In our collective pop culture Rolodex, our faves are always ripe for re-invention and exploration. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of the upcoming series, WEDNESDAY, which focuses on – you guessed it – the beloved goth daughter in the Addams Family, reimagining the character as a teenager works well. It provides a fresh perspective on the character while holding onto the roots of the character’s deadpan humor as established by the ’90s Addams Family films. The character herself as played by Jenna Ortega is a significant highlight of the new series as are the below-the-line crafts. The series is not without its bumps, though, struggling with story points and uneven performances from some of the ensemble.
Directed by Tim Burton, the series stars Jenna Ortega (Wednesday Addams), Gwendoline Christie (Principal Larissa Weems), Jamie McShane (Sheriff Galpin), Percy Hynes White (Xavier Thorpe), Hunter Doohan (Tyler Galpin), Emma Myers (Enid Sinclair), Joy Sunday (Bianca Barclay), Naomi J Ogawa (Yoko Tanaka), Moosa Mostafa (Eugene Ottinger), Georgie Farmer (Ajax Petropolus), Riki Lindhome (Dr. Valerie Kinbott), with Christina Ricci (Marilyn Thornhill), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Morticia Addams), Luis Guzmán (Gomez Addams) and Isaac Ordonez (Pugsley Addams).
The first episode establishes things quickly. Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is blunt, deadpan, and sure of herself. She also has a flair for the macabre and the murderous, but there are real-world consequences now that she’s a teenager. After an incident involving piranhas, Wednesday is transferred to the Nevermore Academy, a school where all manner of outcasts are placed. It’s not long before strange events start happening, and the eldest Addams daughter becomes central to the chaos that erupts after her arrival.
Chaos of adolescence
Heavily rooted in YA sensibilities, WEDNESDAY is very much a coming-of-age tale, with our confident heroine learning she’s not as self-aware as she thinks and that sometimes it’s okay to ask for help. Ortega hits all the subtle nuances of Addams’ emotions. She is a good go-to example of the art of micro-expressions. As the primary focus of the series, Ortega proves again she is more than capable of being center stage.
Supporting her is a wide ensemble cast. Surprisingly, the performances were more mixed for those portraying adults rather than teenagers. In fact, scenes set between Wednesday and her peers were far more enjoyable to watch at times than her interactions with the adults. Hunter Doohan, Emma Myers, Joy Sunday, Moosa Mostafa, and Georgie Farmer all shared the screen in various moments with Ortega, but never felt drowned out or too much. That’s saying a lot considering Myers’ bubbly and bright Enid, who serves as a distinct contrast with Wednesday visually and personality-wise. Honestly, pretty much all make it dang-near impossible not to invest in their characters. Unfortunately, of the teen characters, Naomi J Ogawa’s Yoko seemed relegated to the background.
Now for the adults. A highlight was the constant battle of wits between Gwendoline Christie‘s Principal Weems and Ortega’s Wednesday, with Christie riding that fine line between icy control and irritation. Jamie McShane’s Sheriff Galpin deserves equal praise, serving as the least kooky character on the show. His standoffs were Ortega matched the same intensity as her scenes with Christie. Both portray formidable opponents for the young Addams.
Sourpatch Addams & WEDNESDAY
It’s hard not to compare the extraordinary influence Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston had on Gomez and Morticia. Their performances were literally iconic. With that said, WEDNESDAY is geared in a different direction and that likely has influenced the performances of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Luis Guzmán.
The biggest issue, though, is that direction may have been their downfall. Zeta-Jones is very much the matriarch and seems to be embodying the energy of Morticia from the original ‘60s series. That said, what dark sides this Morticia has are quite muted. As for Guzmán, the passion he channels into his Gomez reads more forced on camera, and that might have to do with a lack of levels. There’s a scene where he is required to take things more seriously, which was a welcome surprise and I wish there had been more moments like that with his character.
Wrapping up the underwhelm is Fred Armisen as Uncle Fester. If you wanted to imagine an SNL interpretation of the character, this would be it. Repeating the note that I applied to Guzmán, Armisen’s Fester reads as forced as if trying to go balls to the wall with his character’s eccentricities. There’s a way to do highball energy without it coming across as put-on. I wish that Armisen pulled back a bit on camera to make it feel more lived-in.
Tim Burton & his influence
Part of the interest in WEDNESDAY is the fact that Tim Burton was tapped to direct the first half of the series. His creative touch is visually felt throughout the entirety of the series. From Colleen Atwood’s costumes to the color palette and Mark Scruton’s production design, more specifically with the dark, Gothic Nevermore Academy to the more colonial-style New Englander town of Jericho, his influence is undeniable.
With that said, this does feel like a filtered Burton project. Many of Burton’s past project adaptations like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and – more regrettably – Dark Shadows have always suffered from Burton losing sight of the big picture. Usually, too many ideas conflict, and the story and character get sacrificed for visuals. This doesn’t seem to be the case in WEDNESDAY, and this might be due to the influence of showrunners Alfred Gough and Miles Millar.
Whatever it is, it works. As a result of a pulled-back Burton, it makes WEDNESDAY a more enjoyable watch. Special shoutout to directors James Marshall and Gandja Monteiro, who stepped in and captured the layout of what Burton established for the series. The transitions were seamless, and you can tell that they studied impeccably.
Looping back to a comment made regarding sacrificing story, the story of WEDNESDAY flows very well. This is a YA production, so don’t go in expecting blood, mayhem, and R-rated bouts of gore. With that said, structured like a coming-of-age murder mystery, there’s a natural flow and ease to the tone that makes it all too easy to press the next episode once the credits roll. With that said, the finale is underwhelming. With so much build-up, there were only two ways for things to go. Unfortunately, it didn’t land quite as successfully as it could.
All of that said, the final episode sets up the potential for a future season. Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday Addams is truly the highlight of WEDNESDAY, proving once again that she is one to watch out for. Positively magnetic alongside her fellow Nevermore Academy peers, there’s plenty for viewers to invest in. Sure, the first season isn’t perfect, but it is enjoyable if you can look past some creative choices made with character and that slightly rushed finale. An easy binge if you want something a little bit kooky for the holiday season.
WEDNESDAY premieres globally on November 23, only on Netflix.
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