Tim Burton, the undisputed King of the Goths, is a natural fit for the Addams family
Wednesday – Season 1 is reviewed by John Winterson Richards
Although they evidently put a lot of money into the project, attaching some expensive big name talent, it looks like even Netflix were surprised by what a big hit Wednesday turned out to be - and just when they needed one. The previous quarters of 2022 had not been good for streaming services in general: the spectacular growth of "lock down" came to an end, which should have been predictable, but the sector was apparently taken aback when the growth went into reverse as the cost of living crisis necessitated a tightening of family budgets, with subscriptions among the obvious luxuries to be cut first. Netflix recorded a drop in subscriber numbers and share price. On top of that, their flagship show Stranger Things was coming to an end and The Witcher, another of their most popular shows, imploded with the departure of star Henry Cavill. While their "documentary" Harry & Meghan certainly attracted attention it did not stay long in their "Top Ten," and must be considered a ratings disappointment relative to the hype and to the money Netflix paid for it.
By contrast, Wednesday has, at the time of writing, been in the "Top Ten" for months, rarely out of the top three and frequently "Number One." The fact that it has such "legs" suggests good word of mouth. It was a little pre-Christmas gift for Netflix and may in large part be responsible for an improvement in Netflix subscriber and financial numbers in the final quarter of 2022.
It is therefore no surprise that the show has now been renewed for a second season, so this is just a spoiler light overview of Season One. Did it really deserve its success?
On paper, it is the sort of "high concept" that appeals to studios and networks: it can be summed up neatly in a sentence as "Wednesday Addams from The Addams Family goes to Hogwarts from Harry Potter, except it is more like the usual television version American high school than a British boarding school."
There you have both the commercial strength and the biggest weakness of the project in one. There are basically three ideas - the most popular Addams, the Hogwarts angle, and the stereotypical American coming of age drama - and therefore three potential markets combined. It is easy to see why the show appeals to young people in particular. The problem is in reconciling those three different elements and this is where the show falls short.
While it is certainly entertaining, and some might say that there is no arguing with financial success, just because a show is popular does not make it great. This does not make it bad either, but, viewed dispassionately in terms of quality, Wednesday is not without its flaws.
Let us start on a positive note with what it gets right. Not always but more often than not, you get what you pay for in this life and that is certainly true when hiring talent: if you invest in the best you are not guaranteed a superior product but it is a wise first step - a principle Amazon forgot with The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. (Sorry to go on about it, but it still rankles)
Netflix went straight to the top. Tim Burton, the undisputed King of the Goths, is a natural fit for the Addams family. He was in fact attached at one point to the first of two very successful Addams Family feature films in the early 1990s, but had to drop out due to other commitments. Decades later, Netflix gave him the chance, as Executive Producer and director of four of the season's eight episodes, to go back and show what he could have done, and it is no surprise that his visual style is a perfect fit with the material. Some good location work - appropriately in Romania, Vlad Dracula's historical hunting ground - contributes a lot to the atmosphere.
Netflix also paid A-List money for Catherine Zeta-Jones as a stately Morticia. The always welcome Luis Guzman as her husband, Gomez, wisely does not try to compete with the swashbuckling elegance of John Astin in the classic 1960s television series or Raul Julia in the 1990s films but instead gives us a more toned down Gomez appropriate to the supporting role the character plays in this story. It is a nice touch to give a pivotal role in this revival to Christina Ricci, a memorable Wednesday herself in the 1990s films, which she came close to stealing from the still much missed Julia. Gwendoline Christie is ideal as the Headmistress of Hogwa... sorry, Nevermore Academy (a reference to Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven) and it is a pity more is not made of her character.
Best of all, and the real reason to watch Wednesday, is Jenna Ortega in the title role. She gives us the cold, emotionless exterior that Ricci perfected in the films while still hinting that there is a lot going on behind that unblinking stare. Her flat, deadpan delivery is a joy - because it is so determined to be joyless. Ortega also choreographed a dance that became a "viral" hit online and made the show a popular talking point, thereby doing no harm to those Netflix viewer and subscriber numbers, following the precedent set by a couple of similar musical interludes in Stranger Things. Expect to see a lot more of this sort of thing in the near future.
Ortega's original choreography included a reference to a shuffle performed by Lisa Loring, the original Wednesday in The Addams Family. It is doubly regrettable that this bit appears to have been left on the metaphorical cutting room floor since Lisa Loring sadly passed away while this overview was being prepared. It would have served as a nice tribute. This is perhaps symbolic of how Wednesday in many ways wanted to stress its connection to the established Addams tradition but ultimately chose to go in a completely different direction.
Ortega benefits from a witty script that gives her a lot of delicious one-liners. However, and this is where the problems begin, there is a big discrepancy between what Wednesday says and what she does. This reflects a deeper dichotomy in the script: although its dialogue is often excellent, its handling of characterisation and plotting is of variable quality, to put it politely.
Above all, the Wednesday of Wednesday is simply not the Wednesday of the Addams Family. The real Wednesday is wholly ruthless and totally in control - of herself and her situation. This Wednesday is emotional, even sentimental, and seems somehow to have acquired something resembling ethics. The real Wednesday would not be unduly worried, and might in fact be privately amused, by the prospect of her father being a murderer and the school she dislikes being destroyed, but such things trouble this one. Good as Ortega may be, this Wednesday feels like something of an imposter, a Goth girl who would like to be Wednesday Addams because she is in reality deeply vulnerable behind the blank facade.
Wednesday being replaced by a touchy feely modern girl might actually be a good plot for an Addams Family film. At what point would the rest of the Family notice and become concerned? The Addams Family in Wednesday never would because it seems they have all been replaced as well. From the original comic strips, through the classic television series and the feature films, their redeeming feature as a family was their unity - for all their apparently callous eccentricities, they were always close, loving, and mutually supportive, ironically the conservative American Dream - but here Wednesday and Morticia are given a rather artificial mother-daughter antagonism which even two supremely capable actresses cannot sell convincingly.
Another great defining feature of the Addams Family throughout previous iterations was their breezy self-confidence, based in part on the casual assumption that everyone else was just like them, so that they never thought of themselves as eccentric. Here Wednesday is assigned the role of an outcast among "Outcasts" and it does not really work. The Addams Family would never think of themselves that way. Indeed the whole "Outcasts" element of the plot, in effect the Hogwarts side of things, quickly seems irrelevant. It might have been more amusing to see Wednesday continue to tear her way through the "normies" of Nancy Reagan High as she does at the start of the first episode.
There is some heavy handed politics of the usual sort. One more or less takes it for granted at the moment that one will encounter not very subtle "messaging" in projects targeted at young people, and at least in this case Wednesday's subversive attitude to Americans' traditional view of their history can be defended dramatically, if not necessarily historically, as being consistent with her character. However, there is at least one clanging false note when Morticia is revealed as having been the victim of a stalker. Her response is more "Me Too" than Morticia. The real Morticia could never be a victim. She would be oblivious to a stalker until casually doing something that was to her perfectly normal that would have him running away in fear.
Sexual politics may also have played a part in the decision to make Wednesday a sixteen-year-old, grudgingly interested in boys, and in turn a sex object to at least two of them, setting up the usual, rather irritating "love" triangle among teenagers with no real comprehension of love. This is rather uncomfortable for old people, like this reviewer, who are used to thinking of Wednesday as a precocious prepubescent child.
Incidentally, are American high schools anything like they are in films and on television? They are presented as offering an endless round of unrestrained hedonism on a level with a Seventies rock band on tour when the reality for most, certainly in the UK, is long years of close supervision, submission to brute authority, tedium, sexual frustration, and feeling one is just waiting for life to start properly. Of course that sort of accuracy would not make very enjoyable television. Teenagers themselves want to believe that their lives are more interesting and important than they are.
For it must not be forgotten that Wednesday is primarily a show for and about teenagers, even if most of them are, as usual in such productions, played by actors who are a bit older. So the opinions of old people, which means anyone over thirty, who compare it with the television series and the films, simply do not matter. Indeed, the best way to enjoy Wednesday is to imagine that it has nothing at all to do with the Addams Family. Just think of it as the slightly surreal tale of a girl with a very dark outlook on life who is beginning to grow up a little. If you can accept that, and judge the show on its own terms, there is a lot of fun to be had.
Published on February 8th, 2023. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.