It has long been held that Tim Burton was the right man to bring back the Addams family in live-action. People have foolishly attempted to start fan-casting campaigns with Burton’s most notable longtime collaborator as the family’s patriarch Gomez Addams, no matter how unfit that man was for the role. Sadly, those who did not wish to see this come to fruition found Burton attached to the spinoff YA coming-of-age series inspired by the Addams’ eldest, Wednesday. Fortunately, Raul Julia’s legacy inspired the casting of some Latine actors as the Addamses, and we are much better for it. Jenna Ortega is a revelation; there is no way this series could exist without her.
In the series opener, the casting of Ortega proves to be a stroke of genius. The former Disney Channel starlet embodies Wednesday, mind, body and soul. She nails the idiosyncrasies best developed by Christina Ricci in The Addams Family films from the ’90s. Due to the series being solely focused on Wednesday, Ortega is able to fill in the gaps and expand Wednesday’s ethos. She imbues Wednesday with heart and sincerity that doesn’t overshadow Wednesday’s dark demeanour and morbid interests. Her dead-pan delivery is perfect and sets the foundation for when Wednesday veers off-course and feels something more than her usual level of disgust and despair. She also commits to the endearing relationship between Wednesday and her sidekick, the disembodied hand named Thing. It is a balancing act that most would not be able to succeed at, yet, Ortega breezes through it with the air of confidence and charm that Wednesday Addams requires.
As for the other Addamses, none spur such strong feelings as Ortega, mainly because they aren’t in the series that much. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Luis Guzman are well cast as Morticia and Gomez. However, instead of the sultry Morticia and the bombastic Gomez, we get versions of them that are filtered through the eyes of their annoyed teenage daughter. Their hot and heavy sexual chemistry is reduced to a joke because of this. With that in mind, they do a great job at not imitating any previous iterations and finding a happy medium between what we expect to see and what we are meant to on Wednesday. Hopefully, if there is a second season, we will get to see much more of the pair.
The next most vital casting is that of Uncle Fester and Pugsley. Fred Armisen’s Uncle Fester can be best described as an homage to Jackie Coogan from the 1964 series, The Addams Family, with slight hints of Christopher Lloyd. It isn’t an original take on the character, but Armisen is pretty darn good. I must admit, I was unimpressed with this casting, assuming that Armisen would take the parody route with his portrayal, but he is very well suited to the role. Isaac Ordonez is also briefly shown, but he makes an impact, too, as Wednesday’s hapless brother, Pugsley. He resembles the late great Raul Julia, the man we must thank for turning Gomez Latino in the cultural zeitgeist. The unfortunate thing about Ordonez is that we get too little of him, which is a problem.
The series makes a massive mistake by separating Wednesday from her ride-and-die and best accomplice. The series begins with an incident that fundamentally misunderstands the dynamic cultivated since Charles Addams conceived of this family in his comic strip. The incident, which spurs Wednesday’s parents to send her to Nevermore Academy, starts with Pugsley being bullied at their public school. He is upset by the encounter, and Wednesday is furious and takes on the bullies alone. In true Addams fashion, Wednesday and Pugsley would get back at the bullies together. If not, Pugsley would remain by Wednesday’s side at her new school. It appears to be an age issue that prevents them from attending Nevermore together. Still, my gut tells me that the creatives behind the series were simply uninterested in developing Pugsley beyond him being Wednesday’s brother. No one expects a rich interior life from Pugsley; if anything, he would be the ideal candidate for what this series desperately needs, some good hearty laughs.
The series, unlike previous iterations, lacks unabashed joy. As a YA series following a peculiar and moody teenage girl with dangerous propensities, the series is extra gloomy teen fare. There is no silliness or whimsy; it is almost humourless. While there are jokes and the writing leans toward setting up Wednesday to land her sarcastic punch lines, the show is missing that humourous backbone that makes the Addams Family what they are. One way it lacks in humour is that the series fails at picking up on Barry Sonnenfeld’s clever use of sight gags from The Addams Family film series. As the Addams family is one that defies convention, there are countless instances where their existence is just funny. As Nevermore is the site of the main events for the series, and this school is filled to the brim with outcasts like the Addamses–ghouls, vamps, sirens, gorgons, and a myriad of fantastical beings–the opportunity to have fun with everyone being unconventional is wasted by extremely conventional filmmaking and writing. As for Pugsley, having him in the background prepared to do something stupid is always a guaranteed laugh. Sadly, the creatives failed to see his potential.
The overall story is perfectly fine. The supernatural mystery at hand is well-developed as it is a “the journey is greater than the destination” type of adventure. The lore is compelling, with several great callbacks to Wednesday’s past iterations, most notably her climatic scene at Camp Chippewa in Addams Family Values served as the greatest inspiration to the series. Danny Elfman is having the time of his life composing a score that is utterly essential to the series. Elfman’s score pairs beautifully with Nevermore’s haunting architecture and the gothic atmosphere that is carefully crafted. While the filmmaking style could have had more spooky, kooky, ooky fun, the series is structurally sound, ensuring the most important element thrives, Ortega’s performance. However, the writing falters in some crucial areas, especially in developing Nevermore and Wednesday’s interactions with other students.
Nevermore is a school for outcasts, a term predominantly used for non-human beings and humans like Wednesday who defy conventionality and “normalcy.” Yet, as she steps into Nevermore, the mentality that shuns Wednesday is not undone. Wednesday should, to her dismay, be popular. Instead, she is shunned for being weird and a freak almost immediately. Despite the fact there are unaging vampires, gorgons, werewolves, sirens, and everything in between present on the campus. It seems the writers cannot create an environment that would be naturally welcoming to Wednesday and still make her alone without utilizing much of the rhetoric used against her in the “normie world.” Her sarcasm and macabre thinking should not earn her looks of disgust or confusion. Instead, the other students and faculty should wholly embrace it. Convention rears its ugly head at Nevermore in more ways than one.
Now, we are getting down to the portion of the review where I address my grievances with one Timothy Walter Burton. Thank god he did not write the show. Despite the ineptitude in some parts of the writing, the show is still mighty entertaining and robust. While Burton serves as executive producer, and his aesthetic is all but ensured in the series, his fingerprints are hardly on the text itself. The episodes he did not direct tend to be the more interesting ones from a filmmaking standpoint. The first four episodes have minimal creative flair, especially in how Burton handles the camera. However, the one glaring issue with Burton is his inability to have any project include meaningful diversity, specifically racial diversity.
The Addamses (sans Morticia) being Latine is a huge win, especially considering Julia’s impact as Gomez. Wednesday is forced to carry the torch for racial diversity with little help from the casting department to attempt to make the world around her a little less white. To dispel the notion that Burton is allergic to Black people, we have a whopping five Black characters: Bianca Barclay (Joy Sunday), the queen siren at Nevermore, an immediate antagonist to Wednesday and a romantic rival for a bland tall white boy. She has the potential to be so much more, but her arc is stifled by mean-girl tropes and an underdeveloped subplot regarding her background and her mother (Gracy Goldman). Then there is the corrupt normie Mayor Walker (Tommie Earl Jenkins) and his prejudiced son Lucas (Iman Marson). They are positioned to be at odds with our protagonists, with Lucas attempting to assault and harm Nevermore students more than once. And then there is Deputy Santiago (Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo), who works alongside the Sheriff and is nothing more than that. Aside from these Black characters, there is scarcely a person of colour worth mentioning that isn’t simply there for one scene to show that the pilgrim town Jericho isn’t made up of all white people.
A white actor plays every significant role outside of Wednesday, and every character is an opportunity to diversify, namely, the Sheriff and his son Thomas, one of Wednesday’s romantic interests. Wednesday’s roommate Enid Sinclair (Emma Myers), whose main story consists of being a werewolf who hasn’t wolfed out yet. Xavier Thorpe (Percy Hynes White), Wednesday’s childhood friend and now romantic interest at Nevermore. And then there is Principal Weems (Gwendoline Christie), who is more or less a reluctant guardian of Wednesday’s. With the exception of two roles, which serve distinct purposes, there is ample opportunity to have an overwhelmingly diverse cast because, in the year of Our Lord 2022, it is possible to imagine a community of weirdos and freaks who are not all white people. When faced with criticism of his movies being very white, Burton essentially brushed away the comments by saying, “things either call for things, or they don’t.” In this case, diversity is very much called for.
Wednesday is a series that hardcore fans of the Addams Family might find irksome at times, but it effectively does its job of expanding a unique role. Aside from some overly conventional writing and dreadfully boring filming style (mainly in Burton’s episodes), the series is actually good. It could have used an extra two episodes, primarily to develop Bianca, who has a critical character shift, and the student that makes up the secret society known as the Nightshades, who have a steady presence throughout the series. There are some glaring problems throughout, mostly in how Nevermore is conceptualized and the poor casting choices, but the show is remarkably well-realized as a whole. The thought of it being more never leaves, but it’s enjoyable nevertheless.
Let’s go on a quick tangent–there is doubt that Melissa Hunter, the creator of the ill-fated Adult Wednesday Addams web series, is due massive credit for reigniting interest in Wednesday Addams. Dare I say it, Melissa Hunter should have been brought into this series as a writer. Her passion for the character would have only benefited the series.
Wednesday has an excellent handle on Wednesday’s cultural legacy and how she would operate within the confines of the average coming-of-age drama. However, the series is just a handful of choices shy of being utter perfection.