The Addams Family: Volume Three Review
Earlier this year it was announced that the Addams Family were coming to Broadway. The Tee and Charles Addams Foundation have given permission for an all-singing all-dancing (possibly) extravaganza to debut in the second half of next year, co-written by Marshall Brickman, Woody Allen’s old collaborator. Although we haven’t heard from the clan for a while, this latest revival shouldn’t be too much of a surprise: true to their nature, the Addamses have always refused to stay silent for very long. Instead, ever since their original appearances as single-panel cartoons in The New Yorker in the 1930s, they have successfully adapted themselves to each new generation. For some the definitive portrayal of Gomez and co is this classic series of the 1960s, for others the movies of the 1990s, for purists the original Charles Addams cartoons themselves - but no matter what your preference there’s no denying that each major version has merit and, more importantly, something to say. For at the heart of the Addams Family is a desire to provoke, a satiric edge which holds up a mirror to our own prejudices and idiosyncrasies, a challenge to conventional thinking which combines humour with a distinctive sense of the macabre. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the original TV series.
This year has seen the release onto DVD of the complete series in three volumes, the latter of which is obviously the one under consideration here. Kevin Gilvear has already reviewed the first two instalments for DVD Times, and in truth I don’t have a great deal more to add to his in-depth analysis of the show. Not having seen the forty-odd episodes on the previous two volumes, I can’t say how this last batch of shows compares to what has gone before. It’s very easy with the benefit of hindsight to say that a show is looking tired, but a few of these episodes do feel a little thin, with a basic plot padded out with setpieces that end up being a little irrelevant. The quality of scripts varies wildly: one episode can have pinsharp, eminently quotable one-liners (it wasn’t just for their mutual love of cigars that saw Gomez being compared to Groucho Marx) but others fall comparatively flat, relying for gags on old standbys like the family’s quirks (oh there goes Grandmama to wrestle that alligator again!)
The divide of good/bad stories is roughly fifty-fifty, but even in those weaker shows, there are two factors which compensate for the lacklustre plots. The first is the perpetual joy of John Astin as Gomez. Here’s an actor who has simply thrown himself with a gleeful zest into his character, playing a childlike man who loves trampolining and model trains as much as he does making sweet music with his wife. The energy Astin brings to the screen, in even those scenes where he doesn’t have to do much, is electric and makes even the slower episodes lively affairs. The other thing that ensures one cannot be totally bored of any single episode is the constant astonishment of quite how extraordinarily subversive the show was. One famous review observed that Gomez and Morticia were the first married couple on TV you could actually imagine having sex (an ironic counterpart to Herman and Lily Munster, who were one of the first couples shown sharing a bed but who were almost completely asexual) but the show goes much further than that. It thinks nothing of having the kids engaging in ghoulish games with a guillotine or the adults smoking with deep satisfaction from a two-piped hookah, while casual gags leave one gasping - how on earth did they get away with a show in which Gomez relishes being trussed up in chains by Morticia for half its length, or the one in which he has to seduce one of Pugsley’s teachers?
You have to remember that this was at a time when titles such as Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver were the order of the day as far as family sitcoms go, twee, conservative shows that sold its viewers an idyllic but resolutely Stepford-like homelife. Even The Munsters, which was running at the same time as the Addams Family, was a paean to conformity. What the Addams Family did was challenge that, and show that it was perfectly fine to break free of such restrictive social bonds. That they were a deeply loving family was as much the point: you don’t have to conform to be good people, it was saying, and you don’t have to follow conventional mores to be morally upright - indeed, the more liberated you are, the more you have the chance to spread your largesse amongst others. Living for pleasure isn’t such a sin, especially when you can throw it around: the character of Gomez cocks a snook at the rabidly capitalist culture by being filthy rich and not giving a stuff about it, or about the pursuit of more. He is far more interested in the important things in life: his wife, his kids, and helping those around him. He is so in love with life that he can only believe that everyone else thinks the same as him - this naiveté is exploited several times over the course of the series by shady conmen, but happily they always get their comeuppance. The Addams are blissfully, unapologetically happy in their own weird little world, the original dysfunctional family, and both they, and those they meet, are all the better for it. TV had never seen the likes before, and, although it took some time, it slowly learnt some of the lessons of the show.
Unfortunately, though, not quickly enough to keep the show on the air. Although it never bombed in the ratings, neither did it get the sorts of audience figures which get advertisers salivating. In a way, it’s a miracle that it lasted as long as it did - the show was far too outré for a mainstream audience, who, if they had to watch a series about a monster family, much preferred the cuddly conformity of the Munsters to the challenging ideals of the Addams. The two shows had always run in parallel - indeed, The Munsters had been created as a direct response to The Addams Family - and so it’s somewhat fitting that, two years after they started airing almost simultaneously, they shared an end too. Less than two weeks after it was announced that Herman and co were being retired, the axe fell on Gomez and his brood too, the cancellation of the Munsters being seen as a sign that the day of the Quirky Family Sitcom had been and gone. This isn’t entirely true (the real reason The Munsters nosedived in the ratings was because the second season had suffered a real downturn in quality) but it was as good a reason to close the door as any.
Only, of course, that wasn’t the end of the story. Like the Munsters, the Addams Family have risen from the television grave numerous times, albeit with considerably more success. They first returned to the screen in the form of a short-lived Hanna-Barbera cartoon in the early Seventies, which, together with reruns and the advent of a more liberal era in America, kept the clan in the public eye and raised their popularity. By 1977 they were so fondly regarded that the original cast (with the exception of an ailing Blossom "Grandmama" Rock) reassembled for a TV Movie, Halloween with the Addams Family. Unfortunately it was widely seen as a disaster, a travesty of the original, making a sad farewell for the original cast, doubly so considering over the next decade Jones, Coogan, Rock and Cassidy all passed away. Tragically they were not to see the Addams’s triumphant return in the 1990s in the form of two big screen adventures directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, one of the few television-to-cinema transfers that fully justified the move. Taking mischievous advantage of the greater scope the cinema gives to pushing the black humour, the two films melded the sharp satire and zest of the TV series with the macabre tone of Charles Addams’s original cartoons.
These movies introduced the series to a whole new audience and, since then, Gomez, Morticia and the rest have been a constant presence. There was a new cartoon series, and a short-lived live action remake for the small screen, which was far too glossy and nice, but did benefit from having Astin return in one episode to play Grandpapa Addams. Together with plenty of re-runs of the original, the family are still regulars on TV, real survivors of the era (you won't find many showings of Leave it to Beaver these days) so the news that there is going to be a musical shouldn’t necessarily send shivers down fans of the original series. It might very possibly be rubbish, but at least the writers will remember the source, and as satire has started to make its mark in the States again, so it feels right that the Addams should return to have their say. Once again, it could be argued, society needs a good sharp kick up the conventionals, and there’s few better suited to do that than the cheerfully insouciant Gomez Addams. If it gets close to the best that the original TV series produced, of which there is a good sample in this collection, then it can only be a good thing. Even if there’s very little chance they’ll find a Gomez with even half the energy or panache of John Astin.
The last twenty-one episodes of The Addams Family’s second and final season, from Gomez the Reluctant Lover to Ophelia’s Career, are presented on three dual-layered single sided DVDs. All discs opens with our old friend the FACT advert, followed by the various studio logos. In addition the third discs runs trailers for Lost in Space Season One and Hogfather.
There then follows a very brief animated pan into the house before reaching the Main Menu. The Menu, a static picture, lists all the episodes on that disc and has an optional Play All option, as well as a separate page listing the Special Features. In addition, each episode has its own submenu, which lists the options Play Episode, Language Selection and the option to watch it with or without any Special Features attached to it (as well as, of course, a chance to return to the Main Menu.)
A fine transfer which, while not the best I’ve seen for a show of its era (ironically, I’d say that the video on The Munsters DVDs is superior) is more than acceptable. The shading of the black and white images look natural, and there are pleasingly few artefacts on display, with marks on the prints rare. That said, in one episode there was a very brief but noticeable dip in quality, obviously showing some damage to the masters, but it’s only for one short scene. There’s also the odd encoding problem, but nothing remotely distracting.
Not quite as sharp as it could be, the sound is at times quite soft, but the levels are natural so that nothing is missed. As ever, the effect of the odd bit of ADR is always more noticeable on vintage releases like this than on TV for some reason, but other than fine for a show of this ilk.
Thing and Cousin Itt Commentaries
Oh wow, possibly the most useless extras ever. I think I’ll just quote Kev’s review from Volume Two as he nails it:
God awful. The only merciful thing about them is that each one barely lasts a minute. I can’t believe that they actually paid someone to dress up in an Itt costume and get a guy to play Thing in a box as they do screen commentaries and squabble with each other over some poorly written gags as they explain the plot synopsis for the given episode.
If you must watch them, they can be found on the episodes Morticia’s Dilemma and Ophelia Finds Romance. But really, don’t.
With Stephen Cox, the author of “The Addams Chronicles,” provides a track for Morticia the Decorator. He obviously adores the show and has plenty of interesting things to say about it, so this is well worth a listen.
Found on the episode Cat Addams this is a series of factoids which pop up on screen at appropriate moments. One can’t help feeling whoever was doing them soon ran out of things to say - did you know, for example, that humans shouldn’t ingest mercury?
It’s perhaps a sign that the series was getting tired at this point that Robbie the Robot pops up in one episode as an assistant to Lurch. Similarly, this DVD release is tired only in that the extras are less substantial than those for the first two sets. Don’t let that out you off though - the only real omission is the disappointing absence of Halloween with the Addams Family which would have made a suitable conclusion. That said, if you’ve already got Volumes One and Two, this still makes a fine bookend to your collection, with enough entertainment in even the weaker episodes to justify a watch.