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The first episode of Netflix’s “Wednesday,” based on the classic Charles Addams character, is one of the best things Tim Burton has directed in years. Fans who grew up with Burton’s work in the ’80s and ’90s have lamented his output for years, as the visually inventive director seems to have lost the creative passion that used to fuel his work. Where’s the edgy Burton who made “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood” in something like “Alice in Wonderland” or “Dumbo”? There have been glimpses of that quirky craftsman in his recent filmography but nothing consistent for far too long. So seeing some of that spark in the premiere of “Wednesday” can be thrilling for fans of a certain age. The production design—a strength even in some of his inferior work—is consistently fascinating, the character detail feels unpredictable (the trait he’s arguably lost the most in that his early films were harder to map out than the recent ones), and the plotting sets up numerous arcs that feel promising. And then “Wednesday” succumbs to what plagues so many Netflix shows—narrative wheel-spinning, a lack of momentum, and that sense that this would all have been a better film than a TV series. It never completely loses 100% of the energy of its premiere, but the ingenuity of the first hour fades as the season progresses like all of the colors in the wardrobe of Wednesday Addams.
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One of the best early jokes is that Wednesday (Jenna Ortega) looks like she’s in black-and-white while the rest of the world is in color. The morbid daughter of Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez Addams (Luis Guzman) opens the series by protecting her brother Pugsley (Isaac Ordonez), who has been bullied by some alpha male members of the swim team. Wednesday’s answer? A few dozen piranhas in the pool in which they’re practicing.
The attempted murder gets Wednesday sent off to a boarding school called Nevermore (an institution that leans into its namesake with a dance that’s called a Raven instead of a Prom), and that’s where most of the show unfolds. Curious viewers should know upfront that this is a show that lives up to its name in that the rest of the Addams family is sidelined for most of the season, including the small role of Fred Armisen playing Uncle Fester. As for classic characters, it’s mostly just the title one and Thing, the moving hand that’s sent to keep an eye (don’t ask) on her and becomes her ally at Nevermore.
Thing isn’t the only ally because Nevermore is basically the Hogwart’s of this show (it really looks like some of it was shot on the same set or maybe Burton’s “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”). So, there’s the mysterious dean, Larissa Weems (Gwendoline Christie), who was a student at Nevermore when Wednesday’s parents were there and holds the key to some of the family mysteries. There’s a supportive adult ally in Marylin Thornhill, played excellently by Christina Ricci, who probably compared notes with Ortega between takes—Ricci played Wednesday in a pair of ’90s films. Emma Myers steals a few scenes as Wednesday’s high-energy roommate, a girl with a few secrets of her own. It turns out that a lot of Nevermore students have secret powers, and that Wednesday is developing a few of her own. Oh, there’s also a local sheriff who holds resentment against the Addams name and his kid, who become a love interest for Wednesday.
If it sounds like a lot, it is. “Wednesday” was clearly designed to be a Young Adult franchise, something that echoes Harry Potter or Hunger Games in its assembly of unusual young people against mysterious adult powers that be. Plunking the character of Wednesday down in this genre doesn’t always work. She’s a character that was designed as a one-hitter—someone who could hit the punchline at the end of a scene with other members of her family—and that makes her hard to pin down as a protagonist. You can’t soften Wednesday Addams and still have the show work, and the mysteries and even a love triangle that unfold this season start to make her feel generic. The show works much better when it leans into its dark edges, like Wednesday smiling as fire explodes around her or piranhas racing toward their targets. Long scenes of expository dialogue between Wednesday and her classmates as they investigate a series of murders around Nevermore feel generic, especially as the supporting characters become more interesting (like Myers’ delightful Enid and Joy Sunday’s mysterious Bianca). It’s no fault of the increasingly promising Ortega (she particularly commits to a phenomenal dance scene during the Raven), but Wednesday becomes too much of an ensemble player as other characters push her journey forward more than her.
As if the writers recognized that “Wednesday” is getting away from Wednesday herself, they actually overcompensate by having her literally talk to herself a lot when they should have just let her narrate. Making this her story, seen through her eyes, and giving her more agency would have made it feel less like a SyFy original series as the inspired design choices that Burton makes in the premiere become just part of the recurring sets. Because the show really clicks when it feels like it’s matching Wednesday’s aesthetic in design or Danny Elfman’s ace score. When the show feels familiar, it lets down the potential of its character and its creator, a director who was once the king of the outcasts, a filmmaker who saw something in outsiders like Wednesday Addams that no one else saw. Will that Burton ever return? Could it even be in future seasons of this show? Sure, anything is possible, given the talent he’s displayed in the past. But not today. [C+]