Sardonic, blunt, and macabre, Wednesday Addams is an aspirational figure for young Goth girls everywhere. The only daughter of the creepy and kooky Addams family, Wednesday has a legacy of her own, from Charles Addams’ early comics to Christina Ricci’s take on the character in the 1990s movies to fan imaginings and Halloween costumes.
A new Netflix show centered around a teenage Wednesday going to a spooky boarding school — and directed by Tim Burton, Hot Topic King — sounds like a nightmare come true. But does Wednesday work when she’s not with her eclectic family? Or perhaps the better question: Does the Addams family work when the world around them expands beyond their day-to-day life and family misunderstandings? The result — much like the family themselves — is a little weird and might not work for everybody.
[Ed. note: This review contains some slight setup spoilers for Wednesday.]
Wednesday kicks off when Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) gets kicked out of her current high school after setting a school of piranhas on the volleyball team because they shoved her brother into a locker. Her parents decide to send her to their alma mater — Nevermore Academy, a school for outcasts, where she ends up investigating a series of mysterious deaths, while also dealing with the hell that is high school. Why her parents didn’t initially send her to Nevermore Academy in the first place is never explained, but Wednesday resists going and following in her mother’s footsteps. Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Wednesday are having some issues with their relationship, which is also never really explained. Not explaining much becomes a recurring theme in Wednesday. The show’s central problem is that while it has wonderful characters and grabby plot points, it never really dives deeper into the greater world, and the overarching plot feels stifled.
In a way, Wednesday sticks to the legacy of the characters: One of the most charming elements about the Addams family is that across their many iterations, usually nothing is ever really concretely explained about them. They’re just a bunch of macabre oddballs in a normal world, and every new bit of information (like when Morticia mentions she majored in Spells and Hexes in one of the ’90s movies) just served to make them even weirder in the best way. But the very nature of Wednesday demands that some of these questions be answered. Unfortunately, the show never strikes the right balance between revealing too much or not enough.
When Wednesday focuses on Nevermore Academy and its strange traditions and eccentric students, it’s an utter delight. Visually, Nevermore is a cozy, Gothic school — really putting the dark into dark academia to the utmost degree. It’s a boarding school for magical students that prides itself on being weird, which means that the annual canoeing competition also involves theming the boats after Edgar Allen Poe stories and the student cliques are based around what supernatural species they are. The students themselves are basically characters in any teen drama, but with that fun Tim Burton supernatural twist. Siren Bianca (Joy Sunday) is the school’s mean girl, while Wednesday’s werewolf roomie Enid (Emma Myers) provides a lovely plucky contrast to stony Wednesday.
Even the most exhausting teen drama trope — the obligatory love triangle — gets a funky refresh that makes it more engaging: Tyler (Hunter Doohan) is a soft-hearted normie barista from town, while Xavier (Percy Hynes White) is a tortured artist, the son of a famous psychic. They both look exactly alike, the perfect embodiment of big-eyed, narrow-faced Tim Burton drawings (props to the casting department on that). Initially the love triangle itself is a bit grating, especially when one of those boys just has a one-sided crush on her. But the more supernatural twists get pulled into it, the more fascinating it becomes. It’s a testament to how the school drama turns into something cool and new with paranormal flavor, and how the students and the academy itself really work when they’re just existing in their own little kooky ecosystem.
But step outside school grounds and the story becomes too ambitious for a world we’re just getting to know. So much of the overarching conflict comes from the idea that the outcasts are at odds with the normies, who seek to oppress them. But we never actually learn what makes someone an outcast. It seems like a catch all term for magical beings like werewolves and vampires, but there’s a handful of labeled outcasts — Gomez Addams (Luiz Guzmán) and beekeeper Eugene (Moosa Mostafa) among them — who have no explicit powers. Wednesday herself doesn’t reveal her emerging abilities to the school staff, or even her own parents, so what qualified her as a student? Again we never get any further clarification, but we do know that there’s tension between normies and outcasts. And ultimately, the tension feels mostly surface level. Yes, you can infer that the pilgrims who founded the town near Nevermore were probably religious zealots, but how far does the devotion extend? And why does it still run so deep? These are all questions that don’t necessarily need to be answered right away, especially since shows need time to find their footing and establish the world. Wednesday, however, tries to jam-pack all these bigger themes in order to fast-track the plot.
But the real joy of the show is when it slows down and just explores its own weird little world. The Addams family aren’t the only oddities in this version, which simultaneously gives them more to do while also stripping away a bit of what makes them charming. Part of what made the Addams family so interesting in the 1960s was just how weird they were when compared to the typical sitcom family; but in a world more open to weirdos, where do they fit in? The show doesn’t do much to interrogate that. With a little more time to explore this quirky setting and strange new dynamics, the plot could build up to something wickedly compelling. With more time to breathe, the plot could build up to something. But as it stands, there’s a lot of cracks in the foundation that detract from what could be one gorgeous neo-Gothic building.
Wednesday hits Netflix on Nov. 23.