Wednesday Review: Tim Burton Fumbles Another Franchise

"The Addams Family" is one of those rare franchises with seemingly timeless appeal — from the quirky satirical comics by Charles Addams, to the much-loved (and still hilarious) 1964 sitcom, to the '90s feature films "The Addams Family" and "Addams Family Values." Heck, even today's kiddos know the characters well, thanks to the less-than-stellar 2019 "The Addams Family" animated reboot. Given that, Netflix's "Wednesday" makes sense: It's not a terrible idea for Netflix to produce a teen drama centered on the titular "child of woe," and with acclaimed spooky visionary Tim Burton at the helm, what could go wrong?

As it turns out, a lot. 

Jenna Ortega stars as Wednesday Addams, a teenage girl who — as we are repeatedly reminded — is "not like other girls" (my least favorite teen-drama/romance trope). Every episode hammers home just how exceptional she is, from repeat demonstrations of her superiority to scenes of her peers obsessing over her. More than once, she takes on a group of local bullies and handily defeats them using kung fu (I'm not kidding). Unlike the other kids, Wednesday even wears a special, all-black school uniform (this is explained in-universe because she is, in her words, "allergic to color" — guess that doesn't apply to lipstick, though). To her credit, Ortega brings a lot of humanity and charisma to what is essentially a shallow, inconsistent Mary Sue character (and I don't use that term lightly). The dour young lady suffers from a severe case of "protagonistism": she's good at everything, always the center of the action, and she has unbelievable, extraordinarily good luck.   

Oh, and she has superpowers now.  

The Addams Family is neither kooky nor spooky

The Netflix series takes the recognizable characters from "The Addams Family" and gives them a brand-new spin. Wednesday is a teenager now, and she is starting to have psychic visions; as we soon learn, her mother shares this gift. Most of the familiar faces are relegated to guest roles — thankfully, too, because the casting is misguided. Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is devoid of the character's typical corpse-like frailty and otherwordly charms — coming across less like a contemptuous yet compelling specter, and more like a Real Housewife of Connecticut in cheap Halloween garb. Luis Guzmán drags down every scene he appears in with a performance that can only be described as "exhausted." Fred Armisen's Uncle Fester stands out awkwardly, offering a comedic, camp performance in a self-serious, moody dramedy. Not sure what show Armisen thought he was appearing in, but hoo boy — I wish I had watched that instead.  

There are moments in "Wednesday" that work well — distressing glimmers of the gloriously macabre show that could have been. Burton undeniably has a great visual sense, and his expressive, vibrant gloom gleams underneath many of the scenes and set pieces. I even liked the overall aesthetic in "Wednesday"; there's a great contrast between the grandiose, foreboding Nevermore Academy and the vibrant Americana vibes of the nearby village. Say what you will about "Dumbo" — Burton can still craft a memorable, blackly comedic mise-en-scène that bursts with quirky charm. The problem is, as far as the director's recent work goes, such examples are increasingly few and far between. Many of these moments were included in Netflix's trailer for "Wednesday," so if you've seen that, well ... you aren't missing much else.

Wednesday has an identity crisis

There's no identity to be found in "Wednesday." Scene to scene, there was little consistency in characterization, pace, or even tone. This is a major issue for what is ostensibly a spin-off of an active IP targeting a specific demographic: teen girls. Whereas "Riverdale" was the over-the-top bonkers adaptation that gave its source material a sexy, supernatural makeover, and Peacock's "Saved By The Bell" reboot is a self-aware meta-adaptation that updates the stale sitcom formula for 2020 audiences, "Wednesday" doesn't seem to know the source material, what it's trying to accomplish, or who is watching. If I had to summarize the Netflix series in an elevator pitch, I'd go with "if Wednesday Addams was a teen girl — but also Sherlock Holmes, by way of the TV show 'House' — and she went to a really boring version of Monster High."

There's an infamous scene in "South Park" that mocks "Family Guy" by presenting the "writing" process as manatees selecting random pop culture references, which are then fed into a machine that generates scripts (it's called the "joke combine" — so savage). I cannot stress enough how much "Wednesday" feels like it was made this way. There is such a disparate and often random-seeming collection of tropes and archetypes smushed together to make this barely cohesive story. Wednesday alone is like, five different teenage protagonist stereotypes: the rebel student who is expelled so many times they are sent to a "last chance" style boarding school; the Nancy Drew super detective; the teenager who feels they cannot live up to their parents' legacy; the "Breakfast Club" goth girl who secretly wants people to like her; and, perhaps most painful of all, the "chosen one" who has a pre-determined, fantastic path.

Ironically, the only thing Wednesday isn't good at is being a detective, although that flaw is clearly unintentional. She incorrectly proclaims others' guilt with all the fervor and ineptitude of Inspector Jacques Clouseau, but it's played completely straight. I assume the audience is supposed to come to the same conclusions that she does — but I sure didn't. Her detective skills rely heavily on her psychic powers rather than, you know, actual investigation. The only reason she ever uncovers any mysteries is when other characters conveniently arrive to give her the information she needs when she needs it. The few times she does "solve" something on her own, it's really, really dumb. My favorite example is the "riddle" she solves: "two months before June." The answer is April. That's not a riddle — it's barely a crossword hint.

People are still going to watch this

I can't help but conclude that the writing in "Wednesday" is just lazy. The story is completely devoid of organic character motivation, and the plot contrivances are so painfully forced that it makes "The Vampire Diaries" look like prestige HBO programming in comparison. It never feels like there's an original impulse behind anything that happens, other than the occasional cinematic flourish that temporarily elevates the otherwise unremarkable series. And that's a real shame because there's just so much talent involved in the series. 

The premise underlying "Wednesday" was fatally flawed. The appeal of "The Addams Family" is that it's a satire. The characters are old-money Americans who subvert expectations for the wealthy elite. Their bizarre antics need to be contrasted with that of the everyday mundane — otherwise, it's meaningless. So putting such a character in a school of "outcasts" who are literal monsters just robs the story of that necessary tension. There's a suggestion at one point that Wednesday is somehow more of an outcast because she's too normal to fit in with the monster students yet too weird for the "normies" (a real term the show uses frequently — it's the "Wednesday" equivalent to "muggle"). This could have worked as an angle, but it's only ever alluded to and not developed adequately.   

For those who really like "The Addams Family," there are enough whispers of past glory to make "Wednesday" at least mildly interesting. I suspect many teens will really like the series for the same reasons they liked "Cruella" and "The School for Good and Evil," neither of which I would describe as "good." They'll like this because it's new, and it's a shame that we can't give them something that's both new and good. Maybe this will go down in history as a guilty pleasure or a cult classic. I suspect it, like Burton's "Dark Shadows" and "Alice in Wonderland," is more likely not to be remembered at all — apart from being a footnote in the history of the director's artistic decline. 

Wednesday premieres globally on Netflix November 23, 2022.