Review: 'Wednesday' Channels 'Sabrina' More than Iconic Addams Family

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday November 23, 2022

Jenna Ortega in "Wednesday"
Jenna Ortega in "Wednesday"  (Source:Netflix)

With "Wednesday," the eight-episode series premiering Nov. 23 on Netflix, the iconic Addams Family rises once again. This time, though, their unique sensibility has been subjected to a cookie cutter massacre that leaves the iconic property looking more like "Riverdale," with a pinch of the "Twilight" movies, than anything cartoonist Charles Addams would recognize.

After subjecting tormentors of her younger brother Pugsley (Isaac Ordonez) to her particular brand of justice (piranhas in the school swimming pool), Wednesday (Jenna Ortega) is exiled to a boarding school for "outcasts" — that is to say, students with extraordinary abilities, or who belong to various species of magical beings. Plucked out of her haunted-house style family mansion, Wednesday — and the whole mythos of The Addams Family — suddenly seems like a much smaller fish in a larger, too-familiar pop culture pond.

Nevermore Academy boasts among its student population the usual vampires, witches, and werewolves — Enid (Emma Myers), Wednesday's bubbly new roommate is one of the latter — but also more exotic creatures. Ajax (Georgie Farmer), is a gorgon; getting stoned with this guy is no ere high school lark. Bianca, the leader of the school's mean girls, is a siren, and her voice can compel others to do her bidding.

There's also a whole crowd of teens who seem to be typical human beings except for their "X Men"-type super powers: One kid is telekinetic; another has a special rapport with insects; a third possesses the ability to create drawings that can come dangerously to life. But — cue the overarching "teen murder mystery" aspect of the show — all of them are at risk of being hunted down and torn to pieces by a hulking monster in the woods. This mystery turns out to have deep connective tissue to an Addams family secret that stretches back to when Wednesday's parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán), were students at Nevermore, themselves.

This is where Wednesday has a chance to shine, and shine she does with sidekick/accomplice/pet Thing (Victor Dorobantu, or part of him at least), a disembodied hand that plays Watson to her Holmes. Unlike the boring "normie" schools she's been expelled from, Wednesday can appreciate the opportunities presented at Nevermore, with its grouchy headmistress (played by "Game of Thrones" star Gwendoline Christie), its rivalries with the people of the local town (including the suspicious local sheriff, played by Jamie McShane, and his hot, brooding son, Tyler, played by Hunter Doohan), and the prospect of being slaughtered by the lurking beast.

Wednesday sharpens her detective skills and her quill, and starts writing a detective novel based on the unfolding mystery. Chapter by chapter the body count rises; more challenging, Wednesday's new friends keep trying to include her in cozy, crazy teenage stuff like parties, athletic contests, and make-out sessions, none of which she's interested in... though she does manage to become embroiled in a love triangle with Tyler and another boy named Xavier (Percy Hynes White).

Wednesday is a cold fish, often robotic in her movements and affect. Ortega's performance calls to mind emotionless female characters of yore like "Star Trek" femme fatales T'Pol and Seven of Nine. That's fine, though, since part of the show's challenge is to convince us of Wednesday's underlying humanity, and it's not as strikingly off-brand as the character turning out, like her classmates, to possess a special psychic ability: Wednesday, we discover, is clairvoyant, able to see past or future events by simply touching people or objects.

This is the most jarring departure from the source material, and constitutes a reinvention, rather than an expansion, of the Addams Family mythos. In the original cartoons, the sitcom, and the movies, the Addamses are quirky — or "kooky," if you prefer — with an Edward Gorey sensibility that inverts the tropes of the typical American family. They're rich, and they're weird, but until now they haven't been depicted as having super powers (unless you want to count Raul Julia's graceful physicality, or Anjelica Huston's slinky sexiness, as featured in the movies from the '90s). And Wednesday's not alone. Morticia is clairvoyant, too, while Uncle Fester (Fred Armisen, fetching up for a single episode) is capable of sending electricity from his fingertips. He's also criminally insane, which is much more fun.

The show's writers don't quite know how to reconcile these two versions of the iconic characters, and the series veers between sly little japes ("You rang?" Tyler asks at one point, summoned to the counter of the coffee shop where he works by the ding of a countertop bell), fittingly dark observances ("I don't bury hatchets — I sharpen them," Wednesday drolly asserts, while, at another juncture, Morticia excitedly exclaims, "Seeing you in handcuffs, accused of murder — I've never loved you more!") and trite, facile bon mots like, "That was torture. Thank you."

Adding to the confusion, the show is saddled with some clumsily layered-on social commentary, as when Enid's parents want to send her to "werewolf conversion therapy" because she's not yet maturing into a full-fledged lupine menace with every full moon, or when a problematic statue celebrating a sadistic town hero is torched in protest, or when it's intoned that "Whitewashing the sins of our past will come back to kill us all." Those are all worthy talking points, but they're not discussed as much as slung onto the slag heap of the series' convoluted storylines.

The new series is amusing, if haphazard, but it feels mislabeled. "Wednesday" bears only passing resemblance to Addams Family projects of the past. The real appeal of the show lies in how it feels like a virtual clone of that other Netflix teen mystery/supernatural alternative reality mashup, "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina," which ran for two seasons and similarly tried to invert America's typical Judeo-Chrsitian framework into some sort of dark opposite, with confoundingly inconsistent success. If that show's demise left you thirsting for more, here's a fresh feast for you. But if you're an Addams Family purist, this new take will raise hackles of a different sort as it shambles toward you like a Frankenstein's monster of mismatched parts.

"Wednesday" premieres Nov. 23 on Netflix.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.