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‘Wednesday’ review: How Tim Burton transforms teen TV with Wednesday Addams

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Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimised by Wednesday Addams. 

Let me give you a little taste of the poisonous, relatable venom trebucheted through the screen by the titular antiheroine of Tim Burton’s series, Wednesday.

“Editors are short-sighted, fear-based life forms.” Oh no.

“Drip [coffee] is for people who hate themselves and know their lives have no purpose or meaning.” Oh NO.

“I’ve always hated the expression ‘write what you know.’ It’s a hall pass for the imagination-impaired.” OH NO.

But if you think I’m writhing in narcissistic emotional pain over here, just know I’m actually enjoying myself.

Burton’s characteristically spooky, eight-episode Netflix series gives the macabre teen sibling of the Addams Family her own pedestal executioner’s block from which to drop the blade on murder mysteries, evade her family, and worst of all: survive high school.

After a bloody piranha incident, our monochrome-loving heroine (played by the extremely talented Jenna Ortega) is shipped off to Nevermore Academy, a boarding school for outcasts. Home to werewolves, sirens, gorgons, and all kinds of spooky students, Nevermore is run by the unsettlingly cheery Principal Weems (an exceptional Gwendoline Christie with elegant, upbeat Professor Snape energy, constantly comparing Wednesday to her mother back in the day).

From Lurch to Thing, the Addams Family is all here, all but fleetingly. Catherine Zeta-Jones honors the legacies of Carolyn Jones and Anjelica Huston as Morticia with commanding physicality and mischievous delivery, while Luis Guzmán follows the debonair footsteps of John Astin and Raul Julia as Gomez Addams, and focuses on making a great dad out of him. And while Jones and Guzmán can’t hold a candle to the rampantly horny chemistry of Huston and Julia in the films, they share a little spark. Isaac Ordonez brings a misplaced sweetness to Wednesday’s little brother Pugsley, and Wednesday’s beloved Uncle Fester, a role made iconic by Christopher Lloyd in the films after Jackie Coogan in the TV series, is played with gleeful creepiness and an unsettling chuckle by Fred Armisen. Fester gets but one episode, but Armisen makes it count, rubbing his electrified hands together, drinking ketchup from the bottle, and disappearing and reappearing with unnerving frequency.

Fam.
Credit: Netflix

But beyond the Addams Family, Wednesday’s host of new characters uplifts our gloomy teen protagonist’s story into a new realm, with multiple mysteries to solve — one which incorporates the famous Addams Family double finger snap in a Pointing Leonardo DiCaprio way. At Wednesday’s core, these mysteries come complete with secret societies, unsolved murders, and a good ol’ fashioned monster hunt — and the possibility that a creature walks among them.

Wednesday is all about outcasts (and teen angst).

Like most of Burton’s work, Wednesday toils around the theme of outcasts: within society, within social groups, and as definitive of our eponymous heroine and her spooky family. But Wednesday takes this concept of outcasts broader, to discrimination and generational prejudice, with the tension between the Nevermore school and the “normie” residents of the town of Jericho.

The series mainly takes place at Nevermore, founded in 1791, which resembles the Addams Family mansion with its Second Empire stone towers, each looming with that instantly recognisable mansard roof. It’s here, among “the fetid air of teenage angst,” as Gomez calls it, Wednesday captures the worst torture known to humankind: adolescence. In this enviably stunning Gothic setting of “teenage purgatory,” Burton Wednesday-ifies elements of a typical teen series: a school dance (The Rave’N), an athletic competition (the Poe Cup), classroom subjects (carnivorous herbology), and extracurricular activities (siren choir), namely through consistent references to literary horror master Edgar Allan Poe, Nevermore’s most famous alumni.

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Nevermore was founded “to educate people like us,” Wednesday’s chipper roommate, Enid Sinclair (Emma Myers) says. “Outcasts, freaks, monsters, fill in your favourite marginalised group here.” Offering up the Wiki version of Nevermore’s social scene, Enid explains there are many forms of outcast at the school, but the four main cliques are Fangs (vampires), Furs (werewolves), Stoners (gorgons), and Scales (sirens). Each comes with their own adolescent challenges: werewolves wolfing out (or being sent to lycanthropy conversion), sirens’ ability to manipulate people leading to distrust, vampires avoiding garlic bread in the cafeteria, and gorgons avoiding mirrors for fear of literally getting stoned.

School sucks, even when you’re a vampire.
Credit: Netflix

And it’s within the school’s social categories we find our killer teen cast, including Bianca Barclay (Joy Sunday), a siren and “the closest thing Nevermore has to royalty,” whose strong performance is fittingly mesmerising. However, Bianca’s character is given more nuance than the Queen Bee trope, with her tempestuous rivalry with Wednesday and through her own dark backstory. 

As her roommate, Enid is the perfect antithesis to Wednesday. A teen werewolf and hilariously relatable scaredy-cat, she’s contrasted to her gloomy roomie through Mark Scruton’s production design and Adrian Curelea’s art direction — their shared room (and that spectacular spider web window) is divided in half, one covered in pastel rainbow fluffiness and the other in dark, gloomy Addams-core. Myers’ delightful, dramatic performance truly distinguishes Enid from Ortega’s brutal Wednesday, constantly trying to befriend and motivate her to take a stab at the whole social thing while being mindful of Wednesday’s antisocial tendencies. Enid and Wednesday’s tumultuous friendship is one of the hinges of the show, and while Enid is constantly giving more, Wednesday does offer a glimmer of protectiveness when Enid is off to a date: “If he breaks your heart, I’ll nail gun his.” Aw, sweet.

Enid just wants to be BFFs.
Credit: Netflix

Wednesday’s child is full of woe, but Jenna Ortega nails it.

Wednesday, being an enigmatic spooky being, doesn’t fit into any outcast category and is far from interested in participating in “tribal adolescent cliches” — though she finds a fellow outcast among outcasts in beekeeping society Nevermore Hummers founder and president Eugene Ottinger (a beyond sweet Moosa Mostafa). With the titular antihero played with fierce finesse by Ortega, Wednesday continues the legacy set by the sweetly unsettling Lisa Loring in the ’60s series and deadpan icon Christina Ricci in the ’90s films, with Ortega stepping confidently into these hallowed pointed boots and moving the snarky Goth girl of our Halloween dreams firmly into 2022.

As our morbid protagonist, Ortega imbues Wednesday with all the deadpan disdain of her predecessor, Ricci — which makes Ricci’s casting in the film as the upbeat, smiley herbology teacher Ms. Thornhill, even more compelling. But Ortega finds spellbinding ways to make the role her own, with Gen Z flair. Wielding the series’ punchy, smart script like a perpetually poised dagger, her performance is spectacularly controlled; every unblinking eye movement is sharp as a tack.

Painting it black.
Credit: Netflix

Wednesday’s fearlessness and lack of emotions, which she sees as a “gateway trait” to feelings and tears, are key to her rejection of ‘nice girl’ behaviour ingrained in young women — the incessant quest to be liked. Watching a teen girl relish in misogynist discomfort and calling out people’s idiotic behaviour to their face feels frustratingly fresh. Ortega’s judgmental monotone is infectiously compelling; I found myself gleefully anticipating every brutal insult or gruesome retort. She’s stubborn, single-minded, and obsessive — “But those are all traits of great writers. Yes, and serial killers,” she says. In fact, Ortega is such a talented actor she’s able to develop a genuinely touching relationship with a severed hand, the Addams Family’s beloved Thing, whose role in the show is one of the sweeter elements despite the fact that his body is missing.

Thanks to costume designer and frequent Burton collaborator Colleen Atwood, Wednesday’s Gothic wardrobe gets a modern refresh, with the costuming department even making a black and grey version of Nevermore’s school uniform just for her. Morticia explains this need as Wednesday being “allergic to colour.” Plus, Ortega’s severe performance is backed up by music at every turn. Drawing from Danny Elfman’s jauntily macabre theme (it wouldn’t be a Burton piece without him), composer Chris Bacon weaves a gloomily bombastic score throughout the episodes, crafting chilling choir vocalisations and melancholic Metallica and Rolling Stones’ string covers worthy of Bridgerton.

As a teen dream, Wednesday means big time crushes.

Amid this festering petri dish of hormones, the series makes time for one of the most horrific parts of school: crushes. Wednesday resists playing into this emotional adolescent nonsense, regardless of Thing’s meddling, but the series offers up two bubbling crushes for Wednesday to consistently emotionally pulverise: Xavier Thorpe (a spectacularly moody Percy Hynes White), Nevermore’s resident tortured artist, and Tyler Galpin (a generously boy-next-door-channelling Hunter Doohan), Jericho’s seemingly only barista and the sheriff’s son.

Xavier sure turns up at convenient times…
Credit: Netflix

Between Wednesday and Xavier, Uncle Fester says you could “cut the tension with an executioner’s axe” and he’s not wrong, with their interactions involving hormonally charged arguments over him mansplaining her power, flying criminal accusations, and adorably awkward date invitations. With Tyler, a wholesome barista whose interest in Wednesday comes from his fascination with her spookiness, Wednesday sees an opportunity for help in her investigations, but turns into something more than free four-shot espressos. Despite their latent chivalry (“a tool of the patriarchy,” yes, Wednesday), Xavier and Tyler’s feelings better be ready to be stomped on by pointed boots.

Wednesday series is a creepy, riotously fun teen mystery series that sees Burton capitalising on the teen Addams member in his signature spooky style. If you leave the series asking, like Enid, “what would Wednesday do?” your neighbourhood may be in for a scare.

Wednesday is now streaming on Netflix.

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