It must have been alarming to turn on the TV in the 1960s and see a sitcom that centered on a family who was otherwise normal, except for the fact that they looked like they had just risen from the dead with sunken eyes, pale skin, and expressionless faces. But they would take out the trash, mow their lawn, and do “regular” things around the neighborhood like everyone else. To say that the side-by-side 1964 debuts of The Munsters and The Addams Family shook up primetime television would be an understatement. At the time, the small screen had been saturated with safe, wholesome narratives such as The Andy Griffith Show and The Donna Reed Show. This new wave of macabre family TV was radical.
But the progressive nature of these series might have also contributed to their short lifespans (they were both canceled two years later and one month apart from each other in 1966). As much as they offered a bold, yet stark diversion from typical family depictions on TV, they also mirrored what was likely perceived by certain families as an unsettling turning point reminiscent of the real-life political landscape of the time, which was punctuated by the just implemented Civil Rights Act and two consecutive Democratic presidents.
For some families who were white, middle to upper class, and lived in the suburbs, The Munsters and The Addams Family perhaps further threatened a standard that many were fighting to preserve. They underscored the point that it was perfectly acceptable that these characters co-existed among the otherwise traditional, homogenous families in the same white-picket community.
That might explain why Bewitched, which premiered the same year as The Munsters and The Addams Family, went on to last until 1972 and became the longest-running supernatural series of its time. The show’s lead character, a female witch played by Elizabeth Montgomery, was much more concerned with suppressing her abilities in order to assimilate with the culture around her. That wasn’t the case with the other two series, whose characters never changed a thing about their lifestyle and whose mere appearance would put their neighbors on edge.
Despite a very lackluster response in their original runs, The Munsters and The Addams Family both gained massive audiences in syndication years later, which proved that people had finally begun to embrace atypical, bizarre family television that challenged their expectations. By then, people welcomed — and even demanded — a new kind of normal; a small screen landscape that soon became defined by how it interrogated the prototypical family structure with shows including Alf and Small Wonder.
Still, these shows weren’t nearly as dark and seemingly foreboding as their ghoulish predecessors. They didn’t present characters who were considered scary. When it came down to it, Vicki (Wonder) was a cute yet strange little girl and Alf was a teddy-bear-like, smart-alecky creature who people hated to love. By then, original gothic family programming had virtually vanished from primetime television. We didn’t really see it again until the ’90s, when Sabrina, The Teenage Witch and Charmed debuted in the middle of the decade. Both shows had a considerable run (Sabrina lasted seven seasons while Charmed lasted eight) and centered on families whose members were witches. Like Bewitched, however, these characters hid the fact that they had these powers and therefore were never really considered nightmarish.
Present-day television has mostly maintained this relatively harmless approach to macabre families with the debut of Santa Clarita Diet in 2017. Netflix’s first dip into the genre presents a suburban family where Sheila (Drew Barrymore), the matriarch, turns into a zombie after eating bad clams. Here, we see a family member begin normally then become undead; it’s not inherently who she is, as is the case for the preceding entries in this genre. That said, the fact that she’s a zombie is something that needs to be immediately cured, and has an instant impact on her life. Much of the plot surrounds her husband (Timothy Olyphant) and their daughter (Liv Hewson) running around trying to find a remedy.
Still, Sheila is not walking around with a wan face and her arms outstretched. Rather, she looks “normal,” and despite her condition (which can really be set off at any given moment), she goes about her regular routine by day as a realtor. However, at night she is a ravenous, homicidal creature, feasting off brains and other body parts. But here’s what sets this series apart: all her victims are inherently bad people. And not just bad people; bad men. Men who identify as Nazis. Men who don’t respect women. Men who will not be missed, which allows Sheila’s appetite for human flesh to remain discreet. So, in today’s political climate in which women are not only demanding visibility but reparations in male-dominated spaces, Santa Clarita Diet offers particularly relevant commentary amid its morbid shenanigans, exploring the ways in which women can utilize their power, albeit through a fantastical horror lens.
The only departure from this benign gothic family standard currently seems to be The Originals, about a family of vampires who are explicitly brutal forces to be reckoned with. However, this approach to a familiar premise is aligned with the modern audience’s appetite for shock value and special effects found in other macabre shows that don’t specifically center on families — including The Walking Dead and Z-Nation. The popularity of gore on the small screen has certainly influenced those series, which raises the question: can an explicitly benign gothic family TV persist in today’s Golden Age of Television, where viewers crave bloodier, more malicious content?
Interestingly, shows like Santa Clarita Diet prove that the benevolent gothic family genre has been able to revive itself (and maintain syndication appeal) despite the dominance of its more violent competition. Whether it’s escapism, curiosity, or pure entertainment, viewers today still seem inclined to tune in to a peculiar family who — like many others — are just trying to live their lives. And if they must feast on human flesh in the process? So be it.