NBC's Mockingbird Lane shows that networks and studios should let creature craze die.
Monsters have had their claws, paws, and pallid fingers around the throat of pop culture for the better part of a decade now. Twilight and True Blood repopularized the idea of vampirism as a stand-in for sex and other-ness. Zombies have been used to represent everything from our lingering fears of Osama bin Laden in low-budget horror movie Osombie to the Cuban government's disengagement with reality in Juan of the Dead to (possibly) Nazis in The Walking Dead. Monsters are so prevalent they've even replaced the standard crime-show roster of serial killers and sexual deviants on Grimm, NBC's police procedural about a Portland detective-turned-beastie-hunter.
So it's not surprising that NBC—which found moderate success with Grimm—has yet again raided the lair for inspiration. The network, after years of ratings troubles, spent $10 million on the pilot for Mockingbird Lane, a reboot of The Munsters, the sitcom about a charmingly monstrous family that ran on CBS from 1964 to 1966. The series premiere will run on Friday night as a Halloween special. What NBC got for its money was a handsome illustration of just how played-out monsters have become: the televisual equivalent of a sexy Halloween costume—spectacular but uninteresting.
Mockingbird Lane isn't scary, and that's deliberate. The first monster to show up is mistaken for "some mysterious wild baby bear out there in the forest eating all our sugar cereal," in the words of an unsuspecting Boy Scout. When Marilyn (Charity Wakefield) goes house-hunting for her family after Eddie's (Mason Cook) transformation into that "mysterious wild baby bear" during a camping trip with his scout pack—he doesn't remember the incident—makes it prudent for the Munsters to relocate, her realtor tells her that she shouldn't consider a certain house because the former owner was a serial killer. "There may be dead homeless people in the walls," the realtor says. Marilyn's response is twee, sticky-sweet: "Then they found a home after all!" When Eddie's father Herman (Jerry O'Connell), who is jerry-rigged together from bits and pieces of other people, notices that his heart, his last original body part, is failing, his realization is set to The Magnetic Fields. Grandpa (Eddie Izzard) may turn the neighbors into his blood slaves, but mostly so they can paint the Munsters' suspiciously immaculate haunted house. When Grandpa takes his full, monstrous form, he resembles nothing so much as a hunk of well-chewed bubble gum with wings.
So if we aren't supposed to be frightened of the Munsters, what are they for? Mockingbird Lane has stripped away the working-class symbolism of The Munsters, which at the time was meant as more direct commentary on a kind of family sitcom that doesn't quite exist anymore, replaced by self-aware, upper-middle-class juggernauts like ABC's Modern Family. Herman no longer works at a funeral home, or even seems to work at all, and Lily's so ethereal—she appears in clouds of smoke and wears designer frocks weaved for her by friendly spiders—it's hard to imagine her starting up even so posh a business as a beauty parlor. Grandpa may disdain the neighbors, but that's just because they're human and not for any more-revealing reason. Marilyn, the sole member of the family who doesn't exhibit any monstrous traits, is presented more as a chipper agent of the Munsters' interests than, as she was in the original, someone whose values and sense of self turned out very differently than they might have otherwise had she grown up in a fully human family. There's no real sense of darkness Marilyn is either drawn to or has to conceal from the world at large: Everything happening around her is too brightly lit and flip in tone for the show to communicate any sense of danger.
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The closest Mockingbird Lane has to a novel idea is the suggestion that monstrousness is like the transition to adulthood. After Eddie's incident on the campout, his parents and Grandpa debate whether to tell him about his true identity as a werewolf, and he keeps mistaking their arguments for the impending arrival of a very different form of The Talk. That's fodder for one of the shows best scenes, when Lily (Portia de Rossi) tries to explain to her son how she manages her monstrous—or grown-up—urges. "It would be natural if I did [kill people]," she tells her son. "It's in my nature to eat and not be eaten... I try my best not to." But her refusal to tell Eddie that he is part of the family tradition ends up opening a painful generational rift. "I'm glad I'm not like you," Eddie tells his mother. And later when Herman finally lets Eddie know the truth, he points out that Eddie's monstrousness means he'll have to actively choose whether or not to be a good person—and that that's something he would have faced even if the full moon wasn't going to wreak havoc on him every month. "You have something to be careful of," Herman explains gently. "You don't have to be like any Munster there is... You can be a vegetarian when you can help it, and when you can't, that problem we'll solve together."
It's a touching, but it's also an illustration of just how common we've made monsters, how fully we've stripped them of their power. If monsters can stand in for every problem that we have, then there's no real difference in representation between coming from a slightly wacky family and living as a member of a group that suffers from substantive discrimination, or between frustration with, say, antiquated sexual norms and having to battle genuine human cruelty. To paraphrase The Incredibles' take on another genre that's in the process of having every drop wrung out of it: When everyone's a monster, no one will be.