The Pilot Project: Mockingbird Lane
By Jay Bamber
Oh, yeah! That was a thing! Is my new column looking at television shows and pilots that made almost no cultural impact whatsoever; pieces of television that nobody cares about and that disappeared without a trace. Rather than an extended exercise in schadenfreude, I hope these articles have something to say about the landscape in which these projects failed and may shine a light on some forgotten gems. Let’s get dusting off those film reels!
Originally Aired On NBC October 26th 2012
Created By: Bryan Fuller
Stars: Portia De Rossi, Eddie Izzard, Jerry O’connell
1 Episode Aired Before Cancellation
The most disappointing thing about Mockingbird Lane, Bryan Fuller’s attempt to remake The Munsters, is that it didn’t last longer. What was originally conceived as a pilot for a fully-fledged series was burned off as a Halloween special when NBC executives bulked at what Fuller and director Bryan Singer delivered. It’s not difficult to see why it didn’t make it to series; it doesn’t always seem to know what it wants to say, the tone never quite gels and it struggles with how much reverence it wants to show to it source material. But pilot episodes are notoriously difficult, they have to introduce the audience to a new world whilst still hinting at what else could come, and Mockingbird Lane is one of the better ones -a pop-art, gothic camp-fest. What it gets right, it get really right. It’s visually inventive, as you’d expect from the creator of Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls, with incredible sets, costumes and visual composition. It’s funny and smart and a little scary. Most of all, and most surprisingly, it’s emotionally dense, with all sorts of interesting familial dynamics running through it and a central metaphor that is enormously romantic and moving.
First, let’s discuss what doesn’t really work. Perhaps the most problematic element of the Mockingbird Lane pilot is the characterisation of Eddie Munster. In the original show, Eddie was a side character who would move into the fray occasionally to add some jokes or as a point of view character for the younger members of the audience. There was a reason for this. Unfortunately, Fuller makes the bizarre decision to base the screenplay around Eddie’s journey to accept the fact that he’s a werewolf. This is a nifty way of getting the Munster’s to Mockingbird Lane, they move there to start fresh after Eddie, unbeknownst to him, transition into a wolf and attacks his scout troop — but offers very little else of interest. Fuller’s script takes great pains to show that Eddie’s storyline is allegorical but doesn’t really do anything with it. As a literary figure the werewolf is a dream metaphor for puberty (hair sprouting up in strange places, mood swings, becoming a different person without your control) and the pilot draws these links but then does nothing with them. A huge chunk of the running time is dedicated to a plot that runs head first into a dead end.
There are some interesting themes to Eddie’s storyline; you can pull out threads about personal responsibility, being scared of your own power and the fear of uniqueness. However, these are buried underneath a generic coming-of-age narrative that works like a dead weight for the show, dragging it down when things start to get interesting. This emphasise of the show’s youngest cast member also splinters the show, making it straddle an uncomfortable line between children’s and adult’s entertainment. As a family show about eccentric oddballs, it works and as a dark fantasy about the sacrifices of individuality and family, it works. But the two don’t make great bedfellows. It’s hard to know what audience the show is aimed at; it’s too gory for children, yet has a central storyline that doesn’t seem like it would connect with most adults. The result of this is an episode of television that feels occasionally messy and ill conceived. The Munsters was aimed squarely at a family audience — embracing slapstick and cheesy jokes, the same as any other broad sitcom at the time. That’s the thing that makes it such good comfort-food television to this day. Fuller and Singer try to have their cakes and eat them too — and it’s a balancing act that ruins both the light and the dark of their show.
Fuller’s instinct to explore the more adult aspects of The Munsters turns out to be dead on. Herman Munster gets the best update. He is portrayed as a walking collage of other people’s limbs and organs, a man whose heart has to be replaced when it has loved to its fullest capacity. This sets up a fascinating dilemma at the core of the show — the more Herman loves, the more he damages himself. The better he is at occupying the role of father and husband, the higher the chance of leaving his wife widowed and his son fatherless. It’s an incredibly potent, astute and precise plot point; it raises the stakes without feeling forced and works on so many levels. When Herman says ‘my son and my heart are the only two pieces of me that ever really felt like they were mine. And now Eddie’s different and… I have a broken heart’ it gives you instant access into the character’s thoughts and feelings. Herman’s storyline is a whip-smart way of articulating the way that love and loss are intrinsically link, that agreeing to love something means agreeing to one day lose it too. When Herman takes Eddie to the school bus after having a difficult conversation, he collapses and falls done to the stairs to The Magnetic Fields song ‘I Think I Need A New Heart’. It is a gorgeously realised moment — one that shows Fuller working at the height of his romantic and emotional powers.
The relationship between Lily and Herman feels real and becomes an anchor for the episode, despite the fact that Lily Munster is side-lined and given very little to do. This is disappointing because Portia De Rossi is typically good in the role; her comedic timing is wonderful in a sequence where Lily worries that her decision not to breast feed is the reason that Eddie has begun transitioning into a werewolf so early. This comes in the middle of the episode, in a post-coital embrace with Herman, and works as a joke about the way that motherhood has become a competition in the modern world and reveals potential ways that the Lily character could have expanded had the show been renewed. De Rossi has chemistry with an uncharacteristically good Jerry O’Connell, who will appear in this column again due to being the king of the failed sitcom, and there relationship is convincing enough that it provides the show with a romantic backbone. This is the only scene where Lily registers as much of an entity (though her costumes are the most impressive and Fuller provides her with a killer entrance) which feels a little bit of a cheat.
Eddie Izzard, as the vampire Grandpa, has the most explicitly comedic role and takes to it with aplomb. The role plays to Izzard’s strengths and he provides his scenes with a kind of ethereal eeriness that pushes both the comedy and horror of the character. A scene in which Eddie (Munster) announces his intentions to become vegetarian is a particularly good example of what Eddie (Izzard) brings to the table. Vegetarianism stands as a nifty little metaphor for the generation gap that ultimately occurs between old and young family members and examines people's responsibility to themselves and to their family traditions. Izzard plays this to the hilt, with tongue firmly in cheek, giving the sequence gravitas and rhythm.
One of the more one-note jokes of the original show was the character of cousin Marylyn, who looked like a movie star but was treated as an outsider because of her all-American good looks. Whilst this could have been a clever commentary on the way that the concepts of normalcy and attractiveness are fluid and dictated by those in power, the 60’s version did not really know what to do with her. Neither does Mockingbird Lane. The script hints at an interesting backstory — and she is the first member of the family that we see, making her an audience surrogate by proxy — but she remains a glaring missed dramatic and comedic opportunity.
Ultimately, the television landscape would have been a better place if Mockingbird Lane had been picked up to series. It’s beautiful to look at. It’s well acted. It has ambition and panache. It’s also got a lot of problems, most of which would have been easily rectified. But above all it’s humane. For a show that is ostensibly about monsters, it’s wildly, outlandishly, achingly human. It displays big emotions, a lovely central romance and a wicked sentimental streak. I have a feeling that if the show had continued it would have found a way to improve on the flaws and become something truly special. With Hannibal now gone, television is sorely missing the Bryan Fuller influence.
Worth Watching? Definitely.
What Did The Critics Think At The Time?
Outrageous, eccentric, funny, campy–and too creepy for small kids.
Newsday, Verne Gay
Mockingbird Lane is funny, fanciful, a visual treat and, perhaps surprisingly, full of heart.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rob Owen
The hour-long pilot of Mockingbird Lane [is] a monster mash of a hot mess.
TV Guide, Matt Roush
Fuller needs to sharpen the writing by throwing even more double entendres in for the grown-ups. All the parts are here- they just need to be put together correctly.
San Fransisco Chronicle, David Weigand