The Addams Family: Volume One Review
The Addams’ sprung to life during the thirties, when cartoonist Charles Addams leaked them out of his pen and on to quirky comic strips which appeared in The New Yorker magazine. In 1964 they were adapted into a television series for network ABC, which saw them go head to head with CBS’s The Munsters (which incidentally also lasted for two seasons between 1964 and 1966). Despite the relatively similar content both shows were worlds apart: The Munsters was far more conventional in approach, often becoming overly familiar in content, while The Addams Family adopted a leaner approach in challenging contemporary society, which not only made it acutely accurate, but also provided it with an opportunity to take the sitcom format into unknown territories.
Charles Addams was drafted in to oversee some of the production, notably creating the names for each character that had up until this point remained anonymous. This understandable change aside the series retained the crux of Addams’ work: that being about an everyday suburban family, who just happened to be a little different, but regarded themselves as being normal - an aspect which has survived throughout all of its incarnations and continues to be an enjoyable focal point. Of course they’re not normal in the strictest sense, but that’s a part of why they work so well; for all intents Addams’ work is highly satirical. Where do we draw the line on what is “normal” and what isn’t? After all the Addams, despite their quirky life styles, are in fact the most well adjusted family ever known. They embrace the macabre, make light of death because they see it as a natural transition, and above all they’re content in their way of life, which is perhaps more than most folk living in their street are. They never seem to have bitter arguments - interestingly enough Gomez comments in the third episode that Wednesday’s collection of Black Widow spiders are “like a society of small humans: they do nothing but fight” - and nor they judge others by their race, colour or creed; a rare case in which family values truly pays off and a point that certainly illustrated a problematic shift in the U.S. at the time, where lack of tolerance in society was certainly a moot point.
So to elaborate, much of The Addams Family’s charm is in the naivety of the family’s actions and wayward outlook on life. They think of themselves as being a typical American family, a statement that is frequently raised throughout the series, and one which sees plenty of diverse reactions as a result. They rarely leave the house; the children don’t attend school and Gomez gets rich on dabbling in the stock market, watching ever vigilantly as his money raises or even drops. Their hobbies are all done in house: Gomez takes a perverse pleasure in blowing up model trains in his special games room, while Morticia tends to her wild assortment of plantations, clipping heads off roses and regularly showing her affection toward an African Strangler named Cleopatra, who happens to live off hamburger meat. Uncle Fester and Grandmamma regularly relax in the recreation room, complete with nail beds and racks: the perfect way to unwind after a hectic day. So yea, they’re perhaps a little deluded if they truly believe that most people get up to similar tricks. But it all works so well, naturally. But even at this level the TV series isn’t quite up to the much darker and macabre styling of Addams’ original drawings, those which showed the family getting up to far more mischievous antics, some that could be deemed quite sadistic in fact. But let’s not forget the year in which it was made. In that respect it most definitely got away with plenty; it’s cheery façade masking a very unusual and dark premise.
In keeping with the books to a large degree the family itself is quite ambiguous; we never truly know how they came to be and where their ancestry lies, although several episodes hint at Gomez’s Castilian heritage more than they do any other characters. It’s worth noting, however, that Addams’ original material never saw these people referred to as a family, they simply became one after a few issues and that’s what stuck and inspired the series here. The size of the family, which obviously goes back generations and extends to many unseen aunts, uncles and friends is also unknown, although we become privy to many of them through conversation only, with further nods going toward a running gag in which Morticia can often be seen knitting a unique sweater for one of her dear kin. There doesn’t appear to be a consistent line of blood: each member looks far removed from one another, we learn, however, that Uncle Fester is actually an uncle of Gomez, while Grandmamma his actually his mother. Early on in the series this left Morticia’s side of the family out of the picture, although for a later episode her mother does pay visit, though that doesn’t appear on the collection that’s being reviewed here. As for Thing, a disembodied hand that travels throughout the house via secret tunnels, or more inexplicably teleportation, is just simply there. Finally Lurch, who you’d think they must have dug up from somewhere, but in fact, has a fairly normal mother. But these are inconsequential plot points, the main drive being that they’re an outwardly odd bunch of people who have a kind, misunderstood inner beauty, which fleshes out their being and proves the point that you should never judge a book by its cover. But it’s not just the characters themselves. Even their gothic mansion provides plenty of odd artefacts which pertain to all kinds of exotic mysteries; it’s a lot of fun seeing the reactions as people step on live polar bear rugs and perform double-takes at a large twin-headed tortoise, or stare frightfully at giant stuffed bears or imposing samurai armour.
One of the essential keys is naturally in how well the series delivers comedy. While on occasion is does take some very familiar plot devices, as used time and again in any number of sitcoms past and present, it manages to leave enough of its own mark to make each one work. Take the episode “Amnesia in the Addams Family” for example, that sees Gomez lose his memory after taking a severe blow to the head, with the only remedy of course being that he needs to have another one delivered. Sure enough it follows an obvious path, but then out of nowhere it introduces an hilarious twist whereby each family member still thinks that he’s suffering from amnesia. Cue a series of repeated blows to the head, which turns the entire situation upside down and ends up being one of the best episodes in this volume one collection. Likewise in “Green-Eyed Gomez” we get the spouse’s old flame arriving in town, which in turn makes Gomez jealous and so he sets out to make Morticia jealous in return. The Addams Family does come up with a whole host of interesting ideas and a lot does play off the outsider paying visit to the family, which sets up the inevitable misunderstandings and mad-cap japery. Above all it’s done in such lively fashion and you can’t help but notice a twinkle in the eyes of all involved.
But it’s the characteristics of each family member and the actors behind them that makes the show such a riot from beginning to end, especially the driving force of John Astin and Carolyn Jones as the doting husband and wife team. Astin appears in his first major starring role and it was one in which he was perfectly cast. Gomez is a highly dignified and eccentric man who takes great pride in his family and brings to the fold a wide-eyed, childlike innocence. Astin imbues Gomez with all the necessary qualities and masterfully plays up to the camera. The writers seem to forget until later on that he’s also a trained lawyer, which is where the 21st episode “The Addams Family in Court” comes into play and that just sees Astin raise the stakes and deliver a fabulous take in regards to the ridiculousness of the whole situation. But it’s his sexual aggressiveness and undying love for Morticia which makes much of the series so enjoyable. His co-star Carolyn Jones provides a perfectly apt romantic companion and she remains far more reserved than her itching husband who would eagerly devour her, given half the chance. When Morticia speaks Spanish or French it sends Gomez into wild abandon and it usually takes a kind telling off for him to stop and catch breath. Carolyn Jones is the perfect blend of sexiness and underplayed comic talent; her reactions and deadpan delivery are as priceless (a real gem being when she discovers that Pugsley has joined the boy scouts in the episode “Morticia and the Psychiatrist”) as Astin’s and it’s just a shame that her career never really took off after the show was cancelled, particularly when she had joined the series after enjoying much success in the film industry. Sadly she passed away prematurely in 1983 and it was a great loss to the entertainment community. To be fair she is in fact credited first in the series credits roll, perhaps due to her character actually being the head of the household. That in itself was certainly unusual on television and proved to be a sign of the times and the shape of things to come. Gomez may be the bread winner, but Morticia runs the show and proves to be more than an equal as it marches onward.
Jackie Coogan was 50 years of age when he took on the role of Uncle Fester. Coogan had led a fascinating life up until that point and it’s somewhat strange that at this stage in his career he’d earn his most memorable role, and if not then it’s certainly second to his appearance in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. Coogan was a naturally gifted comedian who obviously learned a lot from his peers at a younger age. As such he instils Fester with a wonderful sense of expressionism; his face providing a lot of the laughs on account of his odd contortions. He plays the role cheerily and if we’re to single characters out then he’d probably be referred to as “The lovable one”. Senior to him though was Blossom Rock who played Grandmamma. She’s undoubtedly the most underdeveloped character, most definitely amongst the episodes provided here. Rock equally has her moments and comes out with some funny stuff, but she doesn’t really get an opportunity to impress until “The Addams Family in Court” which devotes an entire story to her.
Ted Cassidy as Lurch is a television character that I’ll always fondly remember. Lurch was always described as a mute butler, but it was clear that with Cassidy on board, who had such an amazing voice, he would have to speak. Improvising “You rang?” on set it quickly became his catchphrase throughout. And for the first few episodes that’s pretty much all he does. Cassidy comes into his own when the writers afford him specific storylines and some of them happen to be amongst the best in this collection. Cassidy is such an expressive actor who overcomes Lurch’s zombified appearance and fleshes him out with a wonderful personality. Lurch will often groan and grumble if he’s asked to do something that he knows is rather suspect, or if he just can’t be arsed, but underneath it all he’s actually a sensitive fellow and it’s this side of him that the writers exploit so that he can grow as a character. As a result we have episodes such as “Morticia the Matchmaker” in which she tries to convince him to get married, much to his melancholic horror; “Lurch Learns to Dance” where Cassidy delivers some hilarious physical comedy; “Morticia Joins the Ladies League” sees a threat to his job arrive in the form of a gorilla who is really good at ironing. All of these instances show Cassidy at his absolute best. But perhaps the most memorable is his turn in “Mother Lurch Visits the Addams Family”. It’s here that we meet his mother who is quite normal in appearance, but is a little too overbearing. As a direct result of lying to her Gomez and Morticia offer to help him out by making him head of the household, while they pose as his servants. As usual it’s a lot of fun to watch Cassidy perform, especially as Lurch soon begins to forget his old position within the house. Oh and remember Thing, played by itself? In actual fact it was Cassidy’s arm that we always saw on screen.
The children, while fun to a degree don’t feature all that prominently and the television incarnations of Wednesday and Pugsley could be considered as the weaker elements, being considerably watered down for television. In the 1991 movie adaptation from Barry Sonnenfeld he explored the characters in a way that Charles Addams had always envisioned them, though naturally he was afforded the luxury of being able to. The series then is quite restrained in what it can and can’t show. In comparison the other characters are quite lively and have their quirks, so inevitably Wednesday is presented as a cheery young lass whose personality merely hints at the macabre. It’s a strange character indeed; although she’s meant to be morose and occasionally comments on how wonderfully dingy the house looks she never really appears to be the lost and depressed soul that she’s intended to be. I suspect that the idea of a depressed young girl was no doubt considered too much for TV. However, Lisa Loring is a lot of fun to watch, namely for her comic value. My favourite scene is in the episode “Fester’s Punctured Romance” whereby a salesman drops by the house while little Wednesday sits on the porch with her Marie Antoinette doll. When he asks her what her mother uses on her face she replies “Baking powder”, and again when prompted a second time. Her delivery is just brilliant and it’s too bad that not more was made of her character at this early juncture in the series. Likewise Pugsley has his moments and Ken Weatherwax enjoys himself in playing the electrical wiz, whose relationship with his sister isn’t quite as twisted as it was later made out in subsequent adaptations. Of course it’s understandable that the children’s screen time dwindles on many an occasion, being that the youngsters were also attending education and could only film a few hours at a time.
I tend to ramble over shows that I’m particularly fond of, so I'll leave things as they are and get on with the disc contents:
Disc 1 Side A
1) The Addams Family Goes to School
2) Morticia and the Psychiatrist
3) Fester’s Punctured Romance
4) Gomez, the Politician
Disc 1 Side B
5) The Addams Family Tree
6) Morticia Joins the Ladies League
7) Halloween with the Addams Family
8) Green-Eyed Gomez
Disc 2 Side A
9) New Neighbours Meet the Addams Family
10) Wednesday Leaves Home
11) The Addams Family Meets the V.I.P.s’
12) Morticia, the Matchmaker
Disc 2 Side B
13) Lurch Learns to Dance
14) Art and the Addams Family
15) The Addams Family Meets a Beatnik
16) The Addams Family Meets the Undercover Man
Disc 3 Side A
17) Mother Lurch Visits The Addams Family
18) Uncle Fester’s Illness
19) The Addams Family Splurges
20) Cousin It Visits the Addams Family
Disc 3 Side B
21) The Addams Family in Court
22) Amnesia in the Addams Family
In order to keep retail costs down MGM decided to split the series into several volumes. This first collection contains twenty three episodes from season 1. There are three discs in the set, each one a flipper containing four episodes per side. They come housed in slim pack cases which are slotted into a nicely design card cover.
The transfer for The Addams Family is remarkably good. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect after seeing some of the studio’s more recent television to DVD efforts. These transfers have been struck from a good source though; detail is pleasing and the general tone is well catered for. Black levels are as deep as to be expected and contrast appears to be entirely natural. There’s a nice level of grey scale and shadow detail which seems to replicate the show’s intended appearance very well. Furthermore there’s actually very little in the way of specks and scratches, although they’re naturally present there’s nothing overly distracting. Unfortunately there is plenty of edge enhancement and a spot of aliasing.
Sound is of the original mono variety, so you’ll pretty much know what to expect here. It doesn’t sound perfect: there’s a slight hiss in areas, but it’s very low and you may have to turn up your volume levels to get the most out of the dialogue. Vic Mizzy’s quaint scoring sounds a little more punctual and then there’s the canned laughter which I’m afraid we’ve always had to live with. There’s nothing here that’s really worth complaining about as it sounds like it should and there’s no direct problems with the authoring itself.
Audio Commentaries with Lisa Loring (Wednesday), Ken Weatherwax (Pugsley), Felix Silla (Cousin It) and Stephen Cox (author of “The Addams Family Chronicles”)
There are three newly recorded commentaries for this volume one release. These appear on “The Addams Family Goes to School”, “Morticia the Matchmaker” and “Cousin It Visits the Addams Family”. These are pleasant enough tracks with a lot more in the way of trivia and background info than I expected. The cast fondly remember starting out and getting around the set, getting into costume and working with Astin, Jones, Cassidy etc. There’s some fun anecdotes to be heard and the guys and girls certainly speak their mind, voicing their distaste over the reunion film they made in the late seventies amongst others. They touch upon some of the series’ more scandalous moments, in particular the romance between Gomez and Morticia and they also provide their opinions on latter remakes, which does get repetitive, especially when the double track on the second commentary. We also get to hear about the kids getting through their education while also being contracted to film and also that had the series been commissioned for a third season we’d have seen it in colour. There are various bits and pieces strewn throughout and overall these make for nice additions to the set.
The following extras are found on disc three, side B:
You Rang, Mr. Addams (12.03)
Kevin Miserocchi of the “Tee & Charles Addams Foundation” takes us through a brief history lesson about the man behind The Addams Family. He talks about Addams’ fascination with various architecture and cemeteries, his education and ambitions to work for The New Yorker. From there he naturally gets into comics and explains how the Addams came to be and how the television series developed from a chance encounter. He reads to us the original character outlines and then goes on to discuss the media’s perception of Addams, who by the time he was writing his famous series was considered to be quite insane. There’s a brief piece about his other works, with the overall summation that the man left behind an important legacy.
Snap, Snap (5.41)
In this newly recorded interview original series composer Vic Mizzy talks about starting out on the show. He explains meeting ABC and helping to get the series scheduled and also trying to convince the studio to go in another direction by not using their proposed canned music track. Mizzy goes on to tell us how he developed the main theme and how he conjured up specific themes for each character.
The Addams Family Portrait (14.25)
Although it doesn’t last for long this is the most substantial extra in the set. Here we have another fine piece that again features newly recorded interviews, this time with John Astin, Lisa Loring, Ken Weatherwax and Felix Silla. Astin chats about first being approached for the role of Lurch, would you believe, before explaining some of the casting process; the difficulty in finding a Morticia and how it was to work with the children. Of course it proved to be a great working relationship all round. Loring talks about trying to bring to life a perpetually depressed child, going through her screen test and eventually working alongside Carolyn Jones, from which they struck up a very close relationship. Likewise, Weatherwax tells us how he and Astin developed a father/son like bond on set and he also goes on to mention how he approached the role of Pugsley and how he and Loring would occasionally have their brother/sister like run ins. Felix Silla doesn’t have a great deal of screen time, but he gets to tell us about Cousin It’s suit and working on the impressive set, not to mention working with Astin and company. Overall it sounds like the series had a very close, family feel within the cast, though it’s a shame that there is no mention of Ted Cassidy, Jackie Coogan and Blossom Rock. Still, it’s great to see Astin, looking great and sharp as ever and it’s interesting to see Loring and Weatherwax all grown up as they fondly reminisce. The piece finishes up with each participant’s thoughts about the success of the series.
Finally - a karaoke feature and a nice photo gallery round up the collection.
I’ve loved The Addams Family ever since seeing it as a child with my parents and to this day it just seems to get better and better. Even with its endless social commentary in regards to politics and prejudice and tales of morality we still find a series that works on a considerably high level, showing very little in the way of dated ideals. But above all it’s the performances of the show that keeps us glued to the screen. John Astin, a man who I’ve admired on screen for years (please bring us Evil Roy Slade on DVD) and Carolyn Jones, God love her, make for one of the small screen’s finest ever couples, with wonderful support from Ted Cassidy, Jackie Cooper, Blossom Rock and the children respectively.
It’s nice to see MGM giving the series the respect that it deserves. While I generally dislike flippers there’s very little to complain about in terms of audio and visual and we even get some very nice extras to boot. If you’re a fan of the series then this is a collection well worth picking up.