We just finished watching Wednesday, though we did it on Saturdays. It still works.
This is of course the Netflix TV show, which updates the movie, which updates the ’60s TV show, which updates the ’50s Charles Addams cartoons. That’s a lot of transformations, and I’m leaving out some (the ones I never saw).
I used to watch the TV show when I was a kid– it was already in re-runs. My wife prefers The Munsters, but I liked Addams Family. Both shows had the metajoke that the monster family is actually perfectly benign– if there’s any villainy it’s due to the ‘normal’ people outside. This is actually pretty sophisticated for an era where the typical TV comedy involved a talking horse or a heartwarming sheriff or both.
The 1991 movie went back to the far more impish cartoons. These roughly fall into two categories:
Jokes where the family is just being goth, or reversing normie values:
- Grandmama telling a story: “Then the dragon gobbled up the handsome young prince and lived happily ever after”
- “Are you unhappy, darling?” “Oh, yes, yes! Completely!”
- The children get a giant iguana as a pet
- Gomez makes a torture rack with his kids, explaining it’s more fun to make it yourself
- Lurch serves a two-headed pig for dinner
And jokes where the family is hinted as actually being murderous:
- Fester releasing a hawk while neighbors release pigeons
- Morticia borrows cyanide from the neighboring witch
- Puggsley has bricked up Wednesday in the furnace
- The family drops boiling oil on carolers
Addams never actually showed the actual murders, and there were never any consequences– Wednesday was evidently not burned up, and just reappears in the next cartoon. This shtick is similar to his cartoon about a patent attorney trying out a client’s invention: “Death ray, fiddlesticks! Why, it doesn’t even slow them up!”
This grimmer humor is echoed in the ’90s movies, though those are still mostly about normies attempting to swindle the Addamses.
Now to the Netflix show Wednesday, which as you may know focuses on Wednesday. She’s now about 16, and she’s sent to a boarding school, Nevermore, which her parents went to decades ago. It’s built next to a very normie town, Jericho, whose main attracton is called Pilgrim World. Nevermore is intended as a school for “outcasts”, including werewolves, sirens, gorgons, psychics, and vampires. (None of the previous versions of the story leaned quite so hard into the supernatural.)
Wednesday is for some reason on the outs with her parents, and initially has trouble fitting into the school. But her attention is drawn by a murder mystery– there’s a monster murdering outcasts and normies alike– and she takes eight episodes to solve the mystery, make some friends, alienate said friends, and then realize at the end that she needs them.
All of this depends heavily on Wednesday the character, and her actor– fortunately this is Jenna Ortega, who does an amazing job.
Wednesday is a carefully balanced fantasy concoction. The character is so antisocial that she’s basically an antihero; but as in (say) Sin City, the narrative trick is to pit her against even worse villains. Then, for comic relief, you contrast her with likeable people who just want to get to know her: her bouncy colorful roommate Enid, the nice normie boy at the coffee shop Tyler, the appropriately goth artist Xavier. Plus a bunch of other relationships that go up and down as the plot dictates– with her parents, with the grumpy local sheriff, with the imperious principal.
I saw an interview with Christina Ricci (the 1991 Wednesday, and a Nevermore teacher in this version) where she praises this Wednesday as, more or less, a feminist superhero. She does what she wants, she refuses to let anyone put her down or stop her, she doesn’t give a fuck about traditional femininity or who disapproves of her. She is smart, witty, plays a mean cello, dances like no one is watching, and duels expertly with the rapier.
All true, but she also has the ability of the antihero to say and do things that the rest of us can’t– or that we’ll regret if we do. E.g. the series begins when she attacks the boys who have bullied her brother with piranhas. It’s so over the top that it’s more comic than horrible, but really, hasn’t anyone who’s been bullied wished they could fight back that way?
Wednesday: I know I’m stubborn, single-minded, and obsessive. But those are all traits of great writers.
(Thing makes a gesture)
Wednesday: Yes, and serial killers.
Morticia: We are not the ones who got you expelled. That boy’s family was going to file attempted murder charges. How would that have looked on your record?
Wednesday: Terrible. Everyone would know I failed to get the job done.
One of the characters calls her toxic, and on one level she is. She doesn’t have the psychopath’s or narcissist’s ability to be charming on demand. On the other hand– just like the cartoons– she is more bad attitude than bad behavior. E.g. when she starts hanging out with Eugene, the dweeby bee boy, she is dismissive as usual; but when he’s injured she regularly visits him in the hospital.
And honestly, the series leans hard into Wednesday being a teenage girl– far shorter than most of her antagonists, and disarmingly beautiful. Imagine a gender-reversed show called Puggsley. Would a story about a toxic male teenager be nearly as compelling? I think we’ve had all too many of those.
As many reviews have noted, Ortega rises over the limitations of her monotone and her perpetual unblinking scowl. There are moments of surprise, alarm, and concern… even a few moments of real joy.
A couple more performances stand out. Emma Myers would be too saccharine in a normal story, but she’s the perfect complement to Wednesday, and the sweetest moment in the story belongs to her and Wednesday. Victor Dorobantu only appears as a disembodied hand, but he’s perhaps the most winning character in the series. I liked Joy Sunday as the mean girl who has a change of heart of her own. Hunter Doohan as Tyler is kind of trapped playing a character on loan from a normal teen movie, but he does a good job anyway.
Gwendoline Christie plays Principal Weems, and she nails the surface politeness and underlying menace that she should have had as Lucifer in Sandman. I really wonder what happened there– she was stiff and not scary at all. She does great here.
There were a couple bits that didn’t quite make sense, but I can forgive them because the whole is executed so surely, and it ends well. They give Wednesday no less than three possible love interests, and the plot has to go into convolutions to make them move forward. I like the mystery angle, but also think it doesn’t quite work as a mystery, because it’s mostly a dance to keep everyone a possible suspect as long as possible. Some of the most fun bits of the show are actually unconnected to the plot: Wednesday’s cello solos, the canoe race, the school dance.
The show has been renewed, and I hope they can continue the magic. It’s going to be trickier than it sounds, because they’re probably going to have to undo some of the high note the first season ended on; and it’ll be frustrating if they undo Wednesday’s character arc.
Apparently the show has been very popular, which raises the question: why do normies like it? My guess is that it’s taken in different ways by different audiences. Anyone who feels alienated or oppressed can see themselves in Wednesday, or in the outcasts. But more mainstream audiences can take it as whimsical not-really-horror, like most of Tim Burton’s other work.