Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the eerie, zany, mysterious, spooky, kooky Addams Family should recognize the opening minutes of “Wednesday.” The first episode of the new Netflix series features Wednesday (now a teenager and played by Jenna Ortega) walking through the garish hallways of Nancy Reagan High School to inflict gory vengeance on mocking jocks. Ortega’s bleak Wednesday is equally captivating, following in the footsteps of Christina Ricci in Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1991 and 1993 movies. It’s impossible not to feel the same way as Ortega nails it as she lets her obstinate stoicism burst with a feeling of delight as her cunning plan comes to fruition.
It’s not difficult to detect the similarities between this program and previous Addams Family adaptations at this point, which is also why none other than Tim Burton entered the television industry to helm Wednesday’s brand-new episode. However, the Netflix-ification of Wednesday and her family’s story takes over in all too familiar ways when her parents, Gomez (Luiz Guzman) and Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), decide to send her to the enigmatic Nevermore Academy.
The subsequent eight episodes of “Wednesday,” from creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (formerly of “Smallville”), do away with Sonnenfeld’s “fish out of water” strategy by placing Wednesday in a situation that, in principle, should be ideal for her. Nevermore Academy is intended to serve as a second home for self-described “outcasts,” including Wednesday’s vivacious werewolf roommate Enid (Emma Myers) and Siren queen bee Bianca, as stern headmaster Weems (a superbly cast Gwendoline Christie) explains (Joy Sunday). Yes, she rejects the indigo uniform that the school requires, and her developing psychic abilities appear to be unique. But Wednesday still makes more sense at Nevermore than she ever would at Nancy Reagan High, where she can have lunch with Gorgons and attend classes on carnivorous plants from a “normie” played by none other than Ricci. But as Weems and Wednesday’s court-appointed therapist (Riki Lindhome) keep reminding her, even at this school for the frequently misunderstood, her propensity for disobeying orders and reveling in the macabre is not welcome. She can’t even sneer at the “Pilgrim World” in the neighborhood without incurring Weems’ fury. The show constantly loses sight of the purpose of Nevermore by making Wednesday such a distinctive character even within Nevermore.
On paper, “Wednesday’s” approach by Gough and Millar makes a lot of sense because it ticks off enough Addams Family boxes to keep the show consistent with its source material. Morticia and Gomez are still madly in love with one another, and Wednesday is fascinated by the macabre and scorns American whitewashing like Pilgrim World. (Casting Ortega is one of the show’s best choices because it makes Wednesday Addams more obviously Latina.) But the series also distances itself from a key aspect of what made Sonnenfeld’s “Addams Family” so distinctive by portraying her as a teenager who is just as embarrassed by her family as any other.
Nevermore has a Gothic bent and boarding school drama that makes it feel like a Harry Potter/Chilling Adventures of Sabrina hybrid. With the town’s grumpy sheriff (Jamie McShane), Wednesday, now a budding crime fiction author, spends her days resolving cliched crimes while juggling the rival affections of quiet townie Tyler and her bashful classmate Xavier (Percy Hynes White) (Hunter Doohan). With her ping-ponging among those unremarkable boys, Bianca stewing over Xavier’s interest in Wednesday, and a truly bizarre flashback to Gomez and Morticia’s Nevermore days that made me fear that a “Young Gomez and Morticia” shown may also be in the works, love triangles do indeed become a recurring theme.
The problem is that “Wednesday” as a whole never quite captures what made “The Addams Family” so viscerally strange, despite Ortega’s excellent performance and Burton’s active involvement. But it does understand what makes a Netflix show for teens tick. I think I would enjoy this series a lot more if it were just about a disgruntled psychic teen figuring out her strange new school. However, “Wednesday” uses the specter of its IP to draw viewers in and stand out from the competition, as more networks and shows are doing in recent years. The former should be simple enough, but the latter may not be.
On Wednesday, November 23, Netflix will debut “Wednesday.”