In Tim Burton’s Wednesday, Wednesday Addams is writing a series of novels. They’re mystery fiction about a teen girl detective, and they never really matter except in the way that these things always do in YA stories, with her manuscript often echoing the new Netflix series. It’s a surprisingly basic trope for a memorable character, and in that sense, it’s emblematic of the show Wednesday itself. Aside from Jenna Ortega’s excellent, deadpan performance and some good casting choices, the new riff on The Addams Family is extremely average teen drama fare that’s only slightly elevated by its darkly comedic sensibilities.
Ortega, the young scream queen who’s put in incredible work this year in both Ti West’s X and the latest Scream movie, plays confidently unnerving psychic goth girl Wednesday Addams with relish, delivering drily funny comebacks to her normie peers and never once cracking a full smile. There have been plenty of versions of the Addams family over the years, but Wednesday seems to pull most from the aesthetic sensibilities of Barry Sonnenfeld’s ‘90s films, which have long since been mistaken for Burton projects.
In another clever bit of casting (the cast may be this show’s strongest element), Catherine Zeta-Jones plays an extra-vampy Morticia to Luis Guzmán’s doting Gomez. Pugsley, Lurch, and Uncle Fester all make an appearance, while the sentient severed hand Thing acts as Wednesday’s right-hand man as she stakes out her new boarding school, Nevermore Academy. Meanwhile, Gwendoline Christie, Riki Lindhome, and Christina Ricci – a former Wednesday herself – all play adults who, for the most part, just want Wednesday to be more normal.
The show’s eight-episode first season is meant to explore one overarching mystery, as Wednesday’s enrollment at Nevermore coincides with a series of monster attacks that seem to have ties to her own history and future. But the mystery is neither very compelling nor presented with enough clarity to make viewers feel like we can sleuth along with her. Instead, it trudges along towards a surprisingly self-serious and generic conclusion, sprinkling in red herrings and side plots along the way. Extremely routine directing by Burton and other episode directors also doesn’t help much.
In terms of its DNA, Wednesday owes as much to Veronica Mars and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina as it does to any Addams Family properties. While its protagonist is a bit more blankly dour than cynical gumshoe Veronica, the show’s setting and character archetypes sometimes feel so much like Netflix’s recent Sabrina series that it’s hard to believe the show didn’t recycle some writers. Like that series, it builds its story largely around the school dances, field trips, and sporting events of a school full of macabre and monstrous teens, or “fangs, furs, stoners, and scales,” as Wednesday’s preppy roommate Enid (Emma Myers) says when pointing out cliques. Worse yet, it co-opts the tired teen love triangle plot, giving loads of screen time to two wildly bland romantic options for a girl who doesn’t seem particularly interested in romance.
Although, the show doesn’t seem entirely clear about what Wednesday does want. At times it seems like it’s dancing around a metaphor about what it’s like to grow up neurodivergent, giving Wednesday interests and fixations that don’t align with her peers’ – as a kid, we learn, she only ever cried when bullies killed her pet scorpion – and surrounding her with adults who are frustrated by her differences. And judging by Ortega’s looks of muted longing, her Wednesday wishes she fit in a little more sometimes, too. But the show isn’t particularly strong in its expressions of Wednesday’s thoughts and feelings, and ultimately can’t seem to decide whether its protagonist is a reserved, eccentric teen who may or may not hope for emotional fulfillment or a totally inscrutable goth girl with a knack for violence.
Luckily, Wednesday also has a darkly funny and endearing streak that saves the show from being a total loss. When she sings a musical note so high only dogs can hear it or does a wacky, cartoonish dance at the school’s Yeti-themed ball, it’s easy to remember why this is such an enduring and lovable character. Plus, the small but fierce girl also gets shit done in a cheer-worthy fashion. She maintains a practiced scowl even as she drops bags of piranhas into the boys’ swimming pool or deploys a set of razor-sharp arrows in the middle of a school canoe race. It’s impossible not to root for Wednesday or want to see more of her story, even as it’s bogged down by excess elements that don’t work.
Thanks in large part to Ortega’s performance, the spirit of the delightfully dark Addams Family character lives on, but Wednesday’s execution ultimately leaves plenty to be desired.
Wednesday debuts on Netflix on November 23. Watch the series trailer here.