“Wednesday’s child is full of woe” or so the nursery rhyme goes. As the origin of a rather peculiar name, befitting a rather peculiar character herself, those six words possess the quintessence of the Wednesday Addams we’ve known and loved for nearly a century. After making her debut in one of Charles Addams’s New Yorker cartoons in 1940, that ghastly pale face and sullen personality quickly became a permanent fixture in the Addams family tree, appearing in countless adaptations since. In Tim Burton’s recent television series “Wednesday,” she is as woeful as ever, but has finally been given the chance to become something more.
Netflix horror-comedy series “Wednesday” is a supernatural teen drama with a mysterious true crime plot at its core. At Nevermore Academy, a boarding school for teenage misfits, Wednesday (Jenna Ortega, “The Fallout”) is an oddity amongst oddities, grappling with normal teen mishaps and newfound psychic abilities, all while investigating an unsolved case involving her parents 25 years prior. The show artfully balances the nostalgic expectations of fans of the Addams family media of the 20th century with an engaging introduction to the 21st. Sharp-edged and darkly humorous, Wednesday lives up to her family name, and at center stage, this series explores an expanded scope and evolution of her character like we’ve never seen before.
From our earliest introduction to the Addams family, it’s clear that they are not your average all-American household. As “creepy, kooky, mysterious, spooky and all-together ooky” as they can be, they’re lovable eccentrics, blissfully oblivious to their perceived strangeness and entirely void of ill intent toward “normal people.” Much of the foundational hilarity of their situational comedy resides in the stark contrast between their unusual practices and affinity for the occult and the traditional American values of their peers. Odd as they are, the Addams are merely weird, not mystical. They may stick out like sore thumbs, but creator Charles Addams always characterized them simply as “non-conformists rather than ghouls.”
Here is where Burton’s approach first veers from the original: Wednesday is prone to bouts of premonition and psychic visions (“That’s So Raven”-style) and exists in a world with plenty of other supernatural anomalies. Setting Nevermore as the backdrop of “Wednesday” creates a direct departure from the Addams family template as she’s thrust into an environment of fellow outcasts. Even in a school where werewolves, vampires and monsters abound, Wednesday still starts out as an outsider amongst her peers, from the singularly black-and-white uniform she wears to the warily-calculated distance she maintains from everyone she comes into contact with.
Nevertheless, as the series progresses, Wednesday becomes far less one-dimensional than her predecessors. Her new quirks include playing the cello, fencing and writing a novel. The plot itself also situates Wednesday as a makeshift teenage sleuth, staking out crime scenes and gathering clues to uncover the monster behind a string of strange deaths in the town. These characteristics allow Wednesday to evolve beyond her trademark ominous one-liners without shortchanging her fiercely independent and self-sufficient nature. One of the most substantial changes arises in the gradual relationships she establishes with her peers, especially with her roommate Enid (Emma Myers, “Girl in the Basement”). If Wednesday is the embodiment of all things macabre, Enid is sunshine and rainbows incarnate, and their tenuous bond between polar opposites is one of the show’s most interesting dynamics.
Although the show centers around a Wednesday that’s far different from any prior renditions of the character, it is chock-full of easter eggs and subtle aesthetic references to the classic Addams family dating back to the original New Yorker comics. Obvious continuums in character occur with Gomez (Luis Guzman, “Boogie Nights”) and Morticia’s (Catherine Zeta-Jones, “Chicago”) overly sensual, theatrical relationship, and Thing’s single-handed gestures of comic relief. Still, eagle-eyed viewers might spot more niche references, such as the cartoonish costume design that predates the ’60s sitcom or the obscure naming of characters like Weems (Gwendoline Christie, “Game of Thrones”). An origin story is also provided for the double-snap that’s as characteristic of the Addams as anything else, as well as the choice of the name Wednesday. Not to mention the notable appearances of Uncle Fester (Fred Armisen, “Big Mouth”) and Christina Ricci (“The Addams Family”), who played Wednesday in the ’90s film adaptations.
That same level of care and meticulousness transcends the eerily beautiful Tim Burton-esque aesthetic of the production design and seeps into Ortega’s phenomenal portrayal of the titular character. Her acting sustains a restrictive, unnatural physicality with commendable consistency without slipping into the realm of stiff caricaturization. She goes entire scenes without blinking, walks with an unnervingly perfect posture and lets the camera track her eyes with sharp, unsettling movements. Every minute detail of her demeanor screams intentionality and precision, and her deadpan monotonous line delivery serves the show’s wry, sarcastic humor perfectly. Technical rigor aside, what sets Ortega’s Wednesday apart is the emotional fluidity in her performance; her gradual character arc allows us to root for her and breathes new life into her character.
Wednesday’s iconic dance sequence in episode four is a highlight of the show and encompasses the Addams family spirit: equally disturbing and laughably ridiculous, yet always entertaining. Her movements are mesmerizing as she traipses across the dance floor cloaked in all black at a wintry white-themed party. Choreographed by Ortega herself, she breezes across decades of moves from goth icon Siouxsie Sioux to the original Wednesday herself.
In all fairness, this show is not wholly without its faults. At times, the plot leans slightly to the side of CW teen drama, and Enid says “TikTok” too many times for me to take her seriously, but the charm and humorous wit of the dialogue and Ortega’s powerhouse performance do more than keep it afloat. The mystery is fun and intriguing without becoming overly convoluted, and as a revival of a beloved character, Wednesday’s been crafted with a lot of care and respect for her legacy. As for fans of the original, I can assure you that it is unequivocally creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky, and that’s all I could’ve ever hoped for.
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at email@example.com.