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Two Snaps and Three Cheers for Netflix's 'Wednesday'
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Two Snaps and Three Cheers for Netflix’s ‘Wednesday’

A smart plot and sublime protagonist make it a must-watch.

“For some reason I cannot fathom or indulge, you seem to like me,” observes Wednesday Addams to a classmate in the first season of her eponymous new Netflix series.

And yet the reasons to admire both Jenna Ortega’s performance in the title role and the series as a whole are both manifest and manifold.

Produced by Tim Burton, Wednesday is in part a murder mystery, a dark comedy, and a high school drama. Played by Ortega, Wednesday is a unique, frustrating, and delightful protagonist more than worthy of her near-omnipresence onscreen.

The series begins innocently enough: With Wednesday siccing a school of piranhas on bullies tormenting her younger brother Pugsley (Isaac Ordonez). In her defense: “He lost a testicle. I did the world a favor. People like Dalton shouldn’t be allowed to procreate.” That act provides her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán), with all the excuse they need to drop their unwilling daughter off at Nevermore Academy, the educational institution for outcasts (including werewolves, vampires, sirens, and more) where the Addams parents first laid eyes on each other.

At Nevermore, Wednesday contends with social media-obsessed roommate Enid Sinclair (Emma Myers), smothering principal Larissa Weems (Gwendoline Christie), an ancient grudge match with a murderous pilgrim (William Houston), a rampaging monster, recurring and potentially unreliable visions, and perhaps most dauntingly, a love triangle with artist Xavier (Percy Hynes White) and townie Tyler (Hunter Doohan).

“As much as I hate to admit it, you were right, mother. I think I’m going to love it here,” concludes Wednesday at the end of the opening episode.

In Jericho, the sleepy New England town Nevermore’s students and staff call home, hikers are dropping like flies, and while Tyler’s father, Sheriff Galpin (Jamie McShane), is publicly attributing the killing spree to a particularly bloodthirsty bear, he suspects that the real culprit hails from the school. 

On school grounds, Wednesday quickly gains the attention of both Xavier and his ex-girlfriend Bianca (Joy Sunday), Nevermore’s “it girl.” She also quickly discovers that her parents entrusted Thing, the family’s right hand man/pet, to watch over her from a distance. After threatening to lock him in her desk drawer for the semester—“ruining your nails and your smooth, supple skin; and we both know how vain you are”—she extracts a pledge of “undying loyalty” to her. 

By the end of the would-be pilot, Wednesday has not only survived two attempts on her life by Rowan (Calum Ross), a student who tells her that she is destined to bring about Nevermore’s destruction, but has numerous mysteries to solve. Who is the monster? Why does it save her from and put a swift end to Rowan? And what is the meaning of the painting on which her assailant’s prophecy is based, which shows a girl bearing a striking resemblance to the eldest Addams child opposite a pilgrim with a burning Nevermore in the background?

Watching her work through all this while navigating the treacherous waters of high school, monotone and dry sense of humor in hand, is a great joy.

The character retains all of the hereditary sadism portrayed in the The Addams Family (1991) and The Addams Family Values (1993), but with much more depth. Ortega’s Wednesday is every bit as harsh and tough as her forbearers, but also in possession of just enough sensitivity to make for a compelling, complex protagonist rather than one that’s too reliant upon a schtick. That’s a credit to Burton and his team, and a bigger one to Ortega herself, who delivers a nuanced performance in her lines and—more importantly—in her expressions. The character is frustrating at times, but only when she’s supposed to be. Talented and brilliant, but not unstoppable. Distinct, but without being single-note.

Ortega had a tall order to fulfill in convincingly portraying a relatable, easy-to-root-for psychopath—especially one with subdued reactions to, well, everything around her—and made it look easy.

Most of the supporting characters are similarly well cast. Zeta-Jones is an appropriately sultry Morticia. White is an appropriately brooding Xavier. Myers’s Enid makes for an excellent, oftentimes deliberately irritating foil and friend. Christie’s Weems is a formidable frenemy and figure of authority. Doohan is quite good as Tyler for most of the series, before taking it to another level in an immensely memorable monologue in the first half of the finale. 

The decision to cast Guzmán as Gomez and Saturday Night Live alum Fred Armisen as his brother Fester, however, was near malpractice. This isn’t a judgment on Guzmán and Armisen’s abilities in general, but on the incongruence between their personas and those of their characters.

In the Addams Family universe, Gomez is magnetic and mellifluous—a smooth operator. Guzmán doesn’t become Gomez, instead coming across like he’s playing a clumsy admirer imitating his style and manner of speaking, but with none of his natural charm or suavity. 

Armisen, meanwhile, plays a flat version of Fester, delivering lines as he might in an Addams Family sketch on SNL or even while playing a yuppie on Portlandia. Without the costume, Armisen’s Fester would barely be recognizable.

It’s unreasonable to expect an actor to do an impression of another, previous iteration of the character. That, too, would prove unbearable. But Wednesday’s version of the Addams brothers is so jarring that it can distract from the worthwhile material around them. Mercifully, they only feature somewhat prominently in three of the series’ eight episodes.

In conjunction with Ortega’s performance, though, it’s the smart writing of both Wednesday’s dialogue and plotlines that renders it so watchable. Each episode ends on a cliffhanger that leaves the audience clamoring for more, and each one feels earned. They’re not cheap tricks to keep people attached to a mediocre product; they’re the sizzle served in addition to a sizable steak. 

Nearly every aspect of the show is executed as it should have been. The Freaks and Geeks element is handled in a mature and even believable way. The romantic relationships are full of feelings and fumbles, instead of being constructed as fairy tales, and the intra-Nevermore plot devices are fun enough to keep you interested during breaks from the primary storyline.

A steady stream of questions and mysteries along that storyline boast satisfying answers as well as journeys to them. Wednesday proves a capable if not infallible detective, with various suspects—including her two love interests—both serving as the Watson to her Holmes depending on what her instincts are telling her at the time. Her tumultuous relationship with Sheriff Galpin, which ends with her eventual vindication, toes the line between mutual suspicion and mutual respect, declining to caricature the lawman. 

There are snappy lines aplenty—largely reserved for Ortega—to keep viewers engaged and induce plenty of smirks, if not outbursts of laughter. Yet the show’s comedic elements never overshadow its plot or dialogue.
Wednesday bore a heavy burden of expectations, emerging as it did out of a pre-existing cinematic universe. There were emotions to stir up, characters to live up to, and a fresh angle to establish around them. Burton proved more than up to the task, creating a must-watch show that honored past material without depending on it, a worthy standalone project inside a unique world. For that, he and his colleagues earn two snaps and three cheers.