The Addams Family began in 1938 as a series of wry cartoon panels from Charles Addams for The New Yorker magazine. Then came the black-and-white 1960s sitcom with its iconic theme song (snap, snap). Then came the movie adaptations, because Hollywood loves nothing more than repurposing intellectual property over and over again. Well, the Addams Family is back again — all IP shall be mined into infinity! — this time as a TV spinoff for Netflix called “Wednesday,” featuring the original goth girl herself, Wednesday Addams.
Netflix is promoting the series as “from the mind of Tim Burton” and he’s an executive producer and director here (he directs the first half of the season) but perhaps it’s more informative to look at who’s credited as the show’s creators. That would be Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who gave the world “Smallville,” aka Superman/Clark Kent, the teen years.
“Wednesday” is a teen drama as well — one with style, though not an especially inventive one — and it works best when it’s simply being funny. The heavy plotting around a mysterious supernatural something or other? Very, very mid, but you need something to propel the story forward enough to stretch it out for eight episodes.
Kicked out of her normie high school after dumping piranha in a pool filled with water polo jerks, Wednesday’s parents Morticia and Gomez (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Luis Guzmán, playful but limited) send her off to Nevermore Academy, a Hogwarts-like boarding school for outcasts and monsters.
This is a curious choice — the root of any “Addams Family” story is how they don’t fit in with everyone else, and happily so. The good news: This doesn’t feel jarring at first, because the show has such a tangy sense of humor about itself. Starring the wonderfully deadpan Jenna Ortega, with jet black hair and two braids down either side, she’s the teen who cannot stand anything bright and happy. But unlike earlier incarnations, she’s morphed into a miserable teen, which also means she cannot stand her parents either.
Ah yes, Morticia and Gomez — in the movies, they were so obviously hot for one another. That’s true in their brief appearances here as well, much to Wednesday’s disgust. Her eye-rolling carries over to anything else associated with them, telling her mother as they drive to Nevermore: “I’ve no interest in following in your footsteps — becoming captain of the fencing team, queen of the dark prom, president of the seance society.” When they’re greeted by the school’s principal (“Game of Thrones” alum Gwendoline Christie as the perfectly coifed headmistress with a perfect smile plastered on her perfect face, who is maybe a malevolent force or not, who can say?) Gomez chimes in encouragingly: “Did you hear that, my little storm cloud, you’re in excellent hands!”
Wednesday’s having none of it. This place is teen purgatory, even if her beloved Edgar Allan Poe is an alumnus.
Moody and seeing visions she cannot explain, Wednesday is paired with a perky roommate (Emma Myers) who warns her that “full moons get pretty loud around here” as she shows her around campus, pointing out the various cliques: The fangs (vampires), the furs (werewolves), the scales (sirens) and the stoners (a throwaway joke but one that made me laugh!). Wednesday has no interest in making friends or fitting in: “Sartre said hell is other people. He was my first crush.”
A garlic bread incident sends a kid to the infirmary (another throwaway joke but honestly they’re the best kind here), there are some sly nods to “Carrie” and that bloody prom, and the disembodied hand known as Thing (Victor Dorobantu) tags along to help Wednesday acclimate and also, hilariously, bond with her new roomie. It’s amazing how expressive Thing can be! Thing is terrific! Also, Christina Ricci, who played Wednesday in the films, is here as one of the school’s normie teachers.
It’s all just so aggressively fine and judging by the timing of its release, intended to entertain a multigenerational houseful of guests looking for something to watch together. Hovering over everything is the hunt for the Big Bad, a narrative trope I’d love to see a show like this reject altogether. Instead, “Wednesday” leans too heavily into “Stranger Things” territory for my taste. But that’s probably the point — “Stranger Things” has been very good for Netflix.
No offense to Nevermore, but if the series continues with another season, it would be far more interesting to see Wednesday return to a normie high school. That culture clash is the heart and soul of any Addams Family story. Keep it simple. Keep it funny. Keep it dark.
2.5 stars (out of 4)
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for violence, fear and coarse language)
How to watch: Netflix
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