Having grown up watching Barry Sonnenfeld’s spooky comedy classics The Addams Family (1991) and Addams Family Values (1993) on VHS, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to accept anyone other than Christina Ricci as the family’s morbid daughter, or Angelica Houston as the gothic mater familias Morticia (or Raul Julia as the suave Gomez… ). But Wednesday, the new Netflix series helmed by Tim Burton, is a pleasantly beastly surprise.
We meet Wednesday, played by Jenna Ortega, emptying a bag of rabid piranhas into her high school’s swimming pool to avenge her bullied brother Pugsley (depicted here as a more sensitive character than the one seen in the Nineties films). This, inevitably, gets her expelled and her doting parents decide to send her to Nevermore Academy – a boarding school for outcasts, which also happens to be the place of first meeting for Morticia and Gomez, here played with lip-smacking enjoyment by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Luis Guzmán.
This is a whole school of ‘outcasts’ – from vampires to gorgons, werewolves to sirens. Wednesday’s roommate, werewolf Enid Sinclair (played by Emma Myers), is everything Wednesday isn’t. Colourful, outgoing and obnoxiously positive, it’s clear that Enid is meant to be her complete opposite, but the juxtaposition is a bit laboured, and Myers’ character sillier than necessary.
It doesn’t take many days at Nevermore before Wednesday is caught up in all sorts of mysteries, from secret societies to chasing down a serial-killing monster terrorising both the school and the local town of Jericho.
With the help of some newly and reluctantly found friends, Uncle Fester (played by former SNL alumnus and Portlandia actor Fred Armisen), and her trusty right-hand – literally – Thing, Wednesday embarks on a quest to get to the bottom of what and who this monster is – and stop it. She also manages to catch the eye of the barista in the local cafe, played by Hunter Doohan, and an unlikely romance takes shape.
Jenna Ortega’s portrayal of Wednesday stays true to the psychopathic character we know and love. And while playing deadpan might not offer much room for emotion on paper, Ortega gives glimpses of both humour and empathy, showing there is more to her than a blank face, neatly plaited pigtails and diabolical thoughts. And parents, be warned: her eccentric moves in the school dance are sure to spark a TikTok trend.
As a long-time SNL fan, I loved seeing Fred Armisen take on the role of Uncle Fester as almost a fairy godfather-like character. He appears just when Wednesday needs him most and causes just as much havoc as he helps. Armisen is most famous for his sketch comedy and his interpretation of Fester is terrifically wacky. I would love nothing more than for him to be my crazy uncle.
Wednesday ticks all the classic Tim Burton boxes: creepy mansions à la Beetlejuice, an American small-town setting not too dissimilar from Big Fish’s Spectre and a monster that could just as well have been a background character in A Nightmare Before Christmas. And the fact that the score is by none other than the latter film’s composer Danny Elfman is the icing on Miss Haversham’s rotting wedding cake. His newly composed music riffs seamlessly on the classic Addams Family theme, meaning you hardly miss it.
And while Burton and co (Miles Millar and Alfred Gough act as showrunners for the series) provide a fresh take on the characters and the mystical world they live in, there simply can’t be an Addams Family spinoff without Christina Ricci. Her character as a teacher at the school might not be the most prominent, but it’s a subtle nod to the classic films and shows that Burton has the fans in mind.
So no, Wednesday is not like the films you remember, but Burton’s defiantly uncheesy take on the high school genre sees him on top form, and Ortega’s turn as everyone’s favourite teenage psychopath is sure to put her on the map.
Wednesday premieres Novermber 23rd on Netflix.