“They’re creepy and they’re kooky…”
In 1964, monsters and horror were increasingly mainstream on broadcast TV, as evidenced by the popularity of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.” CBS’s “The Munsters” and ABC’s “The Addams Family” attempted to cash in on this trend by upending traditional family sitcoms such as “Father Knows Best” and “Leave it to Beaver.” These two rival shows populated their sitcom families with more macabre personae. The sweet-natured Munsters, led by bumbling, Frankenstein-monster patriarch Herman and his vampire wife Lily, were good, all-American conformists; they didn’t even realize they were different. The Addams Family, on the other hand, weren’t exactly monsters, but they were decidedly dark. Each series lasted only two seasons (1964-1966), but created lengthy legacies.
Based on the witty famed one-panel gothic cartoons of Charles Addams (1912-1988) in The New Yorker magazine, “The Addams Family” were finally given names and backstories for their TV series. John Astin (“Gomez”) and Carolyn Jones (“Morticia”) led the series, but the breakout character of that ensemble was the large, undead manservant, Lurch, as played by the incomparable Ted Cassidy (“Yoouuuu rang?”). Cassidy also performed the family’s disembodied hand, named “Thing,” who was mainly confined to closeup shots in a box. Unlike the all-American Munsters, the Addams family delighted in in their gothic, nonconformist nature, though in a 1960s-sitcom way; never going quite as far as their deadlier, cartoon panel-inspirations. As a kid, I preferred the sweet-naturedness of the Munsters, but as an adult, I came to appreciate the Addams family’s perverseness. Lisa Loring played youngest daughter, Wednesday, and being only six years old at the time, she wasn’t given much to do, save for the occasional dangerous game with older brother Pugsley, or dancing with Lurch. A short-lived animated series followed in 1973, with characters rendered slightly closer to the original Charles Addams illustrations.
It was in two live-action movies, “The Addams Family” (1991) and “Addams Family Values” (1993), where the concept really came to life. The movies were saw the 1960s TV series concept unchained. The late Raul Julia was a perfect Gomez, imparting the character with great joie de vivre, aided by Julia’s own dashing charm. The graceful Angelica Huston was born to play Morticia. Other members of the cast, including veteran Christopher Lloyd as Uncle Fester, did well enough, but it was then 11-year old Christina Ricci who turned Wednesday Addams into a true breakout character. With her dead-eyed stare and equally deadpan delivery, she owned the screen whenever she appeared. So good was her interpretation of Wednesday Addams that the sequel would focus largely on Wednesday’s adventures in summer camp, where she and Pugsley subvert a student play about pilgrims and Native Americans before torching the camp itself. The character would also inspire a YouTube series of short videos, “Adult Wednesday Addams,” (2013-2015), where a twenty-something Wednesday (Melissa Hunter) was fully realized as an antisocial-social justice crusader who destroys society’s mindless conventions as effortlessly as one squashes bugs. Both the Christina Ricci and YouTube incarnations clearly inspired this new Netflix series, which stars Jenny Ortega as a teenaged version of the character.
Created by Henry Gough and Miles Millar (“Smallville”), “Wednesday” (2022) uses the Addams Family movies and TV series’ mythology as a launching point in the franchise’s first true spinoff series (not counting the YouTube shorts). In fact, we only see Gomez (Luis Guzman), Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Pugsley (Isaac Ordonez) and Lurch (George Burcea) in the first (“Wednesday’s Child Is Full of Woe”), fifth (“You Reap What You Woe”), and eighth episodes (“A Murder of Woes”), but they too, have been slightly reimagined (once again) as well. While Catherine Zeta Jones effortlessly slinks into Morticia’s black gowns, actor Luis Guzman’s (“Boogie Nights”) Gomez doesn’t quite deliver the suave, sophisticated charm of Raul Julia. This new Gomez comes off more as a horny, bumbling pest. Guzman is a fine actor, and I’ve enjoyed him in many roles, but it’s difficult to say if he was miscast, or simply playing what was on the page. Pugsley (Isaac Ordonez) is now aged younger now than his former ‘kid’ sister, but the actor fits the role well. Director Tim Burton (“Batman” “Ed Wood”), who helms four of the series’ eight episodes, is a master of gothic comedy, as evidenced by “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands.” He is as natural a fit for this material as peanut butter is for jelly. You certainly see his fingerprints…
The series also features the multitalented comedian, writer and drummer Fred Armisen as Uncle Fester in its seventh episode (“If You Don’t Woe Me by Now”), where he comes to help his niece solve the ongoing mystery of a deadly monster on the loose. Armisen’s interpretation of Fester is closer to the squeaky-voiced creepiness of Jackie Coogan than the raspier Christopher Lloyd, but armed with a darker, more brazenly criminal past. However, the character of Fester is still great comic relief, especially in the capable hands of Armisen. In helping his niece, the morally-challenged Fester steals a motorcycle while already on the run from the authorities for other crimes. While the TV and movie incarnations of the Addams family talked a mean game, this version of the family doesn’t screw around. Their murkier pasts aren’t so much inferred as rejoiced. In fact, Morticia and Gomez later visit Wednesday at Nevermore Academy, only for Gomez to be arrested in connection with the decades-old murder of a former classmate with a fatal attraction to young Morticia. Unlike the TV series Addams’ more implicit dark sides, this bunch is fully capable of killing. This deeper malevolence pushes the series closer to the Charles Addams illustrations, which were once described (and I’m paraphrasing) as things you see only during a lighting flash in total darkness.
One member of the Addams Family who accompanies Wednesday on her new academic life at Nevermore is the family’s dismembered hand, Thing (Victor Dorobantu), who acts more as family pet than reanimated appendage. Communicating entirely through gestures, this version of Thing, like his 1990s counterpart, also roams autonomously in three dimensions, courtesy of modern visual effects. Unlike previous versions, however, this Thing bears the telltale scars of the surgeries that created him. Despite using a single right hand, performer Victor Dorobantu does a remarkable job in creating a fully-realized character as dimensional as any other in this series.
Now that we’ve met the family, it’s time to delve deeper into the new spinoff, which focuses on teenaged Wednesday Addams after she is expelled from Nancy Reagan High School (!) for taking revenge on Pugsley’s bullies by pouring live piranhas into the school’s pool during their swim practice. Wednesday is then sent away to her parents’ supernaturally-charged alma mater, Nevermore Academy, a school for fellow misfits in the town of Jericho, Vermont. We follow Wednesday’s academic journey as she realizes that, even among her fellow misfits, there are still the requisite cliques, faculty and bullies who seem to conspire against her at every turn. In time, some of her foes become allies as she works to solve a series of murders that lead to a deadly conspiracy surrounding the town’s pilgrim founder, Joseph Crackstone.
Wednesday Addams (Jenny Ortega)
Just as predecessor Christina Ricci made the character of Wednesday Addams a breakout character in the 1990s Addams Family movies, the inspired performance of Jenny Ortega takes it to next-level brilliance, as the young actor becomes the credible anchor of this Netflix series. While previous versions hinted at the character’s latent sociopathy, this version shows it.
Following the little ‘piranha incident’ at the school pool (which led to multiple mutilations), Wednesday is exiled to the Americanized Hogwarts known as Nevermore. In her enforced exile, a reluctant Wednesday is forced to room with a sunny young werewolf, as well as visit a court-appointed therapist. All of this is hell for this definitive goth girl, who doesn’t use a smartphone or even a computer—preferring to type her novel on an ancient, early 20th century typewriter, while receiving ‘calls’ from her parents on a crystal ball.
To ease (or perhaps nurse) her torment, Wednesday likes to unwind with her cello, bowing away her feelings to an all-strings version of The Rolling Stones “Pain It Black.” With her above average intellectual and physical prowess, she quickly runs afoul of the school’s principal, and makes a few enemies with bullying townies and the campus queen bee, a siren who holds court until Wednesday arrives to deflate her ego with a few well-placed fencing jabs. To her own astonishment, Wednesday also finds herself wrangled into attending a school dance, and even experiences her first kiss—with a local serial killing monster, of course. All of this happens as Wednesday devotes herself to solving Jericho’s murder-mystery, which is part of a greater conspiracy involving the black magic resurrection of the town’s puritanical pilgrim-founder.
Note: Speaking of the Rolling Stones, this series needs a soundtrack album; and in keeping with its titular character, it should be a vinyl-only release. Oh, and Jenny Ortega’s hilarious dance to the Cramps’ “Goo-Goo Muck” (which she choreographed herself) is the stuff of TV legend (“Woe What a Night”).
Note: I cannot say enough about the phenomenal performance of Jenny Ortega as Wednesday Addams. Like Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock, Ortega nails a key aspect in playing a character who seemingly lacks emotion; she allows the audience to see and feel the subtly-expressed turmoil within. Just as Nimoy would occasionally raise an eyebrow, or put a thoughtful finger to his lip, Ortega will widen her eyes in astonishment or nervously avert her gaze to express what she herself is feeling inside—possibly for the first time. Despite her young age, Ortega gives an Emmy-worthy performance that holds this handsomely-produced, though, at times, overly-familiar series together.
Enid Sinclair (Emma Myers)
Against every instinct in her cold body, Wednesday forms an attachment to budding werewolf roomie, Enid (Emma Myers). Enid has yet to achieve her first “wolf-out”, making her something of an embarrassment to her werewolf family, who even talk of sending her away to a ‘conversion therapy’ camp, in order to help draw out her latent lupine nature. Enid’s indefatigably sunny disposition puts her at instant-odds with Wednesday, though Thing takes a liking to Enid, forming a bridge between the polarized girls. While their differences seem insurmountable, they come to realize how much they need each other by the season’s climax. In fact, Wednesday’s dangerous quest for the truth even prompts Enid’s first great wolf-out, which also subdues the town’s big bad monster (“A Murder of Woes”). Enid also nurses a crush on Ajax (Georgie Farmer), a member of “the Nightshades”—a secret society on campus. Enid’s crush is later reciprocated.
Note: Emma Myers manages to keep her character Enid’s seemingly inexhaustible energy at setting 11 throughout most of the series, maintaining a stark contrast to the dark, immutable Wednesday. Enid’s parents’ suggestion of taking her to a lupine ‘conversion camp’ misfires as a joke, however (“You Reap What You Woe”), since real-life heterosexual conversion camps for LGBTQ+ teenagers do exist, and are little more than torture centers disguised as ‘therapy’. Such ‘camps’ should be fully banned from existence.
Eugene Ottinger (Moosa Mostafa)
Another ally of Wednesday is nerdy beekeeper Eugene (Moosa Mostafa), who secretly nurses a harmless crush on Enid (or any girl who might say ‘yes’). His loyalty to Wednesday prompts him to go into the woods alone to track the mysterious monster stalking the town (“Woe What a Night”). Wednesday was slated to join him, before she was roped into attending a school dance (against her will) in order to learn more about the monster’s possible identity. Alone in the wilderness, Eugene witnesses an explosion in the creature’s lair before he’s attacked and left for dead. Fortunately, the brave boy is found by Wednesday, after the dance was ruined in a “Carrie”-like prank pulled by vengeful townies. After time spent in a coma, Eugene recovers enough to discharge himself and use his beekeeping skills in the season finale (“A Murder of Woes”).
Note: Eugene is, initially, a collection of nerdy cliches only slightly evolved from something you might expect to see on “Saved By the Bell,” circa 1989. Luckily his bravery and ingenuity, as well as actor Moosa Mostafa’s performance, save the character from being too one-note.
Bianca Barclay (Joy Sunday)
Bianca (Joy Sunday) is the campus queen bee. A member of the sirens clique (a collection of mer-people who can spontaneously adapt to water with fish-like scales and fins), Bianca is the most popular/beautiful girl at Nevermore, as well as a member of the secret “Nightshade” society. The honor code of Nevermore forbids Bianca and her fellow sirens from using their siren calls to control others (though it comes in handy during the final episode). Bianca immediately recognizes a challenge to her alpha status in Wednesday, and an early fencing match only amps up the tension between them. Still pining for her ex-beau Xavier—who is now infatuated with Wednesday—Bianca eventually finds solace in townie Lucas Walker (Iman Marson), who is son of the ill-fated mayor. Bianca later allies herself to Wednesday’s cause in the finale’s battle royale.
Note: Joy Sunday is given a nice arc for her character during the eight episode run, as we see her credibly take the character from haughty campus queen to staunch ally. In some ways, she reminds me of a stronger, less airheaded version of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”‘s Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter).
Xavier Thorpe (Percy Hynes White)
Wednesday’s quest to learn the identity of the suspected shapeshifting “Hyde” monster leads her to investigate Bianca’s former beau, Xavier (Percy Hynes White), whom she suspects of being the monster, as he draws it often in his art studio. Xavier is also falling in love with Wednesday, despite her suspicious, unemotional demeanor. Wednesday is unaware that Xavier is being set up as part of a greater conspiracy involving a bigoted faculty member at Nevermore, who hopes to resurrect the town’s puritanical founder in order to rid it of its various misfits. When the conspiracy and its conspirators are taken down, Xavier is exonerated, and Wednesday grudgingly accepts his gift of a smartphone—a device utterly alien to her.
Note: The artistic, moody Xavier is another of those teenage movie/TV show cliches, the brooding hunk, that every one of these stories seems to require. Actor Percy Hynes White does what he can with the material, though ultimately his is one of the weaker characters in the ensemble. He’s the would-be “Edward” to Tyler’s would-be “Jacob.” I would love to have seen this series without the “Twilight”-ish love triangle.
Tyler Galpin (Hunter Doohan)
Which brings us to townie coffee baristo Tyler (Hunter Doohan), the son of Sheriff Galpin (Jamie McShane). Tyler is a charming, likable ‘nice guy’ who is also (consciously) masking a much darker nature. It turns out that shy, affable Tyler is also a shapeshifting “Hyde” monster, who kills several people before he is ultimately subdued (though not killed) by Enid, in her first ‘wolf-out,’ during the season finale. Tyler appears to be the simpler, nice guy-alternative to the more brooding, artistic-tempered Xavier. He even gives a confused Wednesday her first-ever kiss, to which she later quips, “The first boy I kiss is a psychotic, serial-killing monster.”
Note: Hunter Doohan creates one of the more interesting and subtle supporting characters in cast that is largely eclipsed by the amazing performance of its star, Jenny Ortega. Doohan brings an almost Anthony Perkins-vibe to shy, seemingly sweet-natured Tyler. Like Perkins’ Norman Bates, Tyler also has ‘mother issues.’ It’s even more of a shock when ‘nice guy’ Tyler confesses in the final episode that he enjoyed killing people, allowing his darker nature to take the reins. Of the supporting performances, Doohan’s is easily one of the best and most nuanced.
Principal Larissa Weems (Gwendoline Christie)
Nevermore’s principal, Larissa Weems (Gwendoline Christie) is a former classmate of alumnus Morticia Addams, whom she still resents for stealing a former crush of hers. Her outwardly gregarious welcoming of Wednesday into her school is fraught with apprehension, as the girl promises to buck her authority at every turn. Even in a school for ‘misfits,’ Weems represents the authoritarian impulse for order and conformity, which collides with Wednesday’s militantly-nonconformist soul. Weems herself is later revealed to be a shapeshifter, an ability she first uses to spy on Wednesday, and later to uncover the truth behind a conspiracy instigated by one of her own faculty; a truth which costs the ultimately heroic administrator her life.
Note: While the talented Gwendoline Christie is certainly given a lot more to do here than she was as “Captain Phasma” in the Disney Star Wars movies, her character (as written, not acted) is a bit too over-the-top for my taste, even in a broad horror-comedy. With her towering frame, regal bearing and English accent, Principal Larissa Weems feels the most like a displaced character from the Harry Potter franchise.
Dr. Valerie Kinbot (Riki Lindhome)
Then we have Wednesday’s court-appointed therapist, Dr. Valerie Kinbot (Riki Lindhome), who is a character straight of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” As she pedantically attempts to probe her hopelessly rebellious and resistant client, she also accidentally unlocks a deadly secret in Tyler. Wednesday mistakenly believes Kinbot to be the source of an evil conspiracy surrounding the resurrection of the town’s intolerant pilgrim founder, but this is a red herring. Dr. Kinbot is, despite all of her obnoxious, insufferable platitudes, just another innocent victim.
Note: Comedian Riki Lindhome, of the comedy duo Garfunkel & Oates, feels like director Tim Burton’s slightly skewed version of a Lifetime TV movie therapist. With her unusually wide-set eyes and Stepford Wife demeanor, there is something banal and yet vaguely disturbing about the character.
Marilyn Thornhill (Christina Ricci)
“Addams Family” movie veteran Christina Ricci is stunt-cast to great effect as the quota-filling ‘norm’ Marilyn Thornhill, who becomes a botanical instructor at Nevermore Academy. Her position at Nevermore is largely a ruse to manipulate students (and even her son Tyler) in a black arts attempt to resurrect the town’s intolerant pilgrim founder, Joseph Crackstone (William Houston). Earlier in the series, Wednesday plots with Thing to destroy a statue dedicated to Crackstone during a live ceremony, after she learns he was responsible for the unjust execution of her own ancestor, Goody Addams (also played by Jenny Ortega). This stunt (addressing recent controversies over similar statues of Civil War ‘heroes’) earns Wednesday the wrath of anti-misfit bigots like Thornhill, who’ve been forced to hold their tongues, since Nevermore’s revenue is the town’s livelihood. Thornhill hypocritically uses the dark arts in order to summon Crackhill from the dead and set things ‘right.’ With supernaturally powered zombie-Crackhill defeated by Wednesday and Bianca, Thornhill is then taken down by misfit Eugene’s bees, though her ultimate fate remains unknown…
Note: Casting the now middle-aged Ricci, who first made theatrical Wednesday Addams a breakout character 30 years ago, works beautifully. The once-nonconformist child star now ironically plays the very face of conformity and intolerance. Thornhill’s outward appearance as a stereotypical ‘norm’ (who secretly dabbles in black magic herself) is also a great way to showcase the talents of Ricci, who has steadily created a filmography of playing unconventional types in her early career after “The Addams Family” movies (“The Opposite of Sex,” “Buffalo 66” “Prozac Nation”).
Summing It Up
Unlike the recent crash & burn failure of of Netflix’s “The Munsters” reboot, their spinoff series of “The Addams Family” is more surefooted. “Wednesday” shifts its emphasis a little bit closer to horror than comedy. Even the new show’s laughs are decidedly more razor sharp than in past incarnations. With mutilations, post-autopsied corpses, and a higher body count than previous Addams Family outings, Netflix’s “Wednesday” embraces darkness like its own titular character.
Following the cinematic Addams family’s most interesting member into new adventures at Nevermore Academy, the tone of this new series is a mishmash of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Harry Potter”; with Buffy’s bloodier teen angst mixed into the otherworldly fantasy of J.K. Rowling’s universe. As I’m not a huge fan of the Harry Potter franchise, I would’ve preferred seeing more of rebellious Wednesday clashing with the ‘norms’ at Nancy Reagan High School instead of the supernatural-friendly setting of Nevermore.
Placing macabre malcontent Wednesday into a school filled with werewolves, sirens, vampires and other supernatural misfits runs the risk of siphoning off her own uniqueness. Fortunately, the series has an app for that; the brilliant Jenny Ortega. Ortega’s Wednesday Addams is so spot-on perfect that she runs the risk of almost involuntarily eclipsing her cast mates, even seasoned veterans like Christina Ricci and Catherine Zeta-Jones. While I’m less interested in the Scooby Gang shenanigans of Jericho’s murder-mystery/conspiracies, I am fully onboard for more of Ortega’s Wednesday Addams.
With its pitch-black humor, a game supporting cast, and ample doses of Hogwarts-style fantasy-action, there is much to lure a potential audience, but I have to admit; none of it would work for me without the glue that is Jenny Ortega. Her gravitationally-centering performance makes this series much more than an Americanized-Harry Potter. If there is to be a second season, I’d be okay with Nevermore remaining shuttered for a while longer, leaving Wednesday and Thing to venture out together into our world. Who knows, maybe they could visit Enid in San Francisco…?
“Wednesday” meets the West Coast… now there’s an idea.
Where To Watch.
All eight episodes of “Wednesday” season 1 are available to stream exclusively on Netflix. A second season has yet to be announced. The other versions of “The Addams Family” are available to stream on PrimeVideo, iTunes, YouTube Premium (rental/purchase prices vary).