“Mockingbird Lane,” which NBC is airing tomorrow night at 8, is a blast from the TV past in two different ways. First, it”s an adaptation of “The Munsters,” the enduring black-and-white ’60s family sitcom about a wacky clan whose members include two vampires, a werewolf and a Frankenstein”s monster. Second, it”s an unsold pilot that NBC is airing just for the heck of it, even though the network didn”t order it to series.
Busted Pilot Theater used to be a TV staple, particularly in the summer months, when the networks would try to recoup the cost of making all those pilots by disguising them as TV-movies, special events or anthology series. Every now and then, one might get some extra attention (in 1989, CBS promoted a pilot called “What”s Alan Watching?” because it featured, briefly, Eddie Murphy”s first TV comedy work since leaving “SNL”), but for the most part, they were cheap, disposable replacement programming during the slow months.
Today, of course, the networks fill their summer schedules with reality programming, leaving less room for this kind of thing. And because more people pay attention to how the sausage gets made, networks generally find the whole thing embarrassing. Either an unsold pilot comes across as so terrible that they look bad for even considering it, or it winds up looking better than the pilots they actually ordered to series.
Occasionally, though, a busted pilot still sees the light of day. Only a few weeks ago, FX aired “Outlaw Country,” a pilot that had been in development for years before the channel gave up on it, but did it at 10 p.m. on a Friday with virtually no promotion or advance warning. In the summer of 2009, FOX aired “Virtuality,” a two-hour science fiction pilot from “Battlestar Galactica” producer Ronald D. Moore, and that seemed a case where the show was just so expensive that there was genuine value in airing it once to try to make back some of the money. And a few months before that, USA randomly aired a long-defunct pilot called “To Love and Die” on December 30, apparently just because they had nothing better for the night before New Year”s Eve.
On these rare occasions when Busted Pilot Theater still happens, a TV geek can watch both to figure out what the network saw in the idea in the first place, and speculate on why it didn”t make the cut. “Outlaw Country,” for instance, seemed to overlap too much with pre-existing FX shows “Justified” and “Sons of Anarchy,” and leading man Luke Grimes was consistently outclassed by co-star John Hawkes. Yet it was easy to see why FX would have wanted to be in the John Hawkes business.
With “Mockingbird Lane,” the reason why NBC execs were intrigued and why they ultimately passed would appear to be the same thing: Bryan Fuller.
Fuller”s the creative mind behind “Pushing Daisies,” “Wonderfalls” and “Dead Like Me,” as well as much of what was good about “Heroes” in its first season. His own creations tend to be a mix of the sweet and the macabre – the pie-making hero of “Pushing Daisies” had the power to bring the dead back to life, but the gift came with various unappealing catches – and their commercial prospects tend to be modest. (“Pushing Daisies” was briefly a hit when it began, but had already begun sinking in the ratings when the writers strike cut its first season short; very few people came back for the second.)
Fuller”s creative interests make him something of an ideal match for a “Munsters” reboot. The original series was largely driven by sight gags and slapstick (“The Addams Family,” which aired at the same time, was more interested in exploring the dark side of this kind of family), but there”s a lot of interesting territory to explore if you start thinking about any of it – which Fuller very clearly has.
So Jerry O”Connell”s Herman Munster isn”t a big galoot the way Fred Gwynne”s was (though he”s introduced in a way that pays tribute to Gwynne), but a reborn man acutely aware that he”s been stitched together from so many decaying parts. When little Eddie Munster (Mason Cook) notes that his dad”s heart feels funny, Herman replies, “It”s how I know who I am, when I”m made of so many different people.”
Grandpa (Eddie Izzard) and Lily (Portia de Rossi) are still vampires, and now they”re not just the cuddly kind. Grandpa – or “D,” as he prefers to be called (perhaps because he”s Dracula himself?) – is fond of enslaving the neighbors with special blood cookies, and he remains a thirsty, if also witty, individual.
“You ate a lion, while naked.” Herman complains after Grandpa gives Eddie a wildlife tour.
“The lion was naked,” Grandpa replies. “It seemed polite.”
A lot of the show deals with the push and pull between being normal – like “plain” family outcast Marilyn (Charity Wakefield) – and being unusual. Some of Herman and Lily”s discussions about Eddie (who doesn”t know he”s a werewolf, even after nearly killing his entire scout troop) evoke another NBC show, “Parenthood,” and how Adam and Kristina talk about the special needs of their son Max.
Throughout the one-hour “Mockingbird Lane” pilot, it”s easy to see why NBC wanted Fuller (with help from director Bryan Singer) to tackle this material, just as it”s easy to see why his take scared them. “The Munsters” doesn”t have a ton of cachet among 18-49 year-olds as it is, and will those who do remember the old show fondly want to watch a new version that”s this graphic (their new home on Mockingbird Lane was previously occupied by a serial killer of hobos, which they consider a selling point), and that doesn”t just paint the Munsters as harmless eccentrics, misunderstood because they look different from their neighbors?
I”m often mixed on Fuller”s shows. “Pushing Daisies” is the only one of his series to fully engage me, and even then not all the way to the end, and I”d put the “Mockingbird Lane” pilot more in line with the others I found interesting but didn”t want to watch every week. Still, the man does interesting work that doesn”t feel like anything else on television. NBC had to suspect this is what he would do with the property. If they didn”t want a Fuller-ized “Munsters,” I”m not sure why anyone bothered.
But, hey, at least everyone gets to see it once if they want. That”s a much better fate than most busted pilots get in this day and age.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org