WEDNESDAY. Delicious mixture [Review]
Wednesday combines three familiar and heavily exploited pop culture motifs: a small, seemingly quiet town hiding numerous secrets, a school for exceptionally talented outcasts and… the Addams family. However, he does it so tastefully and skillfully, juggling the atmosphere, that it’s hard not to be drawn back into these narratives. Especially when, at the center of it all, Tim Burton has put a real elemental force in the form of the inconspicuously young and measuring just over a foot and a half, Jenna Ortega.
Netflix’s latest series is yet another screen adaptation of a comic book series from the 1930s. This time the production focuses, as the name suggests, on the fate of the daughter of Gomez and Morticia Addams, who, due to offenses committed in public school, is enrolled in the Nevermore Academy and educational center on the outskirts of provincial Jericho. It soon becomes apparent that the school and the town conceal numerous secrets, and Wednesday’s life is threatened by a danger linked to her own family history….
A mysterious town and a unique school
As I mentioned in the introduction, the series uses very familiar pop culture tropes. The main axis of events remains the unraveling of the mysteries of the place where our heroine suddenly finds herself, and if you’ve seen Twin Peaks, Bates Motel, Smallville or Riverdale (I could go on for a long time listing more titles), you know very well that no place hides as many secrets as the American province. Wednesday thus falls into a web of intrigue, connections and hidden deals, and uncovers Jericho’s dark past and her family. All of this is combined with her daily life in a unique school, which in turn brings to mind the Harry Potter series, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children or Charles Xavier’s comic book school of mutants.
The creators neatly manage to mix conventions, entertaining us, scaring us, blending teen drama and psychological drama, one minute going full pulp, the next referring to the classics of horror cinema. And it all ties together the Addams universe that has been familiar to viewers and readers for decades.
The return of the Addams family
Of course, the main element of the world created by Charles Addams is the titular Wednesday in the series, but her parents, brother, the characteristic Uncle Fester (but we have to wait for him a little in the series), butler Lurch and Thing (the latter accompanies Wednesday in every episode) also play their larger or smaller roles. The series’ creator, Tim Burton, offers his own variation on the theme of the ghostly family (Luis Guzmán as Gomez is particularly excellent here, close to the comic book original), and doesn’t pretend that his series is a sequel to Barry Sonnenfeld’s film, but I, raised in the 1990s a follower of that Addams Family, felt in the company of these characters as if I were a few years old again.
Anyway, Burton skillfully alludes to Sonnenfeld, whether by casting Christina Ricci in the series (the actress played Wednesday in the film version), or by winking at the viewer with the information that Morticia and Gomez became graduates of Nevermore in 1991 (the film’s premiere), or by serving us an excellent (EXCELLENT) Wednesday dance scene, which shows references to the 1960s Addams series, but which is also undoubtedly a worthy successor to the classic Mamushka dance performed by Raúl Julia and Christopher Lloyd.
Triumph of Tim Burton and Jenny Ortega
Of course, a stronger nod should also be given to the two names that have driven the promotion of the series already at the production stage. These are, naturally, director Tim Burton, who radically broke away from his previous employer, Disney, and who began his collaboration with Netflix as producer of Wednesday and director of the first four episodes of the series, and Jenna Ortega, the main star of the production, who gained international recognition as a child, interestingly also thanks to Disney.
Burton remains, in my reception, one of the most difficult pop culture creators to judge. On the one hand, I love almost everything he created from the 1980s up to 2005, while on the other hand, I am extremely disappointed with almost every production he made after that year. It’s hard not to get the impression that at some point he fell into the trap of his own successes, both artistically (thus locking himself in a bubble of black-humor convention) and commercially (after Alice in Wonderland he got stuck in the Disney swamp). It’s also hard not to get the impression that Wednesday can be treated in his case as a redeeming project.
Even if at times there’s more of Netflix’s generic style here than Burton’s claw, it’s simply a successful series, made with vision, with the elements that the world has come to love this filmmaker for shyly shining through, and with the rather derivative, but pleasantly familiar, chiming choruses and Danny Elfman’s dynamic accompaniments in the background. I have no doubt that this is Tim Burton’s most successful project in at least a decade.
I also sincerely hope that Burton added at least a pebble to the casting of Jenna Ortega, for this is a choice truly inspired. The young actress appears in the title role as a veritable element, at which even Catherine Zeta-Jones, Christina Ricci or Gwendoline Christie (how charming is the contrast in height between her and Ortega) hardly stick to the surface. Jenna Ortega has literally become Wednesday, and she perfectly createsthis dark sociopath who is just learning intimacy, showing affection, and commitment to a greater cause.
This idea of Wednesday undergoing a subtle transformation over the course of the season, by the way, is a perfect hit, and Ortega’s involvement in Burton’s series is another excellent decision by the actress, who consistently puts her own spin on very expressive and bold projects, quickly growing into one of the most interesting actresses of the younger generation.
Not everything worked
At the very end I will present the elements that are not quite successful: the first and last episodes have a noticeably too fast pace and lack a bit of breath, the CGI isn’t that well done, and, considering it’s a production about school life, there are remarkably few activities related to… learning.
All this to be improved in the second season, which I sincerely hope will be made. There’s still a lot of potential to exploit here, mysteries to uncover, threads to explore and Ortega to shine.
And in the meantime, I invite you in front of your TV sets, because somewhat unexpectedly, Tim Burton’s Wednesday turned out to be a perfect mix of horror, comedy, coming-of-age stories watered down generously with pop culture junk and rooted in many generations’ tales of the dark Addams family.