The Addams Family has been around a long, long time.
Created by American cartoonist Charles Addams as “a satirical inversion of the American family”, the single panel New Yorker cartoons featuring the creepy and the kooky horror-full delights have remained a mainstay of social commentary throughout their long fictitiously and mirthful lives.
While they have been re-imagined as TV cartoons and animated and live action feature films and even as video games and a musical, it’s not been until now in their long ghoulishly fun presence in the zeitgeist that they’ve truly gone as dark as their surroundings might suggest they have a proclivity for.
The Alfred Gough and Miles Millar-created and part-Tim Burton directed Wednesday (he also serves as executive producer), starring the revelation that is Jenna Ortega who brings a long-overdue Latinx cultural truthfulness to the Addams much-expressed familial togetherness, is the first series to really delve into the world around the family, keeping nostalgic sparks of the family as its cosy weirdest – Pugsley’s (Isaac Ordonez) love of bombastic explosions, the boundary-free ardour of Gomez and Morticia Addams (Luis Guzmán and Catherine Zeta-Jones respectively), Uncle Fester’s (Fred Armisen) lovable bank-robbing weirdness, and the hilarious disembodied loyalty of handy relative Thing (Victor Dorobantu) are always welcomingly present and accounted for – but going far harder and darker than ever before.
Essentially a coming-of-age high school story meets darkly supernatural murder mystery with actual monsters and a bundle of reanimated dead herrings at its core, Wednesday is a brilliant exploration of what happens when Wednesday Addams, booted out of yet another school after she throws piranhas into the pool where the water polo team trains after they bully Pugsley yet again, finds herself at Nevermore, a school for Outcasts, where you would assume the terminally disapproving 16-year-old lover of funerals will fit right in.
But Wednesday has never been the join-the-crowd kind, not even one made of vampires, werewolves, sirens and gorgons (think Medusa) and so even as perpetually-sunny, pink-wearing werewolf roommate Enid (Emma Myers), who’s yet to fully wolf out, possible love interest (for Enid) and gorgon Ajax (Georgie Farmer), beekeeper club nerd Eugene (Moosa Mostafa) and Bianca (Joy Sunday) comes perilously to becoming actual friends (perish the thought!), Wednesday keep black-clad, scornful distance, pushing everyone, including Morticia, whose psychic visions she now shares, far away even as it turns out she needs all the friends she can get.
For Wednesday, it turns out, is the heart, an eviscerated, torn from a victim one harvested by a bug-eyed, sharp-clawed monster that is roaming the unnervingly foggy woods around Nevermore and the “normie” town of Jericho with which it maintains an uncomfortable relationship, of a grand, secrets-laden mystery that sits at the heart of the school of which Edgar Allan Poe is the most storied alum (and bequeather of its name).
Quite how connected to the strange goings-on at the school Wednesday is isn’t clear at first but episode-by-episode, all of them a gleefully thrilling mix of detective work and existential angst writ large with sparkling storytelling, archly portentous dialogue and lushly gothic visuals, it emerges that Wednesday isn’t at Nevermore by accident and that she might hold the key to an apocalyptic future foretold in one of the many leather-bound tomes she comes across in a school that screams education noir at several bat-resonant decibels above normal. (She may be crucial to Nevermore’s future, as prophecies by one mangled student’s mother foretell, but she clashes constantly with the principal, Larissa Weems, played with steely elegance by Gwendoline Christie, her court-appointed therapist Dr. Valerie Kinbott, played by Riki Londhome, and even her seemingly well-meaning dorm mother, Marilyn Thornhill, performed by none other than Christina Ricci, who starred as Wednesday in the live action films from 1991 and 1993.)
While the gorgeously executed mystery, which is infused with a vibe a thousand blackly menacing leagues south of anything Nancy Drew would ever investigate, is at the heart of Wednesday, the show also dives deep into who Wednesday actually is, a rare occurrence that adds immeasurably to the surprising emotional heft of the show.
For while Wednesday obsessively goes hard into her new sleuthing side hustle, she’s also grappling with the fact that maybe she’s not as much of an emotional island as she thought.
It turns out that she while she wears disaffection as a badge of humour and scornfulness as a crown, she does actually need people like her mother with whom she has the usual teenage estrangement and then some, her new Nevermore friends who persist in liking her even as she goes out of the way barbed away to give them a thousand reasons not to, and even good old Thing who becomes her sidekick and protector and the closest thing she has, Pugsley and Uncle Fester aside, to a family member she can actually stand.
It’s this coming awake to who she is thread – a recurrent theme with Wednesday remarking at one point that the mystery she’s investigating has so many threads she could weave a funeral shroud – that really infuses the gripping mystery-laden first season of Wednesday (the ending suggests far more secretively twisted Holmes-ian work awaits her) with so much of its unexpectedly affecting emotionality.
The trick here is having Wednesday come alive without the kind of treacly awakening that would utterly gut her character’s integrity as a ghoulish outlier, and it’s one that the show’s producers pull off flawlessly with the lead character, who’s described as an Instagram filter sprung to life by one incredulous classmate, growing and developing into disturbingly three-dimensional form without once feeling she’s not Wednesday anymore (she is, in fact, a typical teenager, albeit a spooky one, who shows great promising and insight, unafraid to be herself in any respect, but who needs to also learn some key life lessons first).
The great appeal of the Addamses has always been that they aren’t like other people but as the deeply affectionate bonds between family members (teenage angst aside) demonstrate, they still have a beating heart at their core, albeit one laced with venom and undeadness, and it’s this commonality of humanity that Wednesday zeroes in on so effectively.
It never once trades away what defines the Addams Family, and particularly Wednesday, but it does bring alive, or make more dead, your call how you see it, her character and underscore that while she dresses in black, loved poisonous spiders at her birthday parties, and treats the dark things we all run from as treasured guests to make her miserable existence that much more morbidly enjoyable, she is at heart a person.
A weirdly unnerving, horror-obsessed person granted, but a person nonetheless, and it’s her emerging, guarded humanity that fills the show, which also functions as a biting commentary on how the mainstream always treat the outcasts with cruel disdain to no one’s lasting benefit, with an emotionally resonant of how diverse and different personhood can be.
There is really nothing to dislike about the slow-burn mystery solving and character building complexity of Wednesday which uses its fully-formed characters, a gift for writing a convoluted mystery which also feels thrillingly intriguing, sparkling writing and gripping storytelling, and a protagonist who’s far more alive than many of those who scorn her, and even those who don’t and unwisely try to be her friends, to tell a coming-of-age story meets dark-blooded mystery with a gothic intensity than grabs you from the start with its sharply narrative, emotionally resonant claws and doesn’t let you go (you won’t complain for a second) until its massively climactic ending which neatly answers the mystery at hand while opening a heavy, black wooden door to quite another …