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The Munsters – The Complete First Season (A TV on DVD Review)

Updated: Aug 15, 2022

The Munsters

The Complete First Season – 1964 (Universal-2004)

Other than the Seavers on Growing Pains, was there ever a more shockingly grotesque suburban TV family than the Munsters? America’s automatic response, of course, is The Addams Family, but don’t even go there. Sure, the Addams were creepy, kooky and altogether ooky, but they were far from grotesque. The Addams were harder to peg: were they simply bohemian? Were they otherworldly, or just bafflingly eccentric? The Addams were a puzzlement – the Munsters didn’t hint, nudge or snap their fingers cryptically – they were the real deal.

Not to deny Gomez and Morticia their props. Although the Addams did what they could to give a very-much-needed “up yours” to conformity, it was the Munsters who turned the kitchen table on boring-as-white-bread breeder comedy and knocked it on its fat ass. Their first season is now available on DVD, with all 38 (count ‘em! 38!) episodes of sheer brilliance (including the never-before-seen, thirteen-minute pilot, in color, originally meant only for network executives!).

It is an understatement to say that screening these episodes in adulthood is even more joyous and meaningful than the hours you spent as a youth watching them on UHF. The passage of time has only served to deepen the meaning of what it’s like to be the odd man out and not give a shit.

The amazing performance of Fred Gwynne as Herman Munster (a role he went to his grave regretting) is literally breathtaking. His body language, keen sense of ironic humor and perfect delivery of ghoulish one-liners in a child-like, alive manner should be a vital visual aid of acting coaches until the end of time. His ability to make comedy happen while handicapped by major-league cosmetics and prosthetics is an under-appreciated miracle; his comic timing is as perfect as a Swiss clock. Gwynne’s story is a sad one: the actor is so damn good that he is literally trapped in the role (however, toward the end of his life, he was able to find his footing again, particularly as the judge in the excellent My Cousin Vinny).

Yvonne DeCarlo, as wife Lily, reportedly took the job only because she needed the money but made the character work because she didn’t camp it up. Despite the wig, the makeup and the get-up, she played the role straight, and she worked a marvel. Al Lewis, as Grandpa, made use of 1001 facial expressions, and nobody seemed to purely enjoy working a role and living it for years afterward as much as Lewis. To watch an actor this good relish a role that good does your heart good. Of course, we never quite know what Grandpa is: werewolf? Dracula? Usually, the description changed to fit the content of the episode (and while we’re at it, why did Lily call her own father “Grandpa?”).

The seemingly uncomplicated role of Marilyn (played for the first lucky thirteen episodes by Beverly Owen and then taken to the finish line by Pat Priest) is thought provoking. We all appreciate the irony that Marilyn is the “plain, awkward one,” but the actual character herself is so breathtakingly exquisite, so loyal and true, that we can’t help but stare and be distracted by her perfection. The one weak link in the series is that the writers never really gave Marilyn enough to do; situations featuring her at the center would have been the most fascinating – far more interesting than her dates scrambling over the wall and into their cars after glimpsing Uncle Herman. Unfortunately, all Marilyn has to do, in most cases is say, “What do you mean, Aunt Lily?” or “Why do you say that Uncle Herman?” Sadly, her psychology would have been the most intriguing to unravel, but it was unexplored.

We see less of Eddie (underplayed nicely by Butch Patrick) than we may have remembered as children. He actually logged very little screen time (probably due to child labor laws), and his character was almost an afterthought. However, his total idolization of his father, whom he adoringly called “Pop,” made for a sweetness that is all but gone from the current TV landscape. Actually, his lack of pretension is refreshing, especially when compared to today’s TV child-monsters, most of whom are far less realistic and far more unappealing than Eddie could ever be.

The razor-sharp depiction of an oddball but oblivious family stuck in a Pleasant Valley Sunday in Status Symbol Land still ferments like a fine wine. The roadblocks that you think will stand in your way of pure, unadulterated enjoyment only serve to enhance your experience: black and white broadcasts, a generic laugh track, awkwardly re-recorded voiceovers when the characters are outside, stale references to Sonny Liston, Pat Boone, and Richard Burton, the occasional Lucy-type schtick-ala and the depressing set won’t get in your way. You only have to hear Lily say, “Herman is the level-headed one in the family,” or Herman say, “People are dying to get in [to the funeral parlor]. It’s because of their new layaway plan,” or Grandpa say, “There is no sense in putting the hearse before the horse,” and you know that you’re home again, at 1313 Mockingbird Lane. It’s prime-time Poe.

By 1964, the year both The Munsters and The Addams Family debuted, there was nowhere else for the nuclear family to go on television. After more than ten years of befuddled dads mistakenly eating the pie that was meant for the bake sale, America had had it (both on TV and off). Little did they know that the culture itself was about to shift into overdrive, much like the wicked Munstermobile (half hearse and half hot rod). Little did Middle America know that neighbors far weirder and more macabre than the Munsters were about to move next door, but the simmering of revolution got its start on national television. Most of the results of the cultural change didn’t make it onto the network schedule for another ten years, but the seeds were already planted on the wild side: cuddly castaways, oil-rich hillbillies, identical cousins, and suburban witches, genies and Martians were passively aggressively subversive. Ozzie and Harriet, Hazel, the Andersons and Donna Reed were given their walking papers. It was now midnight on TV, ruled by the occult. Unfortunately, the basic plot lines did not change – the bake sale pie was still eaten by mistake, only now it was done with special effects.

Ironically, The Munsters was brought to us by the good folks who created the most mainstream of all TV families: the Cleavers of Leave It To Beaver. However, this isn’t so difficult to comprehend. Bob Mosher and Joe Connelly, who once gave us June Cleaver vacuuming in her pearl necklace and evening dress, now served up Lily Munster vacuuming with the dust coming out of the vacuum cleaner. That writing and production team must have relished every minute of it, giving middle American the middle finger. And how refreshing it must have been to see a family that consisted of mom, dad, son, niece and grandfather. Hard to believe these days, but a family dynamic like that actually contributed to the Munsters’ weirdness back then. Still, as “frightening” as the Munsters were supposed to be, their use of polite language and good manners is more shocking by today’s standards than their mere appearance. Their language is filled with pleasantries you almost never hear anymore, including “Good day,” “I beg your pardon,” “Pardon me,” “I’m terribly sorry,” and “charmed to make your acquaintance.” The fact that this type of respect is all but gone from today’s world (both on TV and off) is the scariest fact of all.

Controversial subjects were still taboo on TV at this time, but Mosher and Connelly were still able to sneak in a few zingers: when Leo Durocher watched Herman hit a baseball about eight miles, he said, “I don’t know whether to sign him with the Dodgers or send him to Vietnam.” And when Herman lost his job at the funeral parlor, Grandpa told him, “You should be on Skid Row, but with President Johnson wiping out poverty, you’ve got nowhere to go.” Sexual innuendo was light years away from TV comedy, but the widow Cartwright next door (played by Jean Willes) seemed to get her freak on for Herman once the initial fright wore off. We can only imagine what went on in that lonely mind of hers.

The series was often enlightened by TV’s dependables, including Paul Lynde as the nearsighted Dr. Dudley, Harvey Korman and Gavin MacLeod (appearing more than once in various roles), and a one-time but mind-blowing performance by powerhouse actor John Carradine as Mr. Gateman, the owner of the funeral home in which Herman worked. Also in the first season was the classic episode in which The Standells performed at a beatnik party (no surprise here that The Standells are considered the grandpappies of punk rock, making themselves right at home on Mockingbird Lane). Upon their departure, they say to the Munsters, “We really dig you people,” and Grandpa replies with, “Someday, we’ll return the favor.”

Lily, at first, was not hep to the fact that The Standells were their guests. She confides worriedly to Herman, “What will the neighbors think when they see all these weird people coming and going from this house?” Continuing her lack of openness to change, she says to Herman upon entering a nightclub, “Let’s hope it’s not one of those beatnik joints. If there is anything I can’t stand, it’s weird people!”

Of course, the funniest part of any Munsters episode is the very end of the closing credits, which features the hilarious disclaimer “any resemblance to any persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” Bullshit. The Munsters are us.

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted: September 18, 2004.

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