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Wednesday Has a Christina Ricci Problem

The Addams Family alum is good in the new Netflix series. Too good.
  • Christina Ricci in Wednesday (Netflix)
    Christina Ricci in Wednesday (Netflix)

    Spoilers ahead, up to and including the final episode of Wednesday Season 1.

    We're only about a third of the way into the premiere episode of Wednesday — Netflix's Addams Family brand extension from executive producer Tim Burton and the guys who brought you Smallville — when the new Wednesday Addams meets the instrument of her own undoing. This iteration is played by Jenna Ortega, who earned raves for her performance in the latest Scream film and is currently the bright spot of the mixed reviews of the new series. Those reviews are certainly well intentioned, as Wednesday's shortcomings are not Ortega's fault. She gets the sullen-teen deadpan delivery right and can stare a hole through a normie with the best of them. But Wednesday the show does Wednesday the character no favors by placing her in the environs of a warmed-over Hogwarts, or by putting her through the paces of a rote teen mystery. And Jenna Ortega in particular is done dirty by being placed alongside Christina Ricci, who’s already established herself as pop culture's definitive Wednesday Addams.

    Ricci enters that scene in the premiere episode in a manner that can only be described as ostentatiously unassuming, like she's doing wallflower drag. Her Miss Thornhill is the dorm mother at Nevermore Academy, come to check up on how Wednesday is getting along with her roommate, the bubblegum-cheerful werewolf (just go with it) Enid. In the span of two minutes and about 18 lines of dialogue, Ricci commands every bit of attention on screen and without even really trying all that hard, she turns Ortega and Emma Myers (who's otherwise pretty great throughout the series as Enid) into afterthoughts. This was entirely unavoidable, for reasons both on and off camera.

    You get why Burton and creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar would want to bring Ricci into the fold. It's a splashy casting move that would get people talking, for one thing, and a direct nod to the iteration of The Addams Family that's most beloved by Wednesday's target audience (sorry to the recent animated feature and not-quite-as-recent Broadway adaptation). TV's current reboot culture is awash in shows that have managed to split the difference between nostalgia and a new approach. In many ways, it feels like a strategic move to let the show have its cake and eat it too: reboot The Addams Family from square one with a new spin on the characters' histories, while bringing Ricci along to tacitly give her blessing to this new endeavor.

    Ricci was more than just a part of the two early-'90s Barry Sonnenfeld movies. 1991's The Addams Family and 1993's Addams Family Values brought the '60s TV sitcom to the big screen with an even sharper comedic edge. And with all due respect to the memorable performances delivered by the likes of Anjelica Huston, Christopher Lloyd, Dan Hedaya, Joan Cusack, and the late Raul Julia, the movie turned then-11-year-old Ricci into a child star. No one was more defined by their performance in the Addams Family movies than Ricci was. Like most child stars, her career has traveled through peaks and valleys, but she arrives at Wednesday on a serious career upswing. Her performance on Showtime's Yellowjackets has been widely acclaimed and Emmy-nominated. She's delivering some of the best work of her career. On paper, nabbing Ricci for a featured role ought to have been a coup for the Wednesday producers.

    The problem is evident once Ricci appears: you don't ever want her to leave again. She's a blast of offbeat charisma and opaque motives. She's the one authority figure who isn't immediately antagonistic to Wednesday, which makes her both a welcome presence yet also a suspicious one on a show that's so determined to be a mystery. And unfortunately for Jenna Ortega, she's a constant reminder that there was another Wednesday Addams way back when, and we loved her.

    More frustrating still, Wednesday doesn't seem to have the first clue how to utilize Miss Thornhill. The narrative's central mystery has so many moving parts, from a suspicious headmaster to a suspicious psychologist to a secret society to Wednesday's own parents and their hidden secrets that there isn't really time for Thornhill to do much. And yet the show keeps trotting her out to make sure we don't forget about the character, which feels like an incredibly obvious tell for anybody who's ever watched a mystery before. Every time we're reminded that Miss Thornhill is still hanging around, we're also reminded that Christina Ricci is just chilling out, waiting to be the most entertaining part of the show, which we're mostly denied.

    By the time Wednesday wraps up this season's storyline in its eighth episode, the "surprise" reveal of Thornhill as the ultimate villain has long since been given away by conspicuous casting and a character who would otherwise have no function on the show if she weren't ultimately the villain. Ricci's magnetic energy and playful performance are wasted on a show that doesn't know what to do with her. There's a way Ricci truly could have been set up to pass the torch to Ortega with a storyline that felt invested in, rather than a tossed off "shock" reveal. It's a shame and a waste of not one but two Wednesday Addamses.

    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, Christina Ricci, Jenna Ortega