This Netflix series transports Wednesday Addams into a whole new fantasy realm of her own. It’s creepy, charming and has a lead who more than matches Christina Ricci
I don’t know what the world’s coming to. You denude one bullying high-school jock of just one testicle (at a swim meet, with piranhas) and suddenly you’re packed off to a boarding school full of weirdos and outcasts.
My heart goes out to young Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega), whose fate this is in the opening scenes of the latest Addams Family reinvention – a Netflix series simply called Wednesday. Ortega has the toughest of acts to follow. Christina Ricci defined the part in The Addams Family then stepped equally definitively up to the plate as the superbly unengaged ur-goth girl in Addams Family Values in 1993. But Ortega holds her own, despite two issues Ricci didn’t have to face. First, Wednesday is now a teen which means none of the deadpan, sarky responses hold quite the same charge as they did coming from a prepubescent. Second, she has to leaven it with some humanity so she can grow over an eight-hour series that is part horror story and part murder mystery but mostly a coming-of-age tale with classic tropes of high-school drama. Ricci played affectless to perfection, but she was in an ensemble cast and only had to hold our attention for a few scenes at a time. Ortega has to keep us with her all the way – and she does.
So, Wednesday enacts her piscatory revenge on the boys who were picking on little brother Pugsley, and, after the resultant expulsion, is sent to Nevermore Academy – the alma mater of her mother Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The school is run by an icily unsettling headteacher Larissa Weems (Gwendoline Christie), who was also a pupil there with Morticia, and who makes her mutinous new charge roommate with peppy student Enid Sinclair (Emma Myers). “Are you OK?” says Enid at their introduction. “You look a bit pale.” If looks could kill, Wednesday would have been a very short series indeed. Their dorm mother, Miss Thornhill – played by Ricci herself, as if in benediction – visits them in the evening to see how they’re getting on. “She’s been smothering me with hospitality,” Wednesday assures her. “I hope to return the favour. In her sleep.”
Enid gives her a Clueless/Mean Girls-style tour of Nevermore’s cliques – there are the Fangs (vampires), Furs (werewolves), Stoners (gorgons) and Scales (sirens – led by the meanest girl Bianca, played with terrifying aplomb by Joy Sunday). She also offers tips for navigating her new school and introductions to some of the characters that will become central to the mysteries Wednesday will soon find herself investigating. These include: a number of killings in the local town of Jericho and surrounding woodland by what the police are finding it increasingly hard to deny must be a monster; possible attempts on Wednesday’s own life; the suggestion that her father Gomez (Luis Guzmán) committed murder himself in his youth; and whatever Wednesday’s visions – seemingly fragments of the future – are trying to tell her. Oh, and what of the sketches inside the books in the secret basement that seem to show the future? And student artist Xavier (Percy Hynes White), who can make his pictures come alive? And, don’t tell me there’s nothing more to Dr Kinbott (Riki Lindhome), the therapist in charge of Wednesday’s court-mandated counselling sessions, than meets the eye.
There are also teenage crushes, nascent relationships, a prom, secret societies and other “normie” stuff to negotiate. But, creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar also gave us Smallville, and know how to handle multiple plotlines crisscrossing the real and supernatural worlds. Plus, the show’s main director is Tim Burton, who knows a bit about this kind of thing too – and gives the whole thing the eldritch-tinged aesthetic it needs.
It loses something by not setting Wednesday against normality, as the films did, and by having a more fissured version of the Addams clan. The love and unity of the family against the world was always one of the great pleasures, in whatever incarnation you met them. But it has enough wit, charm and propulsive energy for that not to matter as much as it might have. Certainly, the 11-year-old I keep on hand to test programmes aimed at the younger demographic was rapt for the whole series, and proclaimed himself deeply satisfied by both its resolutions and its cliffhanger.