Last night, NBC aired the pilot of Mockingbird Lane, Bryan Fuller's reinvention of the classic sitcom The Munsters. We got to meet the beautifully spooky and witty Munster clan and witness vampire Eddie Izzard in his full, naked glory, but unlike Herman's well worn ticker, our hearts aren't broken that Mockingbird Lane won't become a full series. Spoilers for the pilot.
After battles between Fuller, fellow producer Bryan Singer, and network execs, NBC decided to air the pilot as a Halloween special. And the pilot has lots of the hallmarks of Bryan Fuller's work: stylish visuals, laugh-out-loud morbidness, sharp and impolite dialogue, and characters who are ultimately sweet despite their proximity to death. But it lacks that compelling lead character that made other Fuller shows like Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me, and Pushing Daisies so magical.
We open on a scouting trip, with a group of boys and their scout master sitting around a fire, discussing the fate of their missing foodstuffs. The scout master is predictably polite, but the kids are frank as one accuses an overweight scout of stealing all the food. ("Well, someone gave him an honors badge in personal fitness," he adds, glaring at the scout master.) But their bickering is interrupted when a werewolf snags the accuser, forcing all the campers into the truck. In the morning, little Eddie Munster (Mason Cook) stumbles out of the woods, sleepy and naked.
And that's why the Munsters moved away from their old home and into 1313 Mockingbird Lane.
There are lots of great moments in Mockingbird Lane. Marilyn Munster (Charity Wakefield) thoroughly creeps out a real estate agent when she insists on buying the infamous "Hobo Murder House." ("Miss, there may be dead homeless people in the walls." "Then they found a home after all.") When vampire Lily (Portia de Rossi) laments that she didn't breastfeed Eddie, Herman (Jerry O'Connell, with no neck bolts but plenty of seams) points out that at least she didn't try to eat her baby like Marilyn's mother did. ("That was post-partum," Lily dismisses with a wave.) And vampire Grandpa is wonderfully abusive of Marilyn and her normalcy.
The main plot that drives the pilot episode is a mix of the morbid and the sentimental: Herman needs a new heart because he "loves too hard," and he'd prefer a biological one to the steampunk model Grandpa cooked up. Grandpa identifies Eddie's new scout leader, Scout Master Steve (Cheyenne Jackson) as a fine candidate. Plus, Grandpa figures, he can get all of Steve's blood in the bargain. Meanwhile, Lily and Herman try to hide from Eddie the fact that he's a werewolf.
Normally, deathly sweet is Fuller's specialty, but while the individual characters are pleasant enough, the family dynamic isn't as sharp as it could be. As much as Herman and Lily would like to deny it, the Munsters are ultimately monsters; Grandpa hypnotizes the neighbors and considers who he might eat next and Herman occasionally needs fresh body parts to survive. But where a sitcom's laugh track might have punctuated the shrug that accompanies their eventual (albeit accidental) human sacrifice, a dramedy has no such luxury. There's a bit of an "Oh well, better luck next time" without making us care whether there is a next time.
Perhaps if Mockingbird Lane had gotten a full series run, the writers and producers might have found a way to ally the Munster family against the outside world despite their internal conflicts. Or perhaps the series would have focused its attention on one central character's role in the family. My vote would go to Marilyn Munster. Wakefield portrays the so-called "normal" member of the Munster clan with bubbly sweetness while giving her a black humor worthy of a serial killer. And she's so taken with her odd little family that she's willing to put herself in harm's way (or, more specifically, Grandpa's way) in order to stay with them. What are you up to, Marilyn Munster?