Mockingbird Lane‘s journey to the small screen has been long and full of detours. The series has been in development since 2010, and NBC reportedly shelled out $10 million on the pilot, but even before Mockingbird Lane aired news broke that the series was DOA. NBC opted to air the pilot as a “Halloween special” instead. Friday night we finally got to see TV auteur Bryan Fuller’s vision of a modern Munsters family for ourselves, and, for me at least, the results were well worth the extended wait.
I enjoyed the pilot so much, that I found myself hoping against hope that NBC would pull the stake out of Mockingbird Lane‘s heart and allow Fuller’s vibrant re-imagining of the ’60s sitcom classic to continue to grow into the absorbing fantasy series it has the potential to be. The ratings were solid and the pilot helped Grimm score its second highest rated episode ever. That has to have the NBC execs at least considering giving Herman, Lily and Grandpa a permanent place on the schedule, but in case it didn’t, I have five reasons why the network should reconsider giving the Munster family an eviction notice.
From its first frame, Mockingbird Lane showcased a distinctive style and spirit that instantly set it apart from every other show on television. Like all Fuller creations, it combined whimsy with macabre. The pilot balanced the darkness inherent in a family of monsters (Munsters) by setting them down in a world that was wry, colorful and warmed by an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for days gone by. Despite all of its monstrous intent, the San Francisco of Mockingbird Lane is a pleasant place to visit. It’s the sort of world where a little boy’s schoolbooks are still bound by a book strap, the color palate is always full of warm yellows and reds, and even hobo murder houses come with hidden passageways and enough retro embellishments to make Wes Anderson feel like a kid in a gently morbid candy store.
The series caters to Fuller fans and those harboring fond memories of the original Munster family or the classic horror movies of the ’30s. It’s not afraid to indulge in a bit of campiness, nor is it unwilling to be sincere. It situates itself in a universe that is wholly unique, and that is exactly the kind of series the networks need more of. The month of October brought monster premieres of two cable horror shows, The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, that trounced their network competition in the ratings. Why? Because they’re daring, distinctive and play to a passionate fanbase. Being typical is no longer an asset and Mockingbird Lane is about as far from typical network fare as NBC can possibly get.
The pilot was gorgeous visually, but a series can’t survive on striking visuals alone. CGI dragons and a winged Eddie Izzard are fun, but what made the series instantly compelling was its story. There are plenty of monsters roaming around the television landscape these days, but the Munster family carved out their own niche by focusing on one central theme: it’s okay to be exactly who you are. It’s a simple premise, but the various ways in which the pilot explored the family grappling with the concept were impressive, amusing and often moving.
Eddie’s greatest fear is that he will become a monster, so when he learns of his werewolf condition, he’s understandably shaken. Lily wants to be good for her son, but she’s locked in a constant battle against her murderous nature. Herman seeks to hold onto his last remaining original piece–his heart–even though doing so puts him at risk because he’s afraid he can’t still be who he is without it. Grandpa and Marilyn are completely comfortable in their own very different skins, and each projects a self-possessed air that annoys the other one. The pilot’s greatest strength was in how clearly it set forward each character’s motivations. I came away feeling as if I knew exactly who the characters were and how they fit together. More importantly, I instantly wanted to know more about each one of them.
NBC has quite the dream team on their hands. On paper, Portia de Rossi (Lily), Eddie Izzard (Grandpa) and Jerry O’Connell (Herman) sounded like an odd ensemble, while Mason Cook (Eddie) and Charity Wakefield (Marilyn) were virtual unknowns, but together they made for a believable and entertaining family unit.
Izzard was the standout. He took what could have easily been a ridiculous character and made him a deliciously confident villain (of sorts). His Grandpa happily enslaves the neighbors and reassembles his son-in-law while Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” plays in his basement laboratory. When he hisses, “you weren’t a Munster until I made you one” at Herman, there’s both menace and pride in his words. Whether or not Mockingbird Lane moves forward, the folks at NBC would have to be insane to not want to be in the Eddie Izzard business.
As good as Izzard was though, it was O’Connell that I was the most impressed by. I was initially worried when I heard O’Connell had been cast as Herman, but he turned out to be perfect for the role. He’s not the lumbering, ’60s Herman, we know, but rather he’s a far more complicated man who is guilty of “loving too much.” The scenes between him and his young co-star, Cook, provided the episode with its strongest emotional beats. Likewise, Wakefield more than held her own while being paired with Izzard, and tapped into a stronger version of Marilyn than I remember from the original series.
If I had one disappointment it was that de Rossi wasn’t given enough material to leave much of an impression as Lily, but her strong work on ABC’s short-lived Better Off Ted leads me to believe she could do interesting things with the role.
Pilots aren’t meant to be close-ended stories. Their primary goal is to entice the viewer to come back for more, and on that front, Mockingbird Lane was entirely successful. I want to see if Eddie can stay true to himself even when faced with his monstrous side. I want to know if losing his final original piece means Herman has lost his true self. I want more polite snarking between Marilyn and Grandpa, and I want to know where exactly the family is planning on keeping that dragon.
As a one-off special, Mockingbird Lane was frustrating because it introduced far too many tantalizing ideas that I want to see developed. Not the least of which, is the promise of meeting more re-imagined classic monsters. Mockingbird Lane could be for NBC what Once Upon A Time is for ABC: an excellent chance to make use of its parent company’s back catalog. Universal holds the rights to The Wolfman, Frankenstein and dozens of other horror properties that could stop by the Lane, making the possibilities for expanding the family’s universe nearly endless.
The point is: as a single outing Mockingbird Lane was fun. As the beginning of a series it was excellent.
Bryan Fuller is easily one of the most creative minds working in television, but the man can not catch a break. Dead Like Me made it two seasons, but Showtime meddled with Fuller’s vision so much he left after episode four. Wonderfalls aired a mere four episodes before Fox yanked it from the schedule. Pushing Daisies opened to strong ratings on ABC, but was ultimately felled by the writer’s strike. Now we have Mockingbird Lane, another ambitious and unique series that seems destined to not be given its due.
Isn’t it enough already? This project is the perfect fit for Fuller. The themes of identity, death and family are kind of his thing. Furthermore, with Fuller’s Hannibal set to debut on NBC this winter, wouldn’t it be better to break the curse now instead of waiting for it to claim its next victim? (Especially considering its next intended victim is a guy who enjoys Chianti with a side of (human) liver…he’s not exactly someone you want to make angry, NBC.)
I’ve made my case for why we need more Mockingbird Lane, now I’ll turn it over to you guys. Did you watch the pilot? Would you watch more? Sound off in the comments!
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