Mockingbird Lane debuts tonight on NBC at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Mockingbird Lane reimagines The Munsters as a ghoulish pop-up book, a jaunt through the decidedly odd, occasionally macabre world of Bryan Fuller’s head. It takes the idea of The Munsters actually being a horror piece a bit more seriously than the sitcom did, but it’s mostly here to have fun. It’s the fairy-tale version of horror here, where hearts are pulled out of chests for repair (after being broken, of course) and ghoulish monsters aim to devour the dinner guests. This isn’t really a show that aims to take its source material “seriously,” and that’s a good thing. That would be a drag. Instead, the series—in its pilot, at least—wants to embrace the weirdness of the show’s premise while keeping everything safely on the side of family fun. It could spill over into being just a little too clever for its own good at any given moment, but it walks the line very well in the pilot. (It should be noted that the pilot is the only episode of this series produced and likely the only episode that ever will be produced. Theoretically, if the ratings tonight were enormous, NBC could go forward with more episodes, but that seems highly unlikely.)
The question, of course, is whether anyone remembers the original series fondly enough—or well enough—to merit this sort of format-twisting update. The Munsters wasn’t a terrible show, or anything, but it’s very much a product of its time, and it’s hard to say that the world was crying out for an update. Furthermore, Mockingbird Lane doesn’t really do much to differentiate itself from the earlier program, as the underlying storyline and mythology of “a family of monsters live together in a weird little neighborhood” don’t suggest tons of places to go. In some ways, Mockingbird Lane feels like an ultra-condensed version of one of those big-screen versions of The Munsters that kept getting proposed and then dropped throughout the 1990s. It’s an attempt to jazz up what worked before, but not so much that people forget about the original article.
The Munsters has sort of fallen out of the syndication rotation, however, so it’s tough to say if the audience is there for this. To that end, Fuller and his collaborators have loaded the cast up with recognizable faces. There’s Eddie Izzard as ancient vampire Grandpa (introduced at one point as, “And this is my grandpa, Grandpa”), having the time of his life biting into Fuller’s over-ripe lines and finding every bit of sustenance in them. There’s Portia de Rossi as Grandpa’s daughter, Lily, who doesn’t get as much to do as she might in the pilot but falls into Fuller’s long tradition of seemingly normal suburban moms with weird twists. (Fuller often seems to be attempting to use his shows to recreate the advertisements in a 1956 issue of Woman’s Day. Not that this is a bad thing.) And, somewhat regrettably, there’s Jerry O’Connell as Herman, who doesn’t have the full Boris-Karloff-as-Frankenstein’s-monster thing going on here and has his reanimated corpse status mostly indicated by a few stitches across his neck and chest, exposed when he oh-so-coolly leaves a couple of buttons unbuttoned.
O’Connell’s actually better than most will be expecting him to be, but Mockingbird Lane centers so much of its emotional conflict on him and keeps playing with the idea of him constantly needing replacement hearts—because the ones he’s been using keep breaking from him feeling so emotional so often—that it’s hard not to feel as if the whole enterprise would be better with a better Herman. O’Connell’s game, and by playing Herman as the ultimate sitcom dad, he may very well be in on the whole joke of the show (and its predecessor). But Fuller’s script keeps calling for a certain macabre lightheartedness, and while Izzard, de Rossi, and Charity Wakefield (as “normal” cousin Marilyn) very much get into the spirit of things, O’Connell keeps being bogged down with the emotional gravitas of a standard story about a bumbling dad who just doesn’t know when to have a very important chat with his son.
Yes, Eddie Munster, the werewolf, is here as well, and he’s at the center of the pilot, which dearly wants to be about this family reclaiming its heritage and being proud of what it is, after spending so many years trying to hide it away. Eddie, see, doesn’t know he’s a werewolf, and also doesn’t know he’s the reason his family has had to relocate to Mockingbird Heights. In the opening moments of the pilot, Eddie’s scout troop finds itself alone in the woods with a giant, scary wolfman thing, and if you’ve seen any episode of The Munsters, you immediately know where this is going. (It’s all carried out in wickedly stylish fashion, with a sequence that looks for all the world like paper cutouts dancing against a glowing moon.) This isn’t bad, as these things go, but it’s hard to get too invested in any of it, when as a viewer you know that Eddie’s going to have to eventually find out who he is, because that’s the only way the series moves forward.
But that’s just the pilot story, and pilot storylines are usually the worst things about pilots. What makes Mockingbird Lane worth checking out—for, indeed, unless the people of America check it out, this is probably all we’ll ever get of it—is the way that everybody seems to be having so much fun with the goofy stuff around the edges. No one in the television writing world writes quite like Fuller, and if his characters all speak in a similar cadence, the actors are at least giving those lines enough difference that it doesn’t sound like they’re all the same person speaking out of many different mouths (a problem with some of Fuller’s earlier work, particularly the not-quite-there Dead Like Me). Fuller is fond of old-fashioned patter, but he’s also fond of wedding it to genres you wouldn’t normally expect to find it in, and that creates some enjoyable incongruities, like Beth Grant rattling off lines about a “hobo murder home” and Herman telling Grandpa not to make the neighbors his “blood slaves.”
That sense of fun extends to the whole production. If nothing else, it’s handsome to look at, with Herman’s heart enclosed in a zipper pouch on his chest and the family’s house a seemingly endless collection of nooks and crannies and spooky corners. The costumes and music and visual effects all call attention to The Munsters without seemingly overly wedded to what happened in that series, and there are many, many clever visual shoutouts to the earlier show that are presented mostly to give fans reason to grin. (O’Connell’s introduction—you’ll know it when you see it—is one of these moments, and it allows the pilot to let viewers know they’re in capable hands.)
Is this pilot perfect? No. The storyline’s a bit rusty, and the show’s attempts to tell a somewhat meaningful stories about monsters living in suburbia feels rather by-the-numbers, honestly. There’s room for something more twisted and more deeply emotional here, something that really gets into the black heart of this family’s dysfunction. But Fuller’s rarely one to dig too deeply into that darkness. He prefers to take occasional, sidelong glances at it, then dart away. Instead, he creates lovingly hand-crafted worlds that hint at all manner of things and never let things get too uncomfortable. The pilot of Mockingbird Lane may not be a perfect example of what he does, but his voice has been dearly missed on TV screens. If this somehow went to series, it would be worth watching for a while, just to see what he would do.