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Wednesday Takes the Iconic Sullen Tween and Sends Her to Hogwarts

For a girl we’re told is so weird, the show around her is depressingly typical.
  • Jenna Ortega in Wednesday (Netflix)
    Jenna Ortega in Wednesday (Netflix)

    Wednesday Addams was television's original weird girl, which meant she had her own private lane when The Addams Family premiered on ABC in 1964. By the early '90s, when her oddball clan made the jump to movies, alt-girl outcasts were in vogue, but even there, Wednesday had a spooky-scary vibe that set her apart from the Darias of the world. But here we are in 2022, where there’s no niche so specific that it hasn't been populated many times over, and the young woman who’s too weird to fit in with her surroundings is an archetype all her own. Sometimes she’s murderous and medieval (Arya Stark), sometimes she’s the scion of Satan (per the latest incarnation of teenage-witch Sabrina), and sometimes she’s an affectless tween clad in black whose parents are really into flamenco dancing and physical affection. The point is, it's hard these days for a Wednesday Addams-type to stand out, and as the new Netflix series Wednesday proves, it's a lot harder when you put her into a depressingly typical "mystery at the Outcast Academy" storyline.

    Wednesday comes from executive producer Tim Burton (who also directs the first four episodes) and creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. Burton has spent the last two decades updating everything from Alice in Wonderland to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, while Gough and Millar created the long-running teen-Superman series Smallville. Yet despite their collective experience with IP brand extension, Wednesday feels particularly perfunctory. It’s both overly busy and uninspired at the same time.

    To begin, Wednesday is called Wednesday because the rest of the Addams Family isn't in it very much. The much ballyhooed casting of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Luis Guzman as parents Morticia and Gomez pays off in only a handful of appearances, and we see even less of Uncle Fester (Fred Armisen). Instead, problem-child Wednesday (Jenna Ortega), after terrorizing her classmates once too often, is shipped off to boarding school with only Thing, the disembodied hand, to keep her company. Instead of a normal boarding school, however, she’s sent to Nevermore Academy, which is essentially Hogwarts for oddballs. There, Wednesday will have to get along with her schoolmates (unlikely), get to the bottom of a mystery that dates back to when her parents were Nevermore students (uh-huh), and solve the mystery of a monster in the woods that keeps killing Nevermore students and townies alike (jinkies!).

    The school is a problem for a few reasons. First, the tonal gymnastics required to track Wednesday from her normie school (where she's the spooky outcast) to Nevermore (where she is now exclusively among spooky outcasts) muddies our relationship to her character. Wednesday and the other Addamses were always meant to unsettle and torment "regular" people. Enrolling her at Bizarro Hogwarts erases that dynamic, but since the show needs that tension for Wednesday to work as a character, it bends over backwards to keep her at odds with everyone at her new school. Her werewolf-aligned roommate is pastel-clad and unbearably chipper, while the school's headmistress (played by Game of Thrones's Gwendoline Christie) is suspicious of Wednesday because of an old grudge with her parents. If the series wants Wednesday to be an iconoclast who sneers at her schoolmates, then why not just send her to regular boarding school and have her terrorize regular students? The answer is probably connected to the shows and movies that Wednesday is trying to emulate: The series blatantly cribs from other sources, including the Harry Potter universe and Netflix's own Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. It’s like the creators were looking to repeat that formula, rather than considering what makes Wednesday Addams so specific and engaging on her own.

    At least Ortega tries to make her performance distinctive. She does a good job embodying Wednesday's deadpan misanthropy, and even when the scripts keep her in one-note territory, she's able to wring a little personality out of the character. But the show hinders itself again with the casting of Christina Ricci, who so memorably played Wednesday Addams in the 1991 and 1993 films, as Wednesday's eccentric teacher, Miss Thornhill. Ricci is easily the most charismatic presence on screen, and it's unfair to make Ortega compete with that, however unintentionally.

    It's also unfair — or maybe just a waste of resources — to turn Wednesday Addams into Sullen Nancy Drew, but that's pretty much what happens here. TV shows don't seem to know how to exist anymore without being mysteries, and so our heroine embarks upon the who-caresiest quest of 2022, trying to tame a monster in the woods that may have been unleashed by someone in her orbit. This predictable subplot is just one more half-hearted stab at giving the show a hook, along with Morticia and Gomez’s buried secrets, a wan love triangle, a sketchy shrink, a sketchy headmistress, and a sketchy teacher. The result lacks confidence in its own identity, which is sad, since one of the reasons Wednesday herself has been iconic for so long is that she knows exactly who she is.

    Wednesday premieres November 23 on Netflix.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Wednesday, Netflix, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Al Gough, Christina Ricci, Gwendoline Christie, Jenna Ortega, Mark Millar