When Netflix announced that Tim Burton, maestro of all things kooky and spooky, would be at the helm of Wednesday, a modern day take on the adventures of the stone-faced eldest daughter of the Addams Family, it seemed like a match made in heaven. With the casting of bonafide scream queen Jenna Ortega in the titular role, all the pieces seemed to line up for a creepy classic to be born. With the show premiering on Netlfix soon, it’s time for audiences to judge whether it lives up to its origins.
What’s immediately obvious is that, surprising no one, Ortega is pitch perfect in the role of Wednesday Addams. She delights in the macabre, effortless expressive even with Wednesday’s impenetrable face. Ortega is an instant icon for all fans of the weird and wacky. She feels like a genuinely fresh iteration of a beloved character. Jenny is as much an homage to the original as something entirely her own.
The same can’t be said for the set up of the show. Burton imagines Wednesday, expelled from public school after a characteristically bloodthirsty prank, packed off to — get this — Nevermore Academy. Nevermore is a boarding school dedicated to the education of “outcasts,” the show’s on-the-nose term for supernatural beings. Wednesday’s new classmates include sirens, vampires, gorgons, and most notably Enid (Emma Myers), Wednesday’s relentlessly cheery, colourful werewolf roommate. The school setting is not without appeal. The set design is impressive. It’s not quite as inventive as the Addams Family mansion we’re used to in previous adaptations. Gwendoline Christie is immediately compelling as Larissa Weems, the school’s principal and former classmate of Wednesday’s mother, Morticia. But overall, it’s disappointing in how derivative it feels.
The idea of putting Wednesday Addams in an ordinary school for her to freak out her normie peers before finally forming some bonds in spite of everything is simple, but effective. Both 1993’s movie Addams Family Values and the 1964 TV series The Addams Family broach this set-up in some way. Equally, placing Wednesday Addams in a school for outcasts and weirdos is an enticing prospect that teases the ever-popular “magic school” trope. Wednesday tries to have it’s cake and eat it too. Yes, Nevermore is weird to normal humans. Unfortunately, the students themselves are not any more unusual than the standard players in any teen drama.
We have the icy Queen Bea, the tortured artsy brooder, the plucky best friend, all in awe of of enamoured by Wednesday. Despite the fact that this is meant to be a school filled with supernatural characters, feared and reviled by the townspeople of the nearby Jericho, there’s nothing unusual about them. Wednesday’s goth style and morbid interests sure are freaky to a group of teens whose cliques revolve around whether they have fangs, fur or scales. It feels as though the show lacks confidence in it’s central character and her magnetic weirdness. That’s baffling, since the entire premise of the Addams Family is that they’re all bizarre in their own way. We never found Wednesday “ordinary” even next to the eccentricities of Gomez and Morticia.
What’s more is that there is a depressing lack of imagination behind the whole thing. The rest of the Addams family (Catherine Zeta-Jone’s Morticia, Luis Guzman’s Gomez, Isaac Ordonez’s Pugsley and Fred Armisen’s Uncle Fester) are more or less cameo roles — delightful when they appear, no doubt — and despite Ortega’s star power, their presence is sorely missed. By stripping away the rest of the family, the show is essentially a high school dramedy. It suffers from having teenagers written by people who only interact with Gen Z through hand-wringing thinkpieces about “What The Kids These Days Are Up To”, like so many other high school shows these days.
Enid, in particular, suffers as a result. Her chirpy quips about Snapchat and Tiktok, her self-aware but nonetheless woefully clichéd explanations of high school life — all are wincingly awkward, clearly the words of a boardroom of 40-somethings trying to relate to 16 year olds. Every other high school cliché that you might expect is there, from the all-important prom to the half-baked love triangle.
The problem isn’t even that these plot points exist. It’s that the show is maddeningly inept at subverting them in the way that the Addams Family has always done. From their conception in 1938, the characters have always been a satirical inversion of the suburban American middle-class. The kookiness of the Addams clan lands without the understanding that it’s in direct conversation with the status quo. This is where Wednesday fails — to succeed, it needed to speak about the high school storytelling it embroils itself in. Instead, it loses any steam beyond “Wednesday is weird because she isn’t on social media.”
The overarching plot — a murder mystery in which Wednesday must solve a string of supernatural deaths while unconvering their connection to the psychic visions that plague her and her own family’s past — is no more successful at creating anything new. It’s engaging enough that you’ll probably be motivated to see the show through to find out if your predictions are correct. Spoiler alert- they almost certainly will be but it’s nothing that will linger with you after.
The show does have some genuinely strong moments. I promise I’m not being catty when I say Ortega’s best scene partner is Thing. The sentient disembodied hand that works for her family and accompanies her to school brings life to the script. The two have a genuinely funny rapport that got me quite emotional at the end. Gwendoline Christie imbues the underwhelming script with genuine pathos and gravitas. And, I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face: Jenna Ortega is just great in the role.
By the season finale, it’s obvious that Wednesday fully intends for a second season. And if it does, I can only hope that it revives itself with something that truly earns and embraces the strange, deranged delights that the iconic characters have always brought to the table.
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