Created for television by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar
Release Date: November 23rd 2022
You can’t help but get the sense that The Addams Family and Tim Burton have always been destined to go hand-in-hand. A spooky and and peculiar family rooted in classical gothic horror tropes but done with a comedically macabre eye, Charles Addams’ iconic creations started life as a comic strip before making their way to the screen via an iconic 60s television series, inevitably becoming a big screen film in the early 1990s.
It doesn’t comes a surprise to note that Burton very nearly directed 1991’s popular film, eventually brought to the screen by Barry Sonnenfeld. Given Burton’s ability to portray outsiders with a side order of horror and frequent gothic settings, doing so in a manner that proves popular with mainstream audiences, the world of The Addams Family would appear to be the perfect universe for him to bring to the screen, so the biggest surprise with Wednesday is that it has taken him so long to finally cross paths with these characters.
Of course, Wednesday isn’t just merely another Addams Family adaptation. It focuses more on the family’s daughter with the rest of the family making occasional guest appearances. You could easily imagine an entire series or a film featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones as Morticia, Luis Guzman as Gomez and Fred Armison as Fester (and given the eagerness to have shared universes nowadays, if this proves successful one may not be surprised to see some sort of spin-off), but showrunners Alfred Gough and Miles Millar of Smallville fame opt to focus not only on Wednesday, but to take her to a boarding school and place her in a YA monster/murder mystery.
You can’t help but maybe pitch this in your head as Chilling Adventures of Wednesday Addams. At first glance this feels more akin to the output of Greg Berlanti; it has that glossy Netflix/ CW look, the majority of the characters are teenagers and one might get the impression that this is merely Netflix wanting to recapture the success of Sabrina by tasking a series with another sense of the supernatural and a magical school setting to go along with a series similar to one of their biggest hits to place on the ‘algorithm’.
Thankfully, Wednesday is so much better than that might suggest.
When it comes to Burton bringing studio owned properties to the screen, the results can be hit or miss. His Batman movies are wonderful- Batman Returns is especially a type of superhero movie led by its director’s style and aesthetic that we just don’t get enough of anymore – but his takes on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Planet of the Apes and the recent Dumbo all felt very very corporate and safe, a watering down of the peculiar stylings that made his more personal projects such as Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands such joys and where even his more prestige fare such as Ed Wood, Big Fish and Big Eyes had a dazzling sense of originality to them that always felt had been watered down when it came to doing a production with big budgets and centred around a studio IP.
There is a danger of that here, but given the source material it ends up being an unsurprisingly brilliant fit. At first you might roll your eyes at the series basically taking the titular character and placing her into the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina/Harry Potter formula of supernatural school setting and a rolling mystery dominating proceedings where even the teachers and adults in positions of authority are not be trusted, but it’s a formula that works surprisingly well and it’s a world where Burton can put his stamp on things; the uniforms the characters wear could have been designed by Beetlejuice; themes of normality vs those perceived with having an outsider status recur throughout; the supernatural and fantasy are treated as an everyday occurrence and almost mundanely normal by every character; mainstream small town America is not to be trusted because that’s where the true monsters lie and hide.
These are themes right out of the Tim Burton handbook, but you also get a giddy sense with the setting and stories that sometimes feels a little lacklustre in the likes of his Willy Wonka film and which was nowhere to be seen in his somewhat notorious ‘reimagining’ of Planet of the Apes.
This is a high school comedy drama Burton style and is all the more fun for it.
Of course, the ace with the series is the casting of Jenna Ortega in the central role. It was always going to be hard to step into the shoes of Christina Ricci who not only became a star thanks to the 90s films, but whose performance became instantly iconic and is something of a meme nowadays. Ortega nails the deadpan tone, the goth flavourings and elusive emotions, but now that the character is older, both Ortega and the writers here know that being merely comedic with those scenes and this character isn’t just enough, especially given that this is eight episodes long and a serialised television series.
The series revels in her takedowns, darkly witty asides and anti-social behaviour, but in placing her against a surrounding world of a supporting cast who aren’t merely her blood relatives, her character and persona can hit a brick wall emotionally, especially since the series isn’t afraid to point out that her actions and interactions can be damaging at their worst, while her relationship with her family themselves, especially Morticia, is layered with touches of angst that are well played by Ortega and Zeta-Jones.
Better yet, Ortega infuses her performance not only with the requisite comedy and draws you in with her renegade investigator story arc, but when her behaviour and words hurt others and this is mentioned to her, there are micro moments and expressions where the facade breaks just a little and we see a character confronted with the knowledge that the world works in very different ways than how she might see it and even experienced it prior. It’s a great performance that instantly recalls the deadpan psychosis of Ricci’s (and yes, she also shows up here and is wonderful), but which allows a sense of depth and complexity to creep in also.
Your first thought might have been Sabrina, but given that the mystery involves its petite female character antagonising local law enforcement, has a confrontational relationship with her principal, and so much of it is consumed with the bitter knowledge that the normalcy and structure of small town Americana is monstrous and poisonous when it wants to be, the actual comparison one might want to make here is with Veronica Mars and there is perhaps nothing better to compare it to.
It ends up being surprisingly enjoyable and frequently excellent in every way and on the basis of this, one really hopes it’s enough of a success to warrant a return trip to Nevermore.