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Weekend TV Review: Mockingbird Lane and Other Treats (Not All Halloween)

While Tim Burton was busy remaking Dark Shadows on the big screen this year — and what a disappointment that turned out to be — another '60s cult item, the horror parody The Munsters, was getting a lavish reboot from Burton's TV counterpart Bryan Fuller, whose Pushing Daisies remains a fantastical benchmark of blending the whimsical and the macabre into a dazzling visual smorgasbord.The result, reported to have cost NBC in the neighborhood of $10 million, is one of the weirdest hybrids of the comical and eerie in quite some time...

Matt Roush
Matt Roush

While Tim Burton was busy remaking Dark Shadowson the big screen this year — and what a disappointment that turned out to be — another '60s cult item, the horror parody The Munsters, was getting a lavish reboot from Burton's TV counterpart Bryan Fuller, whose Pushing Daisies remains a fantastical benchmark of blending the whimsical and the macabre into a dazzling visual smorgasbord.
The result, reported to have cost NBC in the neighborhood of $10 million, is one of the weirdest hybrids of the comical and eerie in quite some time. The hour-long pilot of Mockingbird Lane (Friday, 8/7c), a monster mash of a hot mess, is being burned off as a Halloween special, with the very faint chance of being resurrected Frankenstein-style if the ratings show any juice. If this were to somehow miraculously go to series, I'd probably watch every episode, from morbid curiosity alone. But this is not going to be everyone's, or possibly anyone's, cup of hemlock.
Visually, it's a treat, with director Bryan Singer (House) bringing colorful panache to Fuller's fertile imagination with moments of bizarre bliss: the opening full-moon attack on a pack of scouts that turns into sadistic slapstick, or a sequence in which the dead-glamorous Lily Munster (Portia De Rossi) is clothed in a shower of bugs and creepy crawlers the way Cinderella used to be tended to by chirping birds. You're not likely to confuse Mockingbird Lane with Once Upon a Time, let's make that much clear. "The circle of life is a violent place," we're told, in case you were expecting The Lion King. (The news is even worse for the Bambis of the world.)
It's the tone, though, that could really give you nightmares, as it veers awkwardly from the cheerfully silly to the sappily sentimental and ultimately sinister without blinking an artificial eye. The casting is mostly on point, with Eddie Izzard an unnervingly desiccated Grandpa, whose "drinking" problem involves sprouting giant wings and a feral bat face, and Jerry O'Connell a stitch (with visible neck and chest scars) as Herman, whose literal "bleeding heart" as a well-meaning dad is as thuddingly obvious a metaphor as little Eddie's unusually hairy and toothsome form of puberty.
But let's not mock Mockingbird Lane or kill a Mockingbird. Instead, celebrate its audacious oddness while we can, even for just one night.
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The tense battle between the human resistance and the implacable Observers continues with great consequence on Fox's sci-fi cult fave Fringe (Friday, 9/8c), as the show kicks back into gear with Walter of all people — the great John Noble, the heart and soul of this struggle — leading the offensive. Highlights include callbacks to memorable "Fringe events" of the past and the return of Broyles (Lance Reddick) — friend or foe now? — in a strong episode with a potent emotional core, and great symbolism attached to the necklace Etta (Georgina Haig) wears, displaying "the bullet that saved the world" (the episode's prophetic title). The Observers in particular can't fathom why "something so unexceptional" as a cheap piece of jewelry could mean so much to these infuriating mortals. "For what purpose?" they can't stop obsessing. The answer says a lot about the resilience of their prey, who do not emerge unscathed from this latest encounter.
TV's top-rated horror show, AMC's The Walking Dead (Sunday, 9/8c), shifts focus this week, giving Rick and the prison gang a chance to catch their breath while we catch up with Andrea (Laurie Holden) and the awesome sword-wielding Michonne (Danai Gurira), as they find what appears to be safe haven in the gated suburban community known as Woodbury. This well-armed enclave is run by a grimly disciplined dude known only as the Governor (David Morrissey, affecting a slow drawl that reminds me of Northern Exposure's John Cullum). This visionary considers his people "the seed" of a reborn civilization — so why don't we blame the glowering Michonne for her innate distrust of this too-good-to-be-true situation?
For a more overt salute to the season, head over to ABC's 666 Park Avenue (Sunday, 10:01/9:01c), where we're reminded that "Halloween's all about excess, right?" Which might explain the ax-swinging ghost from 1929 who's lurking around the Drake, taking a special interest in Jane (Rachael Taylor), while everyone else is partying in the lobby, dodging various temptations that we already know will lead to no good. Guest stars include Enrique Murciano as a flirty doctor embroiled in the Brian-Louise-Alexis triangle, The Wire's Jim True-Frost as the deadly spirit du jour and Veronica Mars' Tessa Thompson as a media consultant whose interest in Henry (Dave Annable) seems a bit more than professional. There are a few jolts during the episode, but not many that you don't see coming.
More Halloween highlights: It's a Supernaturalorgy on TNT, with a 24-hour marathon (starting Saturday at noon/11c) of the long-running series' most frightening and/or imaginative episodes. ... Rip-off or homage, you be the judge. Syfy doesn't care as long as you groove to the latest Saturday-night cheesefest, Rise of the Zombies  (Saturday, 9/8c), which begins with a band of survivors on Alcatraz leaving their island sanctuary to seek out a scientist who may have found a cure. Because that sort of thing always ends well. The wildly eclectic cast includes Mariel Hemingway, LeVar Burton and Danny Trejo. ... For a cheerier change of pace, Chiller presents the endearing documentary The American Scream (Sunday, 8/7c), profiling several households in Fairhaven, Mass., who devote their creative energies year-round to turning their domiciles into do-it-yourself haunted houses. Their joy and pride is infectious and makes you want to get in the spirit of things.
TWISTS AND TREATS: The tension just keeps building on Showtime's fabulous suspense combo of Dexter (Sunday, 9/8c) and Homeland (Sunday, 10/9c). The high point these days of Dexter is watching Jennifer Carpenter's inner and outer (often curse-laden) turmoil as she comes to grips with Dexter's true self and what it means for her own identity as a homicide cop. Meanwhile, things are getting much stickier for Dark and Dour Dex as the nosy La Guerta keeps digging back into the "Bay Harbor Butcher" files, bringing a conflicted Deb into the loop, while Dex initiates a dangerous game with Russian adversary Isaak. And if you've been itching for Yvonne Strahovski to show her true colors (to Dexter anyway), that wait appears to be over.
But that's just a curtain-raiser for the electrifying drama of Homeland, where Claire Danes and Damian Lewis once again remind us why they took home Emmy gold this year, as they go face to face in an unbearably intense and psychologically devastating set piece that makes them both front runners for every imaginable award next year. Forget who breaks who. As one of the adversaries declares, "No one survives intact," and that may include the viewer, who's almost certain to be shaken by what goes down. And how else do we know that this exceptional series comes from the makers of 24? Because they insist on providing an insipid subplot for Brody's daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor), who's quickly threatening to become the Kim Bauer of this show.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN: "Just pretend I'm not here," Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) says repeatedly as he intrudes on the CBI's turf for the very first time "several years ago" in an enjoyable origin episode marking the milestone 100th hour of CBS' The Mentalist (Sunday, 10/9c). Naturally, the agents can't ignore him. One can't even resist taking a swing at this aggravatingly intuitive interloper. But this disheveled version of Patrick Jane, only a year removed from Red John's murder of his family, is a far less cocky operator than who we've come to know, though he quickly impresses Lisbon (Robin Tunney) with his uncanny ability to read people and expose the guilty party. The rest, as they say, is TV history.
WHAT ELSE IS ON: As Discovery's popular docu-reality series Gold Rush starts a third season (Friday, 9/8c), we're told one of the mining teams will hit the Alaskan mother lode. It's about time. ... The channel hopes to hit pay dirt again with the similarly themed Jungle Gold (Friday, 10/9c), in which two American entrepreneurs head to the wilds of Ghana in West Africa with strike-it-rich ambitions. ... Gordon Ramsay is back on Fox — was he ever really away? — as Kitchen Nightmares (Friday, 8/7c) returns with the first of a two-parter set in a failing Italian eatery run by two sisters in Boston's North End. ... Thankfully, Jeff Lewis has nothing to do with Discovery's intriguing Flipping the White House (Sunday, 10/9c). In this docu-special, former chiefs of staff and other presidential insiders explain the process of how the White House transitions on Inauguration Day from one president's home to another. Which is not necessarily intended as a preview of coming attractions, mind you.
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