The Addams family may be the most unlikely artistic creation to spawn an expanded universe. Created by accident by an accidental cartoonist, the characters that appeared in Charles Addams’ stand-alone cartoons for The New Yorker weren’t, at first, a firmly defined family at all.
Instead they were just often-shifting faces, macabre imaginings from a lovely, charming man — who just so happened to decorate his home with medieval crossbows and marry his third wife in the nearby pet cemetery.
The cartoons themselves reflected that oddball balance: a gentle friendliness spiked with a somehow-endearing violence; a smiling Lurch, Gomez and Morticia pouring boiling oil on Christmas carolers; the happy family fishing on the beach, while terrified swimmers run from whatever Gomez has managed to hook.
Though those characters show up in only about 80 of Addams’s thousands of works, they remain what he’s best known for. It was that unique mixture of both the childish and terrifyingly adult (echoed in contemporary Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies and other work, but not much else) that led to an eventual TV series — 1964’s The Addams Family, which finally got Addams to figure out those characters’ names and relationships to each other.
What’s followed are eleven mainstream remakes and reimaginings (not counting the video games) of the creepy, kooky group — such as with the first-panned, then cult-favourite Broadway musical, and the nearly all-Canadian The New Addams Family, cancelled after a single season.
But every time, what’s determined the family’s success is their ability to follow the formula: to capture that slightly off-putting vibe, instead of going with the studio impulse of watering down the gruesome for an audience of children. Because what Addams was trying to do with his family of gothic outcasts was always painfully clear.
“He was very fearful,” Addams biographer Linda Davis told NPR. As she explained, making The Addams Family series “was the most psychologically smart thing to do. Because by drawing out his fears, and by making fun of them, he defused them.”
That’s where the latest Addams entry, Netflix’s Wednesday, falls flat.
The series follows a trend started in 1991’s film The Addams Family of focusing more on the young siblings — though Pugsley (Isaac Ordonez) drops so far into the background you’d hardly know they cast the role. And coincidentally, Charles Addams grew up in, and took inspiration from, Westfield, N.J. — the same town where the real-life events of Netflix’s similarly creepy The Watcher took place. But again, instead of focusing on the familiar, the setting drifts.
We follow Wednesday Addams — played by Jenna Ortega, whose appearances in Scream and X this year are helping cement her as franchise horror queen — after she’s kicked out of a normal school for trying to kill a classmate with piranhas, before being sent to Nevermore Academy. The school is her parents’ alma mater, and home to all types of “outcasts” — including werewolves, sirens and one of the most predictable twist villains since The Incredibles 2.
That fish-out-of-water plot leads to some of Wednesday‘s greatest flaws. Though the setting does draw her parents Gomez (Luis Guzmán) and Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) into the narrative a bit — as Wednesday grapples with an overbearing mother who makes her “nauseous, not in a good way,” and is forced to solve a mystery involving their time at the school — they’re out of the story more than they’re in.
It also sacrifices the fantastically dark showing by Zeta-Jones, one of the series’ few excellent performances, though that’s not one of the show’s two main problems.
The real issue is that, more often than not, the removed setting puts Wednesday around teenagers who have supernatural trappings all their own, sacrificing the series’ inherent point; because if you go to Hogwarts, no one is going to be surprised by your wand. And, as Vulture wrote in their list of the 50 best family TV shows, The Addams Family’s “endlessly repeated joke (and insight) was that the regular people were the real oddballs.”
That leads to the second problem. Though under the thumb of creator/director Tim Burton (whose The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands are probably the best examples of the style) there’s a Netflix sheen to Wednesday that defeats The Addams Family‘s purpose.
Alongside a cast of teens whose plotlines feel plucked right out of Descendants, everything in Wednesday‘s Nevermore Academy feels overproduced and almost painfully packaged for a modern audience. It falls victim to the misplaced desire of appearing current, sacrificing the intended timelessness of The Addams’s spiderwebbed, gothic home.
Instead, we get 2022 references that give 30 Rock‘s “How do you do, fellow kids?” a run for its money. At one point Wednesday’s roommate actually tells her “Most people spend their entire lives pretending to give zero Fs, and you literally never had an F to give” in a show that is supposed to feel genuinely offbeat.
But while the teenage drama swirling around her feels stale, Wednesday is saved by every second spent on Wednesday herself. Because Ortega’s expansion of a character who started out as a one-note supporting foil is what HBO Max’s Scooby Doo reboot, Velma, wishes it can be.
Flanked by Christina Ricci (who played the character in the ’90s remake, and cemented the droll delivery Ortega absolutely nails) in a supporting role, Ortega has likely become the definitive Wednesday. Without departing from that signature monotone, she manages to be equal parts empathetic, threatening and hilarious. For example:
“You’re like a cockroach,” another character says, trying to insult. “Please,” she responds flatly, “flattery will get you nowhere.”
That performance (alongside a fantastically weird dance Ortega told CBC News she choreographed herself) is magnetic, complex and gives Wednesday a reason to exist.
But nearly everything away from her struggles — especially acting-wise. Fred Armisen’s much-ballyhooed Fester is too much of a clown, Guzmán’s Gomez seems tired — even though earlier in his career he received the inaugural Raúl Juliá award, named for fellow Puerto Rican who played one of the most famous versions of Gomez Addams.
Many of the teen characters’ actors seem to have fallen from unused Disney-channel shows; Canadian Percy Hynes White — fresh from Chandler Levack’s phenomenal I Like Movies — is the exception there, though the writing for his character does him no favours.
Is Wednesday worth watching? Sure, and if you like this style you’ll even likely have fun. It’s almost like an original work of art mass-reproduced for a gift shop — and seeing anything challenge conventional storytelling is heartening in a post-Marvel world. But in bringing back the Addamses (especially with a cast as star-studded as this) you can’t help but be a little depressed after imagining what was possible.
“Who is this for?” is a question you often hear when talking about new shows, because of how we usually think about audiences. We want clearly delineated categories for adults or children, an idea The Addams Family series threw out the window — which is what makes it so original. In trying to emulate it, you can’t sacrifice the playfulness, but you definitely can’t sacrifice the legitimate darkness — or their criticism of normality.
If you don’t commit to that fully, you fail. And unfortunately, Wednesday — aside from Ortega — doesn’t seem to get that.