Wednesday (Netflix, 2022)

Wednesday (2022, Netflix)

Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) is no average teenage girl.  With her pallid complexion, black attire, matching pigtails and a personality overflowing with misanthropy, she’s every parent’s nightmare, except for Morticia and Gomez.  They love their little viper, storm cloud, etc. and would do anything for her, including keeping her out of trouble when she exacts revenge on her brother Pugsley’s high school tormentors.  When Morticia confronts her with the possibility of having attempted murder on her record, Wednesday replies, “Terrible.  Everyone would know I failed to get the job done.”  If you love droll humor, Wednesday (character and series) has plenty more where that’s coming.

After getting expelled from eight schools in five years, Morticia and Gomez decide that maybe the perfect place for Wednesday is their alma mater, Nevermore Academy (located in the fictional town of Jericho, VT).  As a school for outcasts, it would seem to be the perfect place for Wednesday.  She, however, aspires to be alone, which is exceedingly difficult to do with all of the students and teachers around.  Fortunately, the cast of characters that she’s forced to interact with are a very eclectic bunch.

There’s her roommate Enid (Emma Myers), the polar-opposite of Wednesday in every way:  blond, friendly, savvy in popular culture, modern technology and social media.  (Some of the best moments of the show are when the two lob insults at each other.)  Next are her fellow students, who are grouped into Fangs, Furs, Stoners and Scales (a.k.a. vampires, werewolves, gorgons, sirens).  Other students have unusual powers, like beekeeper Eugene or the  sullen-yet-hunky Xavier (Percy Hynes White), who can bring his macabre artwork to life.

Principal Larissa Weems (an under-utilized Gwendoline Christie) harbors an old grudge against Morticia for stealing Gomez away from her years ago.  She also keeps an uneasy peace between the outcasts and the townies, whose lives revolve around the nearby Pilgrim World.  (The park as a source of jokes was pretty much played out after one episode.)  Last but not least, there’s normie teacher and dorm mom Marilyn Thornhill (Christina Ricci), who always is looking out for Wednesday.  (Hint: Ricci, who played Wednesday in the movies from the Nineties, is not stunt casting.)

Initially, Wednesday gets a bit too caught up in world-building.  There’s Nevermore, the aforementioned Pilgrim World, the various clicks of students, and so on.  The first several episodes felt like an attempt to clone Harry Potter.  (One episode is devoted to the “Poe Cup Race”.  Eh.)  I also thought that if the series continued as it had, the Wednesday character would become boring.  Her lack of emotions and unblinking, monotone delivery makes her a bit one-note, with everyone playing straight-man to her sarcastic retorts.  Wednesday is a fun character, but the series risks overplaying its hand at times.

Fortunately, when Wednesday decides to leave the setup and the quips behind and have Wednesday play kid detective, the series becomes much more fun and engaging.  The plot gives Wednesday not one but three mysteries to obsess over, which is the perfect thing for her shark-like mentality.  There’s a monster (a “Hyde”) in the forest nearby who is killing people.  Is it a Nevermore student?  If so, who?  Then there’s mysterious circumstances surrounding Gomez’s murder of a rival for Morticia when they attended Nevermore.   Lastly, Wednesday learns of a prophecy that suggests she will destroy the school.  Sure, she’s all about anarchy, but would she really do that to her (gasp) friends?  To its credit, the series ties up all of the mysteries by the end, although if it hadn’t held back one critical clue, the evil mastermind behind it all would have been much easier to figure out.

Since this is essentially a YA series, Wednesday has to choose between two suitors: Xavier and coffee shop barista Tyler (Hunter Doohan), the son of local Sheriff Galpin (Jamie McShane).  One of them could be the Hyde, but dating a monster is not really an issue for someone like Wednesday.  Wednesday also has an important lesson to learn, namely that growing up to be a solitary weirdo like her Uncle Fester (Fred Armisen) isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  (Armeson looks the part but wasn’t as funny as he’s been in the past.)  Instead, she realizes that her life is actually better when it includes loyalty, trust and yes, friendship.  I wouldn’t say she becomes a warm and caring person exactly, but she’s getting there, one scorpion step at a time.

Several MVPs were key to Wednesday’s success.  First is Tim Burton, who directed the first four episodes.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is the best work he’s done in ten years.  His kinship with the material makes for a perfect match, as he brings out the strange beauty of the locations as well as celebrating the quirkiness of the characters.  (If you’re familiar with Burton’s work, you know that “normal people” are always the real monsters.)  Second, Ortega’s iconic performance makes it impossible to envision anyone else in the role.  With her Hot Topic goth girl getup, deadpan line readings and crazy dance moves, she completely owns the character now, at least until she ages out of the part.  Finally, making Thing Wednesday’s sidekick was a stroke of genius.  I’ll never understand how a disembodied hand can be such a whirligig of activity, but who cares when it’s a never ending source of sight gags.  Did I mention the series also features a dance scene that became one of 2022’s culture-defining moments?   Recommended.

Analysis

A History lesson

Ever since Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was canceled after four seasons, Netflix has released a number of shows that have tried to claim its title of Buzzy YA Supernatural Series, to no avail.  The list of shows Netflix has released since the last season of Sabrina dropped on December 31, 2020 includes:

  • Locke and Key (February 7, 2020, canceled after season 3)
  • Warrior Nun (July 2, 2020, canceled after two seasons)
  • Cursed (July 17, 2020, canceled after one season)
  • Fate: The Winx Saga (January 22, 2021, canceled after two seasons)
  • Shadow and Bone (April 23, 2021, renewed for a second season)
  • First Kill (June 10, 2022, canceled after one season)

(I tried to make a comprehensive list, but I probably missed a show or two.)

As you may have noticed, none of these shows has lasted the four seasons that Sabrina did.  (I predict that Shadow and Bone will wrap up in three seasons.)  To be fair, few shows get more than three seasons on Netflix.  (Even 13 Reasons Why ended after four seasons, despite regular appearances on Netflix’s top ten list.)  So what did Sabrina have going for it that the above list of pretenders did not?  Multi-generational intellectual property (or IP).

The character known as Sabrina the Teenage Witch first appeared in Archie Comics in October 1962.  She was featured in her own comic book from 1971-83 and continued to make appearances in Archie comics during that time and afterwards.  Sabrina also had a Saturday morning animated series that ran from 1970-74.  She later had her own live-action television show on ABC from 1996-2003.  Even though Sabrina may not have been the most well-known character from the Archie comics, most people knew of the character when Netflix dropped the first season on October 26, 2018.

In many ways, Wednesday was the perfect character to build a supernatural YA series around.  Similar to Archie and his friends, the Addams Family has been present in the media for generations.  In fact, the characters make an appearance in nearly every generation from the Boomers to Gen Z:

1938-64: Charles Addams cartoons featured in the New Yorker

1964-66: Live-action television show

1973-75: Animated series on NBC

1991: The Addams Family (feature film)

1993: Addams Family Values (feature film)

1998: Addams Family Reunion (direct-to-video)

2019: The Addams Family (animated feature)

2021: The Addams Family 2 (animated feature)

The success of the 2019 animated feature ($203m on a $24m budget) proved that the popularity of the characters had never waned.  When the Wednesday series was announced in October, 2020, the awareness of the Addams Family characters and the Wednesday character in particular to American audiences was practically a given.  In this way, the series wouldn’t have to deal with issues that likely torpedoed similar shows on Netflix.  Wednesday’s appeal would automatically be broader than a series of books intended for teenagers.  Even more important, there was no need for the audiences to do “homework” to understand the concept.  As I mentioned above, the Addams Family came with built-in audience awareness.  With something like Shadow and Bone or Locke and Key, the audience would need to patiently sit through episodes where the characters and the world they lived in were explained.  With Wednesday, the show had the advantage of being able to just “get on with it”.

While having audience awareness is a great thing to have, it doesn’t guarantee that  Wednesday would actually work.  I was wondering what all of the fuss was about after watching the first couple of episodes.  Here are some of the “problems” I had with those episodes:

  • Morticia and Gomez only make a cameo appearance in the first episode.  How will Wednesday, a traditionally minor character, carry the show?
  • Wednesday’s an expert fencer, an expert cellist, a budding novelist, able to fight three teenage boys at the same time and has visions.  Wednesday is practically a superhero.  How will she have any meaningful conflict if she can do almost anything?
  • Wednesday is an emotionally-challenged character.  Outside of registering fear or surprise, she doesn’t show any other emotions.  She seems like someone who is on the autism or Asperger’s spectrum.
  • Like her predecessor in the Barry Sonnefeld movies, Wednesday is full of droll bon-mots.  Every response she has to another character is either macabre, sarcastic, or both.  This could get tiresome after a while.
  • The Nevermore school reminded me a lot of Harry Potter.  Instead of having different houses, the students are grouped according to supernatural lineage (werewolves, gorgons, sirens, vampires, etc.).  This feels very samey.
  • Are all YA-centric books/movies/shows that have a lead female character required to put her into a love triangle where she must choose between Hunky Boy #1 and Hunky Boy #2?  Even though she is sixteen, Wednesday doesn’t have any interest in the opposite sex.  How will a love triangle with two boys lusting after an asexual girl work?
  • Pilgrim World?  I know it ties into the mythology of the founding of the fictional town Jericho, VT, but as a source of jokes, I may have chucked once. 

So how did the series win me over?  It stopped trying to be something it wasn’t and did a lot of things right.

This is not a reboot, sequel or rebootquel

Unlike other rebooted IPs, Wednesday is not another origin story that reintroduces characters we already are familiar with.  The show expects you to know who Gomez, Morticia, Pugsley, Uncle Fester, Lurch and Wednesday are going in.  If you don’t, you can do your own homework.

Also, the series thankfully does not bring back any of the actors from the movies or the TV show to “pass the torch”.  Christina Ricci, who originally played Wednesday in the Barry Sonnefeld movies, does return, but she plays an entirely different character in this show.  Unfortunately, having her on board means that she definitely will play a significant part in the outcome, which makes the unveiling of the central mystery a bit less mysterious.  But Ricci is a welcome presence regardless.

Extend the IP, but don’t break it

Outside of Charles Addams comic strips, the Addams family were a bunch of odd ducks who loved all things macabre but never actually saw them do anything that caused physical harm to others.  This worked fine for the television series and the movies, but there was only so much that could be done with a group who just love being weird and telling everyone about it.

Just like the television series gave the family a huge fortune to explain how they fund their eccentric lifestyle, Wednesday gives the family supernatural powers.  Both Wednesday and her mother have visions.  Family members also can communicate via crystal ball.  And Uncle Fester can control electricity.  This new supernatural element opens up the Addamses to more than just the usual conflict of them versus the normies.

Despite some reservations, the introduction of Neverland Academy was a good idea.  First, it extends the Addams’ world beyond their mansion.  For the most part, they’ve primarily been homebodies defending their turf against normies.  With the school serving as the locus of the  events, the series is able to contrast the Addams not just against normies, but other outcasts as well.

Second, by making Wednesday the lead instead of her parents, it frees up the show to delve into topics that it otherwise wouldn’t be inclined to focus on.  Subjects like friendship, relationship, loyalty and trust could have worked with Morticia and Gomez at the center of the narrative, but they take on more urgency with a sixteen year-old girl.

Finally, while I appreciate how Morticia and Gomez are “death do us part” romantics, having someone else in the family consider an actual relationship is refreshing.

Something for the entire family

Even though Wednesday focuses on a sixteen year-old girl, the show is one that can be enjoyed by the entire family.  There’s nothing that would make a child feel uncomfortable watching it with their parents, and vice versa.  The scary bits aren’t too scary, there’s no bad language, no sex scenes and no nudity.  (I think there were four kisses total across the eight episodes.)  Wednesday is solid family-friendly horror.  I’m sure the Addamses would prefer watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre together, but they are the exception to the norm.

No more world-building

After the second episode, Wednesday abandons the notion of becoming the next Harry Potter and focuses on what makes the show interesting: Wednesday’s interaction with her peers.  This was a bit of a risk, given how much time was spent introducing the different clicks of students at Nevermore, the Nightshades secret society, Pilgrim World, etc.  However, those concepts weren’t interesting and as it turned out, didn’t really have much of a role in the outcome.  I have no idea as to whether the people behind the series intentionally shoved those elements of the story to the sidelines.  It just felt like the first couple of episodes were moving at a very slow pace, and then suddenly shifted gears when the world-building stuff was put to the side.

Tim Burton reborn

I haven’t been excited to see a movie directed by Tim Burton in a long time.  The last one was Sleepy Hollow, which came out twenty-three years ago.  Corpse Bride was cute, but slight.  Burton has directed several critically-praised films in the past several decades, namely Big Fish and Big Eyes (both of which I have yet to see), but everything else he’s done has been met with a collective cultural shrug.  I avoided his work for years because of how incredibly bad Alice in Wonderland was.  I gave him another chance years later with Dumbo and immediately regretted it.  (The only interesting aspect of that movie was how it served as both a middle-finger to Disney, as well as an example of how uncaring Disney had become towards their own IP.)

The parts of Burton’s other movies I’ve seen (Dark Shadows, Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) only confirmed how I felt about the trajectory of Burton’s career:  his remakes were as weird as expected, but paled in comparison to the original movies.  Given his recent track record, the fact that Burton’s career has been reinvigorated by adapting the Addams Family is incredibly ironic.  It also proves that he may have been the right person for this project all along.

According to Wikipedia, Burton was approached with making a movie based on the Addams Family in 1991, but declined due to commitments with the Batman films.  In 2010, he was attached to a stop-motion animated film that was canceled in 2013 in favor of a computer-animated approach.  Wednesday is Burton’s third go-around with the property, and based on the results, it’s a perfect match for his artistic and storytelling sensibilities.  Burton’s direction in the first four episodes is some of the best work he’s done in over ten years.  He’s always had an affinity for outcasts and weirdos, and in hindsight he always was the obvious choice to adapt this material.  It took over thirty years for it to finally happen, but it was worth the wait.

No mugging

Sonnefeld’s movies, while dynamically staged, beautifully filmed and well-acted, relied heavily on mugging as a crutch for their paper-thin plots.  As a result, the Addams Family became caricatures, people who act strangely and do weird things for no reason.  In Wednesday, the character comes off that way initially, a one-note sarcasm bot who never blinks or smiles.  (She does smirk a couple of times.)  Fortunately, the series drops the “everyone is Wednesday’s straight man” routine in favor of having her solve the mysteries at hand, interact with her friends and consider having a boyfriend.

As I mentioned above, Tim Burton has always had a soft-spot for characters like the Wednesday Addams, her family and the students at Nevermore.  Just as he did with Edward Sissorhands or Ed Wood, he presents these oddball characters in a sympathetic light.  In the past, Burton would have used the camera to expose how weird the “normal” characters are.  In a sign of maturity, he declines to do so here.  Wednesday takes a noticeably different approach, and instead depicts the outcasts and the normies (Sheriff Galpin, Mayor Walker or Dr. Valerie Kinbott) working together and trying to get along.

Thing as MVP

As he proved in Sonnefeld’s movies, Thing is so much fun to watch.  Everytime he appeared I anticipated him doing something funny, cool or both.  Making him Wednesday’s sidekick was a stroke of genius.

Create a cultural moment

I’m joking, of course.  Nobody knows what will click with popular culture until after it happens.  The fact that a kooky set of dance moves, performed by a relatively unknown actress, to a 40+ year-old song that few people outside of punk purists had ever heard before became a  sensation, is proof that you can never plan on something capturing the zeitgeist.  You try your best and hope that something in the eight episodes catches on, but I doubt that the people behind the series ever anticipated just how many people would watch the series, let alone make a segment that lasts only a few minutes buzz worthy.

Stranger Things showed the way when it reintroduced Eighties new wave classics “The Neverending Story” and “Running up that hill” to the masses.  (You can include Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” in that category as well.)

Wednesday takes things up several notches not only by resurrecting The Cramps’ 1981 song “Goo Goo Muck”, but by pairing it with Wednesday’s outre dance routine.  The combination of the two produced not just a signature moment in the series, but managed to convey a lot about Wednesday’s character in just a few minutes.  Yes, she’s creepy and kooky, but she also likes to have fun and is more than comfortable grabbing the spotlight when the mood strikes.   From this point on, “Goo Goo Muck” will forever be associated with her, just like “Surfin’ Bird” is for Pee-Wee.

Hmm.

While I really enjoyed Wednesday, there were a few things that didn’t quite work.  (Wednesday would love torturing a nit-picker like me.)

I was disappointed that Gwendoliine Christie’s character was killed off.  This show was the first since Game of Thrones to give her a highly visible role, and she didn’t survive the first season.   To be fair, the show really didn’t know what to do with her besides have her meet with Wednesday and metaphorically shake her finger at her.  Her death was even more surprising when it was revealed that she was a shape-shifter.  The filmmakers had enough sympathy for Eugene to put him into a coma instead of killing him off.  How could they not figure out something interesting to do with Principal Weems next season?  

Several supporting characters, like Bianca (the gorgon), Yoko (the vampire) and Lucas (the mayor’s son), did not play a significant role in the events of the season and were eventually relegated to supporting character status by the end.  The show points to a possible romance between Bianca and Lucas, but who knows if that will happen after he helped ruin the Rav’n.  Yoko became such a non-factor in the last several episodes she was only referred to by other characters as being Enid’s new roommate.  The Nightshades were reduced to helping guide students to safety when Crackstone was brought back to life.

I was confused as to whether Christina Ricci’s character was still alive in the end.  I don’t believe that Wednesday killed her, just knocked her unconscious.  Also, how could the police transporting Tyler not have him secure enough for when he transforms back into a Hyde?

The intertwined mysteries were a little convoluted.  Did we really need a mystery that harked all the way back to the pilgrims?  Or even when Gomez and Morticia were in school together?  The mystery of who was the Hyde and who was controlling it would have been enough.

Finally, I love Fred Armisen, but aside from looking like Uncle Fester, his shtick fell flat.

All things considered, I really enjoyed season one and look forward to season two!

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