More than eighty years since their debut in The New Yorker magazine, The Addams Family still have something intoxicatingly enjoyable about them. Initially a macabre satire by cartoonist Charles Addams, The Addams’ have gone through abundant changes over the years, fully entering pop culture’s jugular first through a decidedly weird, atmospheric, and very funny television sitcom in the mid-sixties, followed by a pair of hit films in the early ’90s (the second of which, Addams Family Values, was written by gay scribe Paul Rudnick), and an animated entry in 2019.
Wednesday (★★★☆☆), the latest in the loose canon, courtesy Netflix, Tim Burton, and the producers behind Smallville, is the first to usher the family into the 21st century.
After throwing piranhas in a pool filled with her brother’s bullies, Wednesday Addams, played by Jenna Ortega of X and the latest Scream, is shipped to Nevermore Academy, where her parents — Gomez and Morticia — initially met.
Wednesday promises to escape her pseudo-imprisonment, but soon realizes she may just have to enjoy herself after almost being murdered by a strange monster and being tossed head-first into a deadly mystery. As she decides to figure out the truth of her purpose at the academy, Wednesday Addams finds herself learning how to be a teenage girl while getting embroiled with boys, bullies, and family baggage.
Being a magnet for chaos, Principal Weems (Gwendoline Christie), keeps an eye on her, along with Christina Ricci, who played the character to deadpan perfection in the ’90s films, as a botany teacher at the school.
As she tries to solve things on her own, she soon runs into trouble with the local sheriff, who tries to keep his son away from Wednesday while trying to pin the recent string of murders on Nevermore Academy.
The most prominent departure from the original source material comes with Wednesday learning that Nevermore Academy happens to be a school for all the teen werewolves, psychics, sirens, and everything else in between.
This integration between the supernatural and Wednesday’s high school adventures doesn’t come naturally. The first couple of episodes feel like an SNL parody of what actual teens would sound like. The writing falters most when it tries to explain these supernatural teens, referring to them as “outcasts” and the humans as “normies,” and not much else. The show’s weaknesses emerge — glaringly — when it is unable to meld its teen story with a murder mystery.
Juggling a high school comedy and a supernatural mystery isn’t easy, even for the likes of a legend like Burton, who directs the first four episodes. There are too many stumbles as the story tries to maintain its humor while telling a thrilling mystery. While the writing grows into a more natural flow as the series progresses, the plotting is often held together by very loose strands. Burton’s directing prowess still shows, but it is a far cry from his ’90s heyday, even if Danny Elfman’s scoring remains masterful.
Luckily, Ortega performs every ounce of Wednesday’s dreadful disposition with the perfect amount of sadistic energy in a role that easily could’ve fallen into parody. It would’ve been very easy for Wednesday to run off the rails, were it not for Ortega’s performance, which is solid and consistent through the show’s rough patches and keeping things fun to watch.
Emma Myers as Enid, Wednesday’s werewolf roommate, and Hunter Doohan as the sheriff’s son, are solid, often going above the uneven dialogue provided their characters. There isn’t really a bad apple among the actors, especially the teens, who rise above the show’s unnecessary exposition and cartoonish banter.
The standouts are, unsurprisingly, the other members of the family. Luiz Guzman and Fred Armisen as Gomez and Fester, respectively, do some amazing work when they get the chance to shine, even if their appearances are brief. The highlight of the series comes during an episode where the family is in full focus, with Catherine Zeta-Jones utterly smashing the screen as Morticia. Her performance is so engrossing that you forget about the main story in favor of the short family subplot. Once the episode ends, it takes a while to get back into the groove of the overall main teen mystery plot. It makes you wish the family had more screen time.
While the unevenness of the plot makes for a bumpy start, the show does manage to improve as its central plot becomes more apparent. When Wednesday sheds its attempts to be a witty monster high school show and pivots to being a full monster mystery, the pieces of the show that worked come to the surface, salvaging what could’ve been a rough ride. The show’s central mystery is compelling enough to keep you hooked, even if it’s pretty clear what’s coming next. Ortega and the rest of the cast keep things from getting too campy while setting the foundation for what could be some stellar future seasons.
If you’re a fan of the original television series or the ’90s films, there will be more than enough for you to love, even if this is the farthest departure of the source material yet. Those who don’t care about the Addams’ may have some trouble maintaining interest in Wednesday, unless you happen to be a fan of the spooky and campy shows like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina or the teen fantasy antics of Stranger Things.
There’s a lot to love in Wednesday, no matter how uneven it may be, but the most exciting part of the show may be what’s still to come should it get a second season.
All episodes of Wednesday are currently streaming on Netflix. Visit www.netflix.com.
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