The opening minutes of “Wednesday” should ring true to anyone even glancingly familiar with the creepy, kooky, mysterious, spooky, ooky Addams Family. The new Netflix series begins with Wednesday (now a teen played by Jenna Ortega) marching through the brightly colored halls of Nancy Reagan High School to exact bloody revenge on sneering jocks. Following in the footsteps of Christina Ricci’s version in Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1991 and 1993 films, Ortega’s grim Wednesday is just as magnetic. As her dastardly plan unfolds, she allows her otherwise determined stoicism to break with a thrill of satisfaction, and it’s impossible not to feel the same as Ortega absolutely nails it.
At this point, it’s not hard to see the connective tissue between this show and Addams Family adaptations past, and why none other than Tim Burton came to television in order to direct Wednesday’s new chapter. But when Wednesday’s parents, Gomez (Luiz Guzman) and Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), decide to send her to the mysterious Nevermore Academy, the Netflix-ification of her and her family’s story takes over in all too typical ways.
From co-creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (once of “Smallville”), the ensuing eight episodes of “Wednesday” ditch Sonnenfeld’s fish-out-of-water approach by throwing Wednesday into an environment that should in theory suit her perfectly. As formidable principal Weems (a perfectly cast Gwendoline Christie) explains, Nevermore Academy is meant to act as a second home for self-proclaimed “outcasts” like Wednesday’s peppy werewolf roommate Enid (Emma Myers) and Siren queen bee Bianca (Joy Sunday). Yes, she refuses to wear the school’s indigo uniform, and her burgeoning psychic visions seem to be one of a kind. But Wednesday nonetheless makes more sense at Nevermore — where she can eat lunch with Gorgons and take classes on carnivorous plants (taught by a “normie” played by none other than Ricci) — than she ever would at Nancy Reagan High. And yet, as Weems and her court-appointed therapist (Riki Lindhome) constantly remind Wednesday, her penchant for flouting authority and indulging everything morbid is unwelcome even at this school for the chronically misunderstood. She can’t even roll her eyes at the local town’s “Pilgrim World” without risking Weems’ wrath. In trying to cast Wednesday as such a unique figure even at Nevermore, the show keeps losing its own grip on what the point of Nevermore is at all.
So much of how Gough and Millar approach “Wednesday” makes sense on paper as it checks off enough Addams Family boxes to keep the series of a piece with its source material. Gomez and Morticia are as deliriously obsessed with each other as ever; Wednesday is enthralled by the macabre and disdainful of American whitewashing such as Pilgrim World. (Casting Ortega, thus making Wednesday Addams more explicitly Latina, is one of the show’s smartest moves.) But in presenting her as a teenager who’s just as embarrassed by her family as any other, the series also distances itself from a crucial component of what made Sonnenfeld’s “Addams Family” so singular.
Gomez and Morticia’s mutual passion now makes their daughter “nauseous, and not in the good way.” (Re-creating Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia’s spark would have been asking a lot of Guzman and Zeta-Jones, but nowhere in their two episodes do they come remotely close.) What’s more, Wednesday’s reluctant to go to Nevermore specifically because it’s her parents’ alma mater, with Morticia’s sterling reputation in particular looming too large for her to stomach. The legacy of “The Addams Family” has long hinged on the fierce loyalty every family member has to one another above all else. The series doesn’t entirely shun that aspect, especially as Wednesday comes to rely on the Addams’ trusty disembodied hand, Thing (one of the show’s most defined characters despite being a disembodied hand, and an unequivocal highlight for it). But the more I watched “Wednesday,” the more I realized that its fealty lies less with translating the nuances of the Addams Family than with reimagining the Addams Family for a young and/or nostalgic Netflix audience.
Nevermore, with its boarding school drama and Gothic bent, feels like a lab-made cross between “Harry Potter” and “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” Wednesday, now an aspiring crime fiction writer, spends her days solving predictable mysteries alongside the town’s surly sheriff (Jamie McShane) and navigating the competing affections of brooding classmate Xavier (Percy Hynes White) and shy townie Tyler (Hunter Doohan). Love triangles indeed become a recurring theme, between her ping-ponging among those unremarkable boys, Bianca stewing over Xavier’s interest in Wednesday, and a truly weird flashback to Gomez and Morticia’s Nevermore days that struck fear into my cold dead heart that a “Young Gomez and Morticia” show might also be on its way.
The thing is, despite Ortega’s fantastic performance and Burton’s active involvement, “Wednesday” as a whole never really captures what made “The Addams Family” so viscerally strange (nor is it half as visually striking). It does, however, get what makes a teen Netflix show tick. In fact, if this were just a series about a disaffected psychic teen exploring her peculiar new school, I’d probably like it a lot better. But as more and more networks and shows do now, “Wednesday” uses the specter of its IP to lure people in and stand out among the rest. The former should prove easy enough — the latter, not so much.
“Wednesday” premieres Wednesday, Nov. 23 on Netflix.