I grew up on reruns of some pretty famous television media. Too young to have seen them when they were new, but old enough to catch them in their earliest runs of syndication on our black and white television set. The campy Batman series from the 60’s. Endless repeats of Gilligan’s Island. Star Trek (the original series). And, of course, shows like the Addams family.
Tim Burton would of course have been a natural to remake the Addams Family series into a movie in the 1990’s. That possibility, which was on the table, got scrapped due to his unavailability because he was working on the second of his Batman films. But the 1991 movie we got, The Addams Family, was spectacular nonetheless. The story didn’t have much plot to hang its hat on, but the combination of delightful cast – Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston were stand outs as Gomez and Morticia, playing their roles with wonderful abandonment – and macabre humor worked.
The follow up movie, Addams Family Values, was not as well received despite being, in my opinion, better. It gave daughter Wednesday, played with deadpan perfection by Christina Ricci, a chance to shine. And shine she did. I do believe Christina’s version of Wednesday has come to define the character. Even the unlicensed Youtube series, Adult Wednesday Addams, drew from Christina’s roots. When we go back and look at the original television series, the young actress who played Wednesday had little of that emotionless view of the world that Ricci brought to the character. She was just a little girl who enjoyed torturing her brother.
With the new series, Wednesday, on Netflix, Tim Burton finally got his chance to do an Addams Family show. And while it may not be the same as the movie he might have directed thirty years ago, it has proven to be a delightful show with some of his usual whimsical touches, but also grounded in a lot of work Netflix has been doing the last few years in the realm of teen mystery shows (Riverdale; Sabrina; even Enola Holmes).
– Warning! I cannot guarantee there won’t be some spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned! –
A show like this lives or dies because of its main character, and they certainly made the right choice. Jenna Ortega nails Wednesday’s prickly charm and deathly, deadpan humor, as well as her struggle to engage in the human part of being human. She does a masterful job of providing a flicker of just enough compassion and care for others (and reveals her outright love of Thing and her uncle Fester) that her utter disdain for human contact or emotion doesn’t make us completely hate her. Which, frankly, would have been so easy to do, and there were multiple times in the story the other characters were ready to give up on Wednesday (and perhaps the only unbelievable point in this work of sheer campy fantasy horror was how often they forgave her meanness and tried to be her friend again).
I love the casting for Pugsly, too, as well as Wednesday’s room mate, Enid, who is an adorably colorful rainbow to Wednesday’s black and white world. The rest of the actors playing teens – either normies (town folk) or outcasts (vampires, werewolves, sirens, and other creatures who attend Wednesday’s boarding school, Nevermore Academy) – are hit or miss, but never spoil the story.
But Luis Guzmán and Catherine Zeta-Jones are living in the very long shadows of Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston (twice nominated for Golden Globes for her performance as Morticia), and are but pale flickers of them. It’s a shame, really, but those two defined the roles and I think most actors would have trouble living up to their versions. Guzmán certainly looks the most like the original drawings of Gomez the shows and movies were based on, but has none of the charm we’ve come to expect of Gomez.
The plot, much like the movies, is a little thin. Wednesday, having been removed from the latest of public schools because she set things right with a bunch of bullies, is sent off to a boarding school of last resort. Well, okay, almost killed them, but pish posh, that’s neither here nor there. Getting her kicked out and sent off to Nevermore Academy where she’d hang out with the other misfits of the darker parts of the world was the goal, and it served.
At Nevermore, a school for outsiders, Wednesday segregates herself as the most outside of all outsiders. She doesn’t have a spot in any of the clicks, and though Enid attempts to engage her numerous times in LIFE, Wednesday refuses. Then someone dies, and the academy is fingered, and the mystery portion of our story kicks off. Wednesday investigates, ends up at odds with the local sheriff and the school headmistress (a wonderful Gwendoline Christie), and eventually cracks the case after a few misdirections which we kind of anticipated. Like, I knew who the killer was by the end of the second episode, but the misdirect did convince me I was wrong… until the end, when I was proven right.
There was also a little bit of a weird disconnected for me when I realized the only significant black man in the show had a son who was a bully (but did get a redemption arc) AND owned the Pilgrim theme park, which ah… really folks? Did you not think that one through? Maybe if they’d made the reason he came to own it something weird and hilarious it would make more sense. But both my wife and I found that disconcerting and it felt “off” and shoehorned into the plot. There really wasn’t any reason to reveal who owned the place, because that fact had nothing to do with the plot.
Set design is fantastic here, with Nevermore standing in as our haunting replacement for the Addams family mansion. Enid and Wednesday’s room is brilliant and perfect. The use of Edgar Allen Poe as a theme for the school was a nice touch, and they found fun ways to work in homages to the original show/movies. The Addams family limo is wonderful, too. Costumes, prosthetics, everything mostly works. Some of the CGI – primarily that of our main monster – wasn’t great, but otherwise I’ve got no complaints.
The series did enough to entice me back if they have a second season. Though I’m not entirely sold on this version of Wednesday, who suffers from a bit more teenage angst than I thought she would. The way she and her mother were at odds with each other throughout most of the series felt off to me. But she’s a teen, so… I guess? I figured Wednesday wouldn’t be like most teen girls, though. I also thought she’d be MUCH more likely to be friends with all the other misfits, not an outsider among outsiders. Ricci’s Wednesday was the center of the misfits of Camp Chippewa, and even wound up getting her first kiss from the serial killer admiring Joel (David Krumholtz, one of my favorite actors for playing oddball/strange characters). The show starts to set that possibility up, then backs away from it as though not wanting to be too obvious. But you know what? Go on, be obvious, it’s fine in this case. It should have been the misfits, led by Wednesday, taking on the outside world and winning. We get there in the end, but the twisty route we took didn’t serve the story well.
Ultimately, I’m nitpicking. I adored the show. I hope very much they bring us more of it. Wednesday is a breath of fresh crypt air in our otherwise stale world, and I’m giving it 2 big snaps of approval.