While Tim Burton’s Wednesday certainly attempts to imitate the aesthetic of the ‘90s Addams Family films, the surrounding plot and characters of Netflix’s newest teen drama fails to capture the morbid charm of Charles Addams’ gothic family.
The eight-episode Netflix series follows Wednesday (Scream’s Jenna Ortega) as she attempts to solve a grisly murder that occurred in the woods outside of her new school, Nevermore Academy. She also digs into the history of Jericho — the small town that plays host to the school — and its founding father, Joseph Crackstone, a notorious witch-hunter who has a bloody connection to one of Wednesday’s ancestors.
At Nevermore Academy, the boarders move well beyond creepy and kooky; werewolves, vampires, sirens, gorgons, telekenetics, and shapeshifters are all in attendance. What this means is that Wednesday Addams is no longer an outcast among “normies,” supported by her family of fellow weirdos, but is positioned as an outcast among supernatural creatures, without the support of her family and with a track record for preferring the company of disembodied hands to her fellow students.
It’s a frustrating watch; Jenna Ortega does the absolute best she can with her lines, but Wednesday’s trademark deadpan sarcasm and never-ending misery makes her a painful lead character. The one-liners that worked when Wednesday was part of an ensemble cast simply do not land. She’s emotionless, selfish, and self-obsessed. She uses her friends, dismisses the boys who are trying to take her out on dates (for some unknown reason, since she hasn’t so much as said a single kind thing to anyone), and routinely accuses her parents of various acts of sabotage, smothering, and even murder.
The point of the Addams Family is that they are just acceptable enough to be tolerated by their normal neighbours, while also staying true to their weird and wacky roots. They teach “normal” people how to interact with people unlike themselves, and accept every kind of person into their arms wholeheartedly. The problem with Wednesday is that it constantly reinforces the differences between “normies” and “outcasts,” going so far as to make a very trite twist at the end, because of course it’s the normies who were the real monsters all along. If I could roll my eyes hard enough to have them fall out of my head they would have been spinning on the ground by the second episode.
This is a frustratingly simple takeaway that is emblematic of the show itself. It talks down to its teenage audience, presenting banal black-and-white issues of morality and melodrama with the kind of grim determination of an executioner’s axe. Will Wednesday go to the school dance with tortured outcast artist Xavier or the earnest townie barista Tyler? Is the monster in the woods being controlled by an outcast or a normie? Did Gomez Addams really kill a romantic rival while attending Nevermore or not? All of these questions are answered, and none of the answers matter. With lock-step predictability, you could probably guess the answers right now and be right, without any nuance attached whatsoever.
And then there’s the style of this show. The costumes certainly do a lot of work — both Wednesday and Enid (Wednesday’s bubbly werewolf roommate, played by Emma Myers) are exceptionally well-dressed — but there isn’t a lot of design happening elsewhere. This was perhaps the biggest let down for me, especially as I went into this series hoping that Tim Burton’s aesthetically pleasing, overly stylised taste would make this at least a visually-interesting watch. Not so. Wednesday is disappointingly bland.
Without the restriction of condensed sets, and with a lot of important conversations taking place in a Jericho coffeeshop rather than in Nevermore Academy, there is little flourish to the overly-dark scenes. Shot in low lighting and amid a lot of rain, doom, and gloom, Wednesday rarely makes herself memorable, disappearing into the shadows of her own show. The exceptions to this occur during the two scenes where she is playing the cello, and her intense resting corpse face actually works with Danny Elfman’s occasionally-magnificent score. However, the real death knell for this show is the fact that Wednesday is supported by a killer cast that includes both Christina Ricci and Gwendoline Christie, and still nobody stands out.
The forgettability of Wednesday is probably a result of this character getting a whole series dedicated to her personality, which, as it turns out, isn’t that funny when her schtick just repeats itself a dozen times each episode. The character commits to the gothic/morbid bit, but fails to pursue any interests that are truly macabre. The best example of this is when the school dance is pranked and red liquid pours from the sprinkler system. Wednesday licks some off her finger and sighs — it’s not even real pig’s blood!
Girl, did you think it would be? This is basically a CW show. Dyed water is the closest thing you’ll get to real macabre humour the whole series. The show is much more concerned with Wednesday’s multiple no-chemistry love interests and building up to a massive, CGI-heavy, end-of-season fight sequence (yes, really) than it is making any real attempt at romanticizing the macabre.
The closest pass this show has with wit is through dry and humorless twists on idioms. “I don’t bury hatchets. I sharpen them.” “If you hear me screaming bloody murder, there’s a good chance I’m just enjoying myself.” “Tortured writer, emphasis on torture.” These lines, delivered gracelessly and with maudlin teenage self-importance, should have been kept to elevator advertisements and twee billboards. Instead, Burton has taken these pale imitations of the ‘30s and ‘40s New Yorker one-liner style of the original Addams Family comic strip and imagined it could last through an eight-episode show. Like many of these overwrought jokes, he is gravely mistaken.
Wednesday is now streaming on Netflix.
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