Sometimes a piece of culture becomes so deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness, that we forget how weird the core concept is. An animate sponge, for example, who wears nothing but a tiny, square shirt and trouser combo, or a felt frog who’s shacking up with a felt pig. The Addams Family is rather like that. A camp, gothic romp, populated with a series of characters who have become icons of eccentricity. Morticia, Gomez, Uncle Fester, Thing, Lurch: all instantly recognisable weirdos. But perhaps nobody from that famous family has broken out quite like troubled child Wednesday, who lends her name to the title of Netflix’s new, Gen Z-baiting, prequel.
Wednesday sees the Addams’s daughter, played here by Jenna Ortega (the latest star off the Disney conveyor belt), heading to Nevermore Academy, her parents’ alma mater and a special school for “outcasts” (she’s just been expelled from Nancy Reagan High School for releasing piranhas on the swim team). There she has to deal with besties and bullies, classes and cliques, and many other hormonal disasters. All with the trademark pigtails and sulk. “Wednesday always looks half-dead,” comes the verdict of papa Gomez (Luiz Guzmán); “She’s allergic to colour,” confirms her mother, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones). And so Wednesday heads off to a school filled with werewolves, vampires, sirens and assorted other dark creatures. A goth Hogwarts, you might think, and that’s a comparison the show is desperate to encourage. The premise is a lowest common denominator fusion of a prestige piece of IP and a winning format. Or, as the teens would say, Wednesday is giving Hermione Granger.
The series has a relentlessly quippy Gen Z tone. Wednesday Addams is here to disrupt the hierarchy and solve a grizzly series of murders – and she’s all out of entrenched social codes to subvert. “I find social media to be a soul-sucking void of meaningless affirmation,” she tells her peppy new roommate Enid (Emma Myers), and yet everything she says seems to have been handcrafted to go viral on TikTok. “Want to take a stab at being social?” asks Enid. “I do like stabbing,” replies Wednesday. Oat milk versus soy, gender-neutral toilets, the whitewashing of American history: Wednesday covers everything that tabloid journalists fear that teens are talking about.
It’s a shame then, that despite its credentials (Tim Burton directs the first four episodes) the show is rather lacking in quality. From writing that sounds like it’s been reverse engineered through Google Translate (Christina Ricci, returning to the Addamsverse as Miss Thornhill, declares herself “a tad bit wary”) to a deeply confusing central mystery, the world that series creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar have built is gossamer thin. Of Netflix’s supernatural teen dramas, it more closely resembles The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina than Stranger Things, though it lacks the production standards of either. And the moody Wednesday Addams shtick – enjoyable in a feature film or as a supporting character in the Sixties TV show – is so deliberately one-note it becomes frustrating. As such, it’s hard to say whether Ortega’s performance is grating simply by dint of over-exposure, or whether she fails to add the necessary warmth – certainly it will prove more divisive than Ricci’s beloved performance from the Nineties version. Most successful, in this patchy adaptation, is the depiction of Thing – the scuttling disembodied hand who serves the Addamses – where modern CGI unlocks infinite possibilities.
“Wednesday Addams is not the girl of your dreams”, says Queen Bee Bianca (Joy Sunday). “She’s the stuff of your nightmares.” This is a world where everyone talks in zingy one-liners, where the creature design is too scary for children but too cartoonish for adults, where the performances are more two-dimensional than the New Yorker comic strip in which the characters first appeared. For a show about vampires and werewolves, it has very little bite.