[3 December 2006]
The mid ‘60s saw the TV families of network sitcoms take a somewhat supernatural turn from those depicted by late ‘50s favorites like Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best. Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, debuting in 1964 and 1965 respectively, featured a witch and a genie as their main characters, while The Munsters (1964) gave us a family straight out of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.
But perhaps no show presented a more bizarro-world view of the traditional family unit than The Addams Family. Creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, The Addams Family had a frighteningly short life span but left an indelible mark on pop culture, thanks to delightfully macabre characters, a catchy theme song, and the introduction of the iconic “you rang?” greeting.
Despite these delights, The Addams Family, like The Munsters, was cancelled after only two seasons and seemed destined to become one of TV’s forgotten comedies, never receiving the Nick At Nite/TV Land rebirth enjoyed by other classic sitcoms. But a new DVD from MGM Video brings their ghoulish goings-on back to life in a 22-episode collection from the show’s original 1964-1966 run on ABC. To see these episodes again is to truly appreciate a show that was both slyly subversive and refreshingly original.
Based on drawings by The New Yorker magazine cartoonist Charles Addams, the Addams’ live in a gothic mansion on 0001 Cemetery Lane, which, of course, borders a swamp. They delight in all things dark and ghoulish and they offer a demented, askew view of life that is in marked contrast to that of the rest of society. The family is led by patriarch Gomez (John Astin), an eccentric multi-millionaire who is fond of sword fighting, being stretched on a torture rack, and dabbling in politics, even though he always backs the wrong candidate (“Gomez The Politician”). Despite being the head of the household, he is also the most childish, delighting in blowing up model trains.
His wife, Morticia (Carolyn Jones), is the calm center of the house of ghouls. Morticia was goth before goth was considered cool, and was an obvious influence on future pop culture icons like Elvira and Siouxise of Siouxsie and The Banshees. Dressed in a vampirish, skin-tight black gown with octopus-like tendrils at the bottom, Morticia is most at peace when feeding her man-eating plant Cleopatra in her beloved arboretum. When she asks, “Mind if I smoke?” she means it literally, as smoke billows from her body. Jones is captivating as Morticia, whose blissful, detached demeanor suggests that perhaps she’s been smoking something growing in her garden. It was, after all, 1964.
Rounding out the family are the bizarre Uncle Fester (Jackie Coogan), who can illuminate a light bulb simply by sticking it in his mouth, the Addams children Pugsley (Ken Weatherwax) and Wednesday (Lisa Loring), Grandmama (Blossom Rock), who specializes in spells and potions, Ted Cassidy as the enormous, monosyllabic family butler Lurch and Thing, a disembodied hand who is part servant, part family pet.
Comparisons to The Munsters are inevitable, as both shows featured oddball families whose twisted view of reality skewed radically from that of the “normal” world. But whereas The Munsters featured a broad slapstick style of comedy, The Addams Family took a more sophisticated approach, relying more on the eccentricities of the characters and their museum-like home for laughs.
That’s not to say the The Addams Family didn’t revel in its demented concept. Indeed, one of the weaknesses of the show (which perhaps led to its demise) was its reliance on using the same plotlines and sight gags in nearly every episode. And while you can see some of these conceits coming from a mile away, somehow they still remain funny, thanks, in part, to a cast that was obviously fully committed to such lunacy.
While The Addams Family has come to represent all things dark and gothic, what is amazing is just how normal a family they actually are—a far cry from the dysfunctional families of today’s TV landscape. Despite their eccentricities, the Addams’ show a profound sense of love and respect for each other. Even Lurch is treated as one of the family, most evident when Gomez and Morticia switch roles with him so he can impress his mother in “Mother Lurch Visits The Addams Family”.
This respect also extends to the unfortunates who come to visit, because while the outside world views the family as monstrosities, there is nothing evil about them. Gomez is generous to a fault, and has no trouble throwing his enormous wealth around, even giving cash to Halloween trick or treaters (“Halloween With the Addams Family”). Morticia loves to lavish her guests with meals, even if the menu consists of toadstool omelets or eye of newt soup. Similarly, Pugsley and Wednesday see nothing strange about giving a neighbor a live tarantula as a birthday present (“The Addams Family Tree”), the innocence of their generosity transcending the ghoulish nature of the gift.
It’s this ability to challenge the perception of normalcy that may be The Addams Family‘s greatest strength. The Addams’ have no clue that they are different; to them it’s the rest of the world that is full of kooks and oddballs. They can’t understand why visitors flee their house in fear at the sight of Lurch, or of a mounted swordfish head with a human foot sticking out of the mouth. After all, doesn’t everyone keep a full-grown lion as a house pet?
This skewed perception of how the world views the family is turned delightfully on it’s ear in the episode “Amnesia In The Addams Family”, when a blow to the head leaves Gomez “normal”, and he experiences what every visitor to the Addams home sees, leaving him aghast. Similarly, the family is shocked when Pugsley joins the Boy Scouts and adopts a puppy in “Morticia and the Psychiatrist”.
Slyly, this questioning of society’s conventions mirrored the social upheaval of the times, when the safe and normal Camelot of the ‘50s gave way to the turbulent ‘60s. The Addam’s are not unlike the hippies and students whose radical views of society clashed with the older establishment, who were clearly bothered by a brash new view of society.
These new views also extended to the sexual revolution, and not surprisingly The Addams Family hinted at the erotic element simmering just beneath the surface of Gomez and Morticia’s relationship; they were the first TV couple to express their love for each other in such an intense physical manner. Morticia merely has to utter a few words in French to cause Gomez to go into fits of passion, grabbing her arm and kissing her in a manner that would shock Ward and June Cleaver. When Morticia stymies him with a “Gomez…later”, we know what that means.
It could have been that all this weirdness was too much for audiences to take at the time, too far out of the box. Or maybe they just didn’t get the subversive undertones of this strange little show. But watching The Addams Family unfold in this collection, it’s not hard to see how the show gained a loyal cult following, and how it influenced the work of future ghoulmeisters like Tim Burton.
Presented in a crisp, beautiful black and white transfer, the two double-sided disc collection also features a number of interesting bonus features, the highlights being “You Rang, Mister Addams”, a retrospective of the career of Charles Addams and the creation of the TV characters, and “The Addams Family Portrait”, in which Astin, Weatherwax, Loring, and Felix Silla (Cousin Itt) reminisce on the joy of making this short-lived show.
All of this results in a gleefully demented viewing experience that is, as Gomez would exclaim: “Capital!”