After Eddie Munster (Mason Cook) turns into a werewolf and attacks his friends in his boy scout troupe, the Munsters have to move house. They settle on 1313 Mockingbird Lane, a house at the centre of a terrible string of murders. Herman Munster (Jerry O’Connell) has a heart attack, but revived by Grandpa Munster (Eddie Izzard), who warns him that he will soon need a replacement heart.
Grandpa wants Eddie to know that he’s changing into a werewolf, while Lily (Portia de Rossi) and Herman want to break it to him gently. Marylyn helps Grandpa to show Eddie something of the monsterous world. Grandpa enslaves one of the neighbours with blood-laced cookies.
At Eddie’s new boy scout troupe, Grandpa hears the heart of scout leader Steve (Cheyenne Jackson) skip a beat when Lily walks into the room. He decides that Steve’s heart will suit Herman, and invites Steve for dinner.
There’s a fight at the dinner table, Herman and Lily resolve to tell Eddie the truth, and Grandpa turns into a bat-creature to kill Steve. Marilyn tries to save him, but accidentally pushes him down the trapdoor stairs to his death. In a touching scene, Herman tells Eddie the truth, but then has a final heart attack. He awakes in Grandpa’s lab next to the corpse of Steve, presumably with a new heart. Grandpa, now much younger in appearance, uses Herman’s old heart to pump the blood out of Steve’s body into his mouth.
Herman and Lily console Eddie but tell him they have a new pet to help him look after himself on the full moon. It is a dragon, presumably Spot.
I first watched this when it came out, a couple of years ago, and liked it a lot. At the time, though, I hadn’t seen an episode of the Munsters in decades. I watched Mockingbird Lane mostly because I like Eddie Izzard, and I found that the other actors were all pretty likeable too. And it was created by Bryan Fuller and directed by Bryan Singer. Just needed Bryan Cranston and they had the ‘talented Bryans of our time’ trifecta.
Watching it again after a partial rewatch of the the Munsters… Now I’m not so sure.
There’s a lot to like about Mockingbird Lane, certainly. The production values are leaps and bounds ahead of the old Munsters show. The Munsters’ house is beautiful and the CG is pretty sweet for a TV show. There’s a scene where spiders spin Lily’s dress is eerily beautiful, though honestly I thought Spot could have better rendered.
The writing is excellent – the jokes still have that macabre quality, but they aren’t quite as predictable or as pun laden as the original. The cast is really talented. The original Munsters was hampered by the fact that forty percent of the cast–Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis–had ninety percent of the charm. With this cast, it’s easy to imagine compelling stories centred around Lily, Eddie and even Marylin, with Herman and Grandpa taking the backseat now and then.
There are some interesting ideas suggested, but without time to develop in a single episode. Why are some Munsters human and some not? And most interesting from a Frankensteinian point of view, did Grandpa create Herman? If not, what’s the deal?
In spite of all these things, I think that the writers may have made one change too many. It’s not just that the characters have changed. It’s not just that Grandpa isn’t a lovable old coot who can’t quite give up his Old Country ways. It’s not that Herman doesn’t veer between jolly and tetchy at the drop of a hat. It isn’t that Lily has developed a personality beyond nagging or that Marylin has developed self-awareness. And it certainly isn’t a problem that Eddie is actually bearable.
After all, what’s the point of releasing a cover if you’re just going to sing it the same way the original artist did? No, the problem is the moral. The original Munsters wasn’t a deep show by any means, but it was based around the simple, positive idea that just because people look weird and scary and different doesn’t mean that they’re bad. Yes, all right, it’s feel-good and it’s hippyish, but it’s still true. What’s more, it’s an idea that we could really use a lot more of right at the moment.
Mockingbird Lane is based not just a different idea but a diametrically opposite one — namely, ‘just because people look basically like you and me doesn’t mean they aren’t secretly awful and dangerous.’ And this is true, too. But 1) it’s an idea that we tend to take way too far these days and 2) it’s completely antithetical to the idea of the Munsters. A bit of a fresh twist on an old series is one thing, but a complete moral reversal is another. It’s like a version of Dragnet where Joe Friday plants evidence, or Fugitive if Richard Kimball was guilty or Lost if anything made a lick of sense.
Ah, but you say. But isn’t the Munsters a moral reversal to start with? Isn’t it taking a bunch of tropes about dangerous monsters and reworking them into a family comedy? Why is that okay, but reversing them back isn’t?
Well, I guess it’s not unthinkable. It’s just sort of pointless. The evil monsters are still there. Why not take them as they are, rather than re-fang their kindly doppelgangers? Why have a gritty reboot of a family friendly reboot when you could just go straight to the source?
I don’t want to be too harsh to Mockingbird Lane. It’s a pilot after all, and pilot episodes aren’t always the best indication of how the series will turn out. But honestly if they were tied to the idea of a family of dangerous monsters hiding in suburbia, I think it might have been a better idea to simply start from scratch with a new family. You could base them loosely on the Munsters and their family dynamics, and everyone would get the joke, but at least you wouldn’t have to see loveable ol’ Grandpa straight-up exsanguinating someone.
I mean, what next, Superman breaking someone’s neck? Give me a break.