‘Wednesday’: Jenna Ortega Is Dangerously Sharp and Ghoulish in ‘Addams Family’ Spinoff
The Addams Family is endearing because they are so aloof to their own strangeness. Being dark-clad ghouls is simply their way of life, so our own “normal” customs don’t register. No wonder Netflix has now taken one of its key characters and made “Wednesday,” which channels the Addams weirdness into that eternally outsider feeling of being a teenager. Jenna Ortega is perfectly cast as an update of Wednesday Addams, the member of the spooky clan famous for her deadpan humor, constant attempts to kill her brother and biting social commentary. The show heightens all those aspects to the level of a teen adventure with its charms and pitfalls. When it works, it makes moodiness funny while revisiting the hell of being a teenager.
Wednesday is introduced as a loyal sibling who becomes annoyed when her brother, Pugsley (Isaac Ordonez) is being picked on by local jocks on the water polo team. She teaches them a lesson by unleashing piranhas into the school swimming pool. The antic gets her into trouble and parents Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán) decide it’s time for Wednesday to be sent to Nevermore Academy, a private institution for the “unusually gifted.” What this means is that the teens at the school tend to be werewolves, vampires and other similar types. At first, Wednesday is understandably uneasy in such a preppy environment. Principal Larissa Weems (Gwendoline Christie) is too suspiciously nice. Even among the spooky, there are campus hierarchies. The “queen bee” is siren Bianca (Joy Sunday), who recently broke up with popular jock Xavier (Percy Hynes White). Wednesday’s roommate is an overly jolly werewolf, Enid (Emma Myers). When a series of monstrous murders take place around the woods, it’s the perfect case to bring everyone together to solve the mystery and its immense implications.
While “Wednesday” features some notable director credits, including Tim Burton and Rob Marshall, the overall style is closer to recent teen thrillers like “Riverdale” and “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” except with a bit more subtly to the writing and performances. It can get over-the-top but not in every scene. Fans of “The Addams Family” movies, including the recent animated ones, will also find that this is a very different take on the material. It’s not aiming at big laughs or too much satire. Gomez and Morticia only appear in two episodes and even Thing (Victor Dorobantu), the famous member of the family is literally a roaming hand, isn’t too essential to the plot. “Wednesday” is a teen thriller that happens to feature Wednesday Addams, still driven by her disdain for nearly everything. At first she has no time for Enid’s friendliness, hates all authority figures and scoffs at how the local town celebrates its Pilgrim heritage (“a bunch of religious fanatics”). Ortega plays Wednesday as a Gen Z rebel, banding eventually with her newfound classmates against adult figures symbolizing patriarchy and ossified mindsets.
For all of its monsters and flashbacks to witch trials and burnings, much of “Wednesday” is entertaining enough as a familiar YA narrative. It’s not a feast of one-liners and quirky spooks like 1991’s beloved “The Addams Family” film by Barry Sonnenfeld. Wednesday meets a barista named Tyler (Hunter Doohan), who might be genuinely nice but is probably hiding some secret, no doubt connected to how his dad is Sheriff Donovan (Jamie McShane). Unsurprisingly, Donovan doesn’t like Wednesday. There’s also Mayor Noble Walker (Tommie Earl Jenkins), who is hungry for more power. At times the show uses these characters and their environment for funnier satire, like Wednesday and friends needing to volunteer at a theme park celebrating Puritan history, which inspires the feisty Addams to shock tourists with frank speeches about consumerism distorting unsavory history. Creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar also created the influential Superman high school drama “Smallville” back in the 2000s, so they know how to craft these small town stories where everyone seems to know each other.
There are still some more familiar “Addams Family” cameos, such as Uncle Fester dropping in for an episode, played with great insanity by Fred Armisen. But it’s all about Jenna Ortega, who really broke through earlier this year with the ‘70s porn horror thriller “X,” playing a darkly likable combination of deadpan and smart. Her Wednesday is hiding emotions as opposed to being the upfront provocateur of the movies. When the plot falls into the usual involving chases in the woods and goblin-like monsters coming at you in the dark, Ortega sells it with a different sense of bringing heart to the character. Her more honest self is hidden, even when she’s bragging about practicing archery on live targets. It’s part of what makes “Wednesday” work, by understanding how everything is weird when we’re figuring ourselves and the world out.
“Wednesday” season one begins streaming Nov. 23 on Netflix.