Now that Mockingbird Lane has aired, the question arises–how was it? The answer rather depends on what you wanted it to be.
A term comes to my mind in wake of several remakes over the past year (including Fright Night and Dark Shadows). I call it “nostalgia inertia.” Consider fans of some film or t.v. series, how they revel in re-watching their favorites over and over. Then somebody announces a remake. What follows often begins with balking at ever reproducing the original, note for note. Which makes sense. Our connections to such things include a love of all the little details, the nuances of performance by specific actors. Yet in another way, how can this reaction in and of itself ever be anything other than a dead end? A blow-by-blow remake seems pretty pointless for one thing, and demands not so much actors as impersonators. The Munsters episodes from the 1960s still exist so why just xerox those? Anyone longing for a carbon copy of the original cannot help but be disappointed–and if they somehow weren’t, everybody else certainly would be.
So, here is my review taking Mockingbird Lane for what it tries to be–itself, not a recreation. After all, who wants to see a production of Richard III where the lead does a spot-on imitation of Lawrence Olivier?
The story focuses on a time of change for the Munster Family as they relocate into their new home at 1313 Mockingbird Lane (which looks to be somewhere in Marin County). Why do they move? Because young Eddie, who up until now thought he shared cousin Marilyn’s condition (i.e. she’s “normal”), begins to exhibit werewolf tendencies–most recently at a scout outing attacked by a “bear cub.” Other changes immediately begin as well. Grandpa figures the time has come to tell Eddie the truth about himself and so intends to renew his old habits, i.e. eating people. Lilly hopes to allow Eddie a semi-normal childhood for just a little while longer. All this puts an increasing amount of strain on Herman’s heart (which we see in very poor condition–stitched up and with a mechanical regulator). He’ll need a new one, but absolutely refuses one of Grandpa’s mechanical substitutes. Likewise Marilyn hopes to make her home with the family permanently, over the witty but firm objections of Grandpa.
Marilyn frankly seems a fascinating character to me. She’s the white sheep of the family, loyal to them but to some extent tolerated. Like Eddie she’s a vegetarian, and part of her pathos lies in the fact she really doesn’t belong in the mundane world at all. Appearances to the contrary, she immediately chooses the serial killer’s old mansion as the new Munster family manse. She likes it. When the realtor points out there may be dead homeless people in the walls, her line “Then they’ll have found a home” combines the sweet and the creepy. In fact, that precisely describes both the 1960s sitcom as well as the new pilot. Sweet but creepy. For the 1960s this mean almost slapstick gags coupled with elements from Universal horror flicks. Now, the sweetness is tinged with melancholy, more intense because the contrast with the creepy looks so much more extreme. After all, this Eddie Munster isn’t just cute, but dangerous. Marilyn, the odd one out, feels lonely even amidst her family. Lilly struggles very hard not to kill people–and certainly not in front of Eddie!
Essentially the plot centers around them putting down roots in their new home, which reflects each of them defining who they are as well as who they think others should be. What makes it funny is the attitude toward this, from Grandpa’s sardonic and ruthless nagging to Herman’s somewhat harried earnestness in the face of things like telling his son he’s a werewolf. But what makes it a series is that there are no final answers. Like life, like real people, the Munster family have to keep answering those questions over and over again.
Like all pilots, this one feels a little ragged around the edges. Everyone hasn’t settled in yet–writers and actors especially. While the pilot has a through-line, it also exposes all kinds of potential stories. A shrewish neighbor who instantly suspects strangers–and whose paranoia in this case happens to be spot on. Marilyn’s feelings of discomfort with both worlds. Lilly and her father on a collision course. Herman’s feeling of losing himself as each piece gets replaced over time. Not a complaint! I find myself wanting to see more.
Much of the humor rises from lines, but not with the usual punchline. Rather, this feels more like glimpses into a quirky world. Like when Grandpa wants to teach Eddie about the “circle of life,” and Marilyn says things like how some deer are sad so the lion is doing them a favor (although admitting that particular deer didn’t seem sad at all). Or when Lilly asks Herman about why Eddie’s scoutmaster was invited unexpectedly over for dinner–and like a good husband Herman doesn’t lie, but also admits he cannot really control Grandpa. Most sitcoms or the like would have Herman lie to try and get out of it. Much more interesting that he doesn’t, which in no way diffuses the problem.
Whether enough folks will want to see this that it gets a chance at full production is anyone’s guess. I’ve already seen friends react with disgusted horror as well as charmed delight at the pilot. But I will point out that Mockingbird Lane does indeed remind me of an almost-universally agreed-upon success in re-imagining a cult classic from generations past. Not that this is a space opera or in any way matches the tone of Battlestar Galactica, but what it does is take the central tropes of the original and re-tell them in a new, interesting way. It won’t please everyone. But then, nothing ever ever does.