The Addams Family: A Celebration.

Shows about families have been a staple of mainstream TV almost since its inception.  But there was never a television clan quite like the Addams Family.  The series ran for two seasons (1964-66) on the ABC network.  Despite this short duration, it became a cult classic which spawned two theatrical films, a cartoon series, several TV specials, and a 2007 musical production.

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Creator Charles Addams was a cartoonist who drew the original characters for the New Yorker magazine. Their first appearance was way back in 1938.  The basic family structure was there from the start: an unsmiling European-style couple who dressed only in black, later accompanied by two children and a bald, beady-eyed man in a long robe (the first version of Uncle Fester).  The pen  and ink Addams family had a fondness for the macabre (playing with dynamite, keeping creatures like octopi as pets) which would be further developed in the television show.

Originally, Addams had teamed up with SF writer Ray Bradbury to work on a series of stories about a strange family who was comically unaware that they appeared different to their neighbors.  They hoped to do a complete book about them, with Bradbury writing and Addams illustrating.  When nothing came of this, Bradbury ended up publishing one book about the “Elliott Family” and Addams did not revive his idea until ABC contacted him in the 60`s.

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It was then that he finally named the family members and the show`s writers began to flesh out their personalities. Although decidedly less morbid than their New Yorker counterparts, the onscreen Addams clan was unlike anything viewers had seen before. They lived in a huge Victorian style mansion with its own swamp, not a split-level ranch house.  The residence (cared for by towering butler Lurch), was filled with antique furniture, suits of armor, and unconventional creatures.

The Addamses have often been stereotyped as a kind of Halloween trope, a first family of monsters.  Actually, they are the embodiment of their creator`s original idea: a family group who are out of the ordinary, but innocently think that they are the norm.  Addams patriarch Gomez (John Astin) is ostensibly a lawyer, but prefers practicing fencing and playing the part of an old-world gentleman.  His lovely wife Morticia (Carolyn Jones) is devoted to him and to their children while rocking the subtly sexy look (pale skin, black dresses) which would inspire legions of future Goth girls.

Children Pugsley and Wednesday enjoy science experiments and using a toy guillotine on Wednesday`s dolls, activities quite deviant from the fishing trips and baseball games most sixties TV kids aspired to.  Jovial oddball Uncle Fester is out there even by Addams standards. Perpetually clad in a long black coat, he delights in tinkering with mechanical objects like his working cannon and can activate a light bulb simply by putting it in his mouth.

Simply put, the family was a breath of fresh air in a stale sitcom world. Though they lasted only two seasons, frequent revivals of the show in syndication brought it to new generations.  If one was lucky enough to view the AF series as a child, it shaped your perceptions in a special way.

If you were a kid who was non-conformist in any way, the show was especially near and dear to you.  Here were a group of people who were markedly different, even weird by “normal” standards, and who  were not bothered by it,  were even  proud of their deviations.  The Addams clan was also  polite and gracious to strangers.  In one of my favorite episodes, a James Dean-esque biker feels so accepted with them that he declares, “I`d rather be with you weirdos!”

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Many of these same themes showed up in the 90`s Addams Family films, which were directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. The movies draw on both the morbidity of C. Addams` cartoons and the light-hearted feel of the TV series. The first one (1991) centers on Fester`s sudden re-appearance after a 25-year absence.  Highlights include a festive family reunion to celebrate this event, complete with ballroom dancing and an assortment of wacky relatives. Casting is superb, with Anjelica Huston as Morticia and Christopher Lloyd as Fester doing especially notable jobs.

The second film, Addams  Family Values (1993) is somewhat darker in character as the Addams group deals with a gold-digging murderess who is pursuing Uncle Fester.  But the real triumph lies in the subplot in which Pugsley and Wednesday are compelled to attend summer camp.  With its mindless activities and relentlessly cheery counselors, the camp is a microcosm of the difficulties many of us suffered in middle school.   At one point, the Addams kids and their bookish friend Joel are forced to spend time in the “Harmony Hut” and watch family films while surrounded by posters of rainbows.

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When the friends evantually sabotage the camp Thanksgiving pageant, it`s one of the most emotionally satisfying sequences in the history of film.  To me, it represents a dream revolution of nerds, Goths, and punk kids finally getting their moment in the sun.

The Addams family speaks to so many people simply because they celebrate differences instead of hiding them. Every family has its own special traditions and holidays, its legends and secrets.   In the case of clan Addams, these traditions may appear more eccentric than most, but they are heartfelt nonetheless.  Their inherent happiness and sense of fun are truly inspiring.  These are the kind of family values we should emulate.

Note: Information on the Addams cartoons and development of the TV show is culled from  the Wikipedia and Addams Wiki sites.

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