this time around.  We're actually sympathetic when he is hurt, emotionally or physically.

Marilyn has a purpose.  In the original series, she was little more than a sounding board for Lily's character.  Sure, there was the running joke about how she was "the ugly duckling" of the family, but that wore thin after the second telling.  In the update, she served as the family's liaison with the rest of the world.  Seemingly "normal," she was just as dark as the rest of the family (perhaps darker even than all but Grandpa), in spite of her summer dresses and blonde exterior.

Eddie is a plot unto himself.
  The McGuffin of the would-be pilot was that Eddie was maturing into a werewolf... and didn't know it.  He was central to the story.


Grandpa is fucking evil.
  While the corniness of the original series has its appeal, this update of Grandpa hit the spot.  Eddie Izzard is, of course, a talented performer, but it was clever writing that reinvented him this diabolical.


So what about Lily?  There really was nothing wrong with her to begin with.  My only criticisms of the pilot were that her outfits never equaled the timeless design of the original (nor were quite as sexy) , and her character was under-utilized.  Had this been a series, I'm sure we would have seen a lot more of her, but the best lines went to Marilyn, and she was only incidental to the plot so far.  But at least the potential was there.

Other points
The score.  The original Munsters theme was present, but it was updated to an orchestral arrangement.  It was very effective and used sparingly.
CGI.  The series makes fabulous use of computer graphics to give evidence that the family is supernatural after all.  Grandpa materializes from a pack of rodents.  Lily's dress is woven out of spider silk from the spiders themselves as we watch.  We actually get to see Spot for the first time!
The writing.  It's witty.  There's a rhythm to it.  There's snark and subtext, all the things lacking in the original series.  This is geared for a post-internet generation that can multi-task within the same conversation.
The house.  It was a worthy successor to the original.  Not quite so obviously gothic, and yet all the elements are there and then some.  Consider this exchange, and you'll get a taste of the writing:
Marilyn: What about that one?
Real Estate Agent: It's a very emotional property for entirely different reasons. The former owner was a notorious serial killer who poisoned hobos.
Marilyn: I'll take it.
Real Estate Agent: It's not for sale. They're tearing it down.
Marilyn: But they haven't yet.
Real Estate Agent: That's a horrible place. Horrible things happened there. They found dozens of grave in the backyard.
Marilyn: Mm-hmm.
Real Estate Agent: Uh, maybe you can buy the lot once the grounds have been cleansed.
Marilyn: My aunt and uncle prefer pre-cleansed.
Real Estate Agent: Miss, there maybe dead homeless people in the walls.
Marilyn: Then they found a home after all.

Speaking of undisturbed remains, I think this proves it isn't disrespectful tamper with a classic show if you get it this right.  But it's this perceived desecration that seems to be bothering folks.  As of this writing, here are the Recent Posts on the message boards of the IMDb:

Posts:
List Reasons Why This Failed
What is keeping NBC from picking this up?!?!
A terrible terrible re-imagining of the classic TV series.
Superb. Why hasn't NBC picked it up?
What is the truth on the ratings, and was it promoted??
I really don't understand the hate

In other words, some people felt like you shouldn't mess with a classic.  The rest of us loved it.  If you were young enough to have lived through this, you might recall who had the biggest objection to Paramount producing Star Trek: The Next Generation.  That's right: The Trekkies.  Thankfully, the "you shouldn't mess with a classic" crowd was over-ruled, and the series went on to eclipse the limited popularity of the original.  Mockingbird Lane was a case that would have dwarfed even that example.  Think about it this way: The Munsters was never as good as you remember it.  The Addams Family, however, was better than you remember it, and yet it spawned a film that was even better than the source material. Mockingbird Lane was an excellent opportunity that was squandered by a bunch of inept stuffed suits.

This was a cleverly-written show that successfully managed to straddle comedy and dramatic tension.  NBC missed a huge opportunity.  It's a sign of abysmal management that they sunk TEN MILLION DOLLARS into this pilot and then listened to critics BEFORE the show aired instead of its viewers AFTER the fact.  Idiots, dolts, fools, and COWARDS!  It's stupidity on the highest order when management sinks $10 million into a pilot they hide away and fail to develop into a series.  The show was a success.  NBC continues to be a failure.

p.s. If you want to further ridicule NBC (last-place network for many years precisely because of bullshit like this), drop them a line here:
http://www.nbc.com/contact/general/

Or just send them a link to this page if you agree.

   

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