The Addams Family gets a drearily formulaic makeover with Wednesday, a new Netflix series, premiering Nov. 23, that wedges the family’s mordant goth daughter into a boarding school drama that’s a pale photocopy of Harry Potter—and its lesser Percy Jackson/The School for Good and Evil/Vampire Academy offspring. Misbegotten on almost every front, it mines its name-brand IP for familiar romance and horror, and proves all the more depressing for being the handiwork of the very artist who decades ago pioneered such macabre teen terrain: Tim Burton.
On a purely aesthetic level, Burton—who executive produces and directs the eight-episode series’ first four installments—cut-and-pastes his greatest hits in Wednesday: a bit of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands here, a drop of Sleepy Hollow and Frankenweenie there. Charles Addams’ The Addams Family was always an obvious influence on Burton, but the auteur brings nothing new to this reimagined adaptation; he’s already done this sort of thing before, and with considerably more inventiveness and flair.
Rather than striving for idiosyncrasy, Burton merely gives everyone what they want—or to be more precise, what they’re expecting, such that the proceedings feel like an imitation (including of Barry Sonnenfeld’s two 1990s feature films) rather than the real thing.
Wednesday’s black-clad female protagonist, misty forests, spooky manor-house school, and rituals, prophecies, and unholy creatures (as well as Danny Elfman’s been-here, done-that score) come off like tired Burton rehashes, just as its adolescent conflicts, amour and intrigue are modeled after every other supernatural YA saga from the past 15 years. Even Twilight is duplicated in Wednesday’s (Jenna Ortega) love-triangle choice between two potential love interests, shady bad boy artist Xavier (Percy Hynes White) and coffee shop good-guy Tyler (Hunter Doohan).
She encounters both at Nevermore Academy, an educational institute for outcasts that she’s sent to because of prior bad behavior, and which is the place where her parents Gomez (Luis Guzmán) and Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) met and fell in love. Think of it as Hogwarts, but with even more candlelit lighting and shadowy corridors, and populated by a collection of paranormal students who fit neatly into stock types.
As embodied by a pig-tailed Ortega in an array of colorless old-fashioned dresses and uniforms that match her pallor, Wednesday is recognizably bleak and sardonic. In showrunners Alfred Gough and Miles Millar’s hands, she’s never without a dark, cutting, sarcastic retort. That’s faithful to the character, yet Wednesday has always been one member of an ensemble, and thus a little bit of her caustic rejoinders went a long way.
As the protagonist of an eight-hour series, however, her endlessly acerbic bons mots—all of which involve her making evil and ghastly things sound great—wear out their welcome after approximately five minutes. That’s also true of Gomez’s similarly ironic terms of endearment for his daughter (“My little storm cloud;” “My little deathtrap”), although at least he and Morticia are just peripheral players in this tale, popping up in only a couple of ho-hum installments.
Kid brother Pugsley (Isaac Ordonez) and Uncle Fester (Fred Armisen) also make extended cameos in Wednesday, with only the clan’s disembodied hand Thing assuming a recurring role as Wednesday’s sidekick. The real focus is on the teen herself, who arrives at Nevermore and immediately clashes with everyone, from her cheery lycanthropy-challenged roommate Enid (Emma Myers) and popular-girl siren Bianca (Joy Sunday) to Xavier and Tyler, two cute boys vying for Wednesday’s heart.
The thing is, it’s difficult to comprehend what they see in her, since Gough and Millar’s show imagines Wednesday as not only the smartest, shrewdest, bravest, and most formidable person in any room, but also a perpetually haughty diva who looks down upon anyone and everyone. She’s less an endearingly iconoclastic badass than an insufferably arrogant know-it-all. Consequently, when she slams Xavier for being an “elitist,” it’s just about the height of unintentional hilarity.
Wednesday’s story is a convoluted mystery about a marauding beast that’s killing innocents in the nearby woods, a legend that seems to suggest Wednesday is doomed to destroy Nevermore, and the region’s history of 17th-century Pilgrims, who were led by Joseph Crackstone (William Houston). Crackstone is a celebrated local hero who Wednesday knows was really a genocidal bigot intent on wiping out his “outcast” (i.e. magical minority) brethren.
He is the vehicle by which the series can both celebrate outsiders and partake in paint-by-numbers anti-colonial preachiness that’s about as nuanced and complex as your average Twitter thread. (Not to mention that it hinges on the incongruous revelation that the Addams Family’s colonial-American ancestors hailed from Mexico.) This entire Pilgrim-centric narrative thread is clearly modeled after Addams Family Values’ Thanksgiving play scene, and it turns out to be another example of the show taking a one-note gag and stretching it far past its breaking point.
The original big-screen Wednesday, Christina Ricci, participates as kind teacher Ms. Thornhill, while Gwendoline Christie appears as Nevermore’s headmistress Ms. Weems. Neither is given much to do other than move the plot from one hackneyed stop to another, and to serve as potential suspects in Wednesday’s investigation into the gruesome slayings. Misdirections abound, but the material’s guessing games will only be fresh to younger target-audience viewers who haven’t already been reared on superior ones. Burton and fellow directors Gandja Monteiro and James Marshall indulge in so many fake-outs that the only theory not alluded to becomes the immediate, obvious answer, thereby sabotaging any sense of danger or surprise.
Ortega certainly looks the morose part and exudes requisite stern-eyed, unsmiling coldness. Unfortunately, her Wednesday has been shoehorned into a dull YA template that doesn’t suit her, especially considering that it requires her to realize that being alone isn’t always preferable, and that kindness and friendship are qualities worth embracing.
The only thing worse than structuring an entire series around the deliberately two-dimensional Wednesday is trying to transform her into a well-rounded individual capable of aww-shucks growth. Unlike Rob Zombie’s recent, doggedly old-school The Munsters, Gough and Millar’s Wednesday operates according to modern progressive-underdog terms, an approach that feels inauthentic, if not an outright misunderstanding of the character’s fundamental nature and appeal.