‘Mockingbird Lane,’ tanks for the memory
NBC 'Munsters' reboot is a weird mix of gore misfiring jokes
October 26, 2012
Airing from 1964 to 1966, "The Munsters" is a snapshot of its time in TV history. A black-and-white holdout, it had, like many mid-'60s sitcoms, an ultra-high concept — a family of monsters who are actually sweet and gentle living in a normal suburb. The scripts were bland and laugh-free, also typical in kid-oriented shows back when the three networks maintained their oligopoly.
As shown by NBC's new take on the show, "Mockingbird Lane," both TV and kids have done a lot of growing up since then. A failed pilot that's airing as a special tonight at 8, it features much better special effects — in color, too. But the show wavers between the gentle humor of the original and a more modern dark tone, complete with some gory shots that would have been cut from a '60s horror movie. Even as a holiday one-off, it's too silly for adults and too grim for kids.
The series stars Jerry O'Connell as the Frankenstein's-monster-like Herman Munster, and Portia de Rossi as his wife, Lily, who seems to be some sort of a vampire, like her father, Grandpa (Eddie Izzard). They've recently moved to suburban Mockingbird Lane, into a house that was owned by a serial murderer of hoboes.
Their move was prompted by an incident involving their son, Eddie (Mason Cook), who turned into a werewolf during a wilderness trip and attacked his fellow campers. Herman and Lily's niece Marilyn (Charity Wakefield), who is apparently normal, lives with them.
The pilot has two story lines: The family wrestles with how to tell Eddie, who has no recollection of his previous transformations, that he's a werewolf, and Grandpa has to replace Herman's failing heart.
Everyone keeps hinting to Eddie that they're going to have "the talk," which he assumes to be about puberty. The parents concede that they'll be discussing the topic of sudden hair growth.
The opening scene, in which Eddie attacks his Boy Scout-like troop at night, first seems that it might involve the actual killing of minors, but the show keeps it relatively family friendly. This isn't the case with the other plot.
Grandpa decides that Eddie's new troop leader, Steve (Cheyenne Jackson), a widower whose heart skipped a beat when he saw Lily, would be a good organ donor, so Grandpa invites him over to dinner to he can extract his heart and drink his blood. The plot takes a morbid turn that the show tries and fails to make funny.
This is odd because the show's creator, Bryan Fuller, was also the creator of "Pushing Daisies," which maintained a consistent comic and romantic tone even as people were dying right and left. One might find it funny when Grandpa mentions a werewolf uncle who was raised by nannies, all of whom he ate. But few people will chuckle after seeing a sympathetic character lying dead on a slab with his chest cut open as Grandpa sips his blood through a straw.
Other moments are equally tone deaf. Herman says that the reason he has a "broken heart" is that "I love too hard." But he wants to keep his current heart, because it lets him know who he is. It's possible that we're supposed to find this sort of sweet.
The character of Marilyn is puzzling. Although she's evidently normal, she's the only character who wants to give Grandpa free rein. But for no apparent reason, Grandpa wants her to move out of the house.
Eddie Izzard nails the part of Grandpa, drawing on a long tradition of lovable villains. Portia de Rossi's conception of Lily as a good-hearted vamp is at least readable and consistent.
But Jerry O'Connell, who should be the comic center of the show, seems to have no idea how to play Herman. Sometimes he acts as if Herman is the voice of reason; other times he seems like a naïve sap. This is in jarring contrast with Fred Gwynne's original Herman, a funny man-child whom the actor played with such commitment that he probably killed his own career.
NBC considered picking up "Mockingbird Lane" as a series. Although it's being presented tonight as a Halloween special, the hour plays like the failed pilot that it is, with a lot of exposition and an episode-ending tease that's intended to leave us wanting more. But this is clearly a case of once bitten, twice shy.
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