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Movie Review: Netflix’s ‘Wednesday’ is the ‘Addams Family’ spinoff we deserve

She’s creepy (not kooky), mysterious and spooky. She’s the dead-eyed, mordant daughter of the Addams family. And now she’s headed to boarding school in Tim Burton’s cheerily macabre Netflix series, “Wednesday.”

The eight-part series from director Burton and writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, which premiered Wednesday, has caskets full of fun when daddy’s “little viper,” Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega), is expelled from Nancy Reagan High, her eighth school in five years. All she did was release piranhas into a swimming pool full of jocks who’d bullied her younger brother, Pugsley.

Nevermore Academy is the alma mater of her mother, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and father, Gomez (Luis Guzmán). Its curriculum is designed for outcasts, creeps and monsters, and the student body is filled with cliques of vampires, werewolves and sirens. But even they’re freaked out by Wednesday’s cadaver-white skin and all-black uniform. “Wednesday always looks half-dead,” explains Gomez. “Please excuse Wednesday. She’s allergic to color,” adds Morticia. The school’s suspiciously cheerful Principal Weems (Gwendoline Christie) has no intention of going easy on Wednesday.

Ortega kills as the gifted, nihilistic teen who’d rather hang out in a crypt than a club. She embodies Wednesday with her flat affectation and utter disdain for her peers. Her spasmodic, zombie-like moves at the school dance to the tune of the Cramps’ “Goo Goo Muck” — with a deadly straight face, no less — create one of the top television moments of the year.

The blackhearted heroine is sadistic, fearless and full of fantastically sardonic one-liners. When describing how she’s plagued by visions, mommy’s little storm cloud says, “They come on without warning and feel like electroshock therapy, but without the satisfying afterburn.” She doesn’t have an Insta or TikTok account because she finds “social media to be a soul-sucking void of meaningless affirmation.” And when her hideously perky new roomie Enid (Emma Myers) gives her a tour of the school’s social scene, Wednesday makes it clear that she’s not interested in “tribal adolescent cliches.” (You will love Myers’ performance and character by the time the series is done.) Wednesday puts her inherent distrust of humankind to use when a mysterious creature with ties to the school starts killing off students and townsfolk. Like a gothic Nancy Drew, she relies on her powers of deduction — and the occasional torture session — to solve the mystery.

Christina Ricci, who played Wednesday in the 1991 film “The Addams Family” and its 1993 sequel, “Addams Family Values,” is the academy’s one “normie” teacher, Ms. Thornhill. She doesn’t have morphing skills or powers like the others. Her passion for teaching botany is what brought her to the school. But why is she really there? Gimmicky callbacks to the films and the 1964 TV series are rare and strategically deployed in this streaming iteration of the franchise. Two snaps of the finger unlock the door to a secret society’s lair, and Lurch’s catchphrase, “You rang?,” only surfaces once and with perfect timing.

Thing, the disembodied hand that’s led a confined existence in past “Addams Family” productions, moves around freely now, thanks to the miracle of CGI. It’s Watson to Wednesday’s Sherlock, and Thing’s expressions of shame, alarm and dejection are a full-bodied performance. Wednesday interrogates Thing when she discovers it hiding in her dorm room on the first day of school. “Mother and Father sent you to spy on me, didn’t they?” He signals “no” with the wag of a digit. “I’m not above breaking a few fingers,” she warns. Thing quakes, then quickly explains in sign language that it’s there for her own good. “Oh, Thing, you poor, naive appendage,” she says mockingly.

Burton’s sensibilities and style are all over this irresistibly quirky, sardonic whodunit. Nevermore Academy is a beautifully ghoulish place replete with gargoyles and spires, while the small historic town of Jericho outside draws tourists in with a cheesy re-creation of a Pilgrim village. The mix of witch-burning artifacts and kitsch fudge stands is a Burton playground.

There’s always a danger when messing with a beloved pop culture institution like “The Addams Family,” but “Wednesday” is brilliant on every level. Its namesake doesn’t have to worry about her reputation being sullied.

Not like she’d ever care what we think.

Wednesday Recap: Intergenerational Drama

Unlike Wednesday, I really missed Morticia and Gomez, so I was delighted to see that Nevermore has a parents’ weekend. The event prompts Wednesday to ask herself one of those big life questions: How well do we really know our parents? Her suspicions bring us back to the 1990 Rave’N night, where her father either did or did not murder Garrett Gates (depending on whom you ask). At the top of the episode, all we think we know about the incident is this: Weems found Gates’s body and saw Gomez looking down from a balcony, sword in hand. Weems tells the sheriff (a different one from our current sheriff) that “It was all Morticia Frump’s fault. They were fighting over her.” We’ll recall from the last episode that Weems was holding a candle for young Gomez and is still smarting over his rejection of her in favor of Morticia. (This also feels like a little Harry Potter redux, no? Just gender-flipped?)

Morticia has made some contradictory decisions. She sent Wednesday to Nevermore, where she will obviously be forced to uncover rumors and such about her parents’ past, but she’s also keeping the Gates murder and all the drama around it a secret. I wonder if this is our explanation for why it took so long for Morticia and Gomez to send Wednesday to this school? Nobody ever says as much, even when Wednesday confronts Mom, but it would make that otherwise confusing decision make a lot more sense.

Weems is telling everyone that Eugene is “on the mend,” but Wednesday knows the truth: Eugene is in a coma. The only good news is that the monster has taken a week off. (Is EUGENE the monster? Obviously not; just reminding you that the monster walks among us, occasionally on human feet, and could be anyone!)

Parents’ weekend is a beautiful time for every single student to show us the unique ways in which they hate their parents. Enid’s want to send her to werewolf-conversion therapy camp, which is a kind of convoluted conflation of two very different concepts re: what exactly her “wolfing out” is a metaphor for, but it ultimately gives her the opportunity to stand up for herself, frustrating her mother but impressing her father. Xavier’s dad is totally MIA.

Bianca’s mom gets a backstory that’s so involved and complicated it turns all of her conversations with her daughter into info dumps for the audience’s sake, and anyway, it feels a little late in the game to get this invested in something that (presumably) has nothing to do with our central mystery and only serves to deepen a character who is not all that central to the proceedings. Here’s the gist: Even though Bianca’s mom is the Siren, she got suckered into a cult by some guy, and the cult is called MorningSong, but because Bianca’s mom’s powers are waning, she demands her daughter return to the cult with her to continue the crucial work of Siren-ing people out of their money, or else she’ll tell everyone Bianca “Sirened” her way into Nevermore. Bianca is able to negotiate for a stay until the end of the school year. Again, none of this really makes sense because there are a bunch of other Sirens at the school, and everybody knows how the amulets work, so wouldn’t the admissions process take those powers into account? I’m bummed because I think the whole Siren thing has a lot of potential and is one of the branches of spooky-scary types that hasn’t been explored much in these types of books and shows, but the deployment of all things Siren here is just woefully (lol) underdeveloped.

Let’s focus on the parent-child relationship that matters to us most. Wednesday and her parents start the day in Weems’s office, where Weems says that Wednesday’s “assimilation” into the school culture has not been a smooth one. Then it’s off to Dr. Kinbott’s for a family-therapy session (not, to Gomez’s disappointment, a literal head-shrinking). This brings the gang into Jericho proper, where Sheriff Galpin is fuming over the fact that Gomez is just walking around like a free man who never committed a homicide.

Tyler uses this opportunity to point out that at least Wednesday’s parents care enough about her to go to therapy! (What are the odds that Tyler’s mom was a secret outcast and that her powers had something to do with her untimely death, which is why Tyler’s dad can’t bear to talk about her?) Sheriff Galpin has more important things to do than, I don’t know, actually parent his young son: Reggie, the coroner, reportedly just committed suicide. As you’ll recall, he was practically bursting into song with joy about his impending retirement and hardly seemed like he was on his way to off himself, so the whole thing is — as deaths around these parts are wont to be! — very suspicious. We’ll soon learn that the gun was legal and owned by Reggie and that the security camera was obscured by black bubblegum (hmmm), and that his suicide note contained a confession about having covered up the Garrett Gates case (HMMM).

Addams family therapy goes really well: Wednesday demands her parents tell her who Garrett Gates was and why Gomez was accused of murdering him, and Morticia storms out in a rage. (Pugsley munches on potpourri.) Wednesday asks her mother how she honestly believed that Wednesday — author of Viper the Teen Detective — wouldn’t find this out? Great question! Then she goes to visit Eugene in an uncharacteristically sweet and tender scene. In other sweet and tender news: Morticia puts a rose on Garrett’s gravestone. Or at least she puts the stem there.

Morticia and Gomez have this sidebar about whether or not to tell Wednesday what really happened; Morticia is adamant that Wednesday will never believe them, and they just have to hope “something more morbid” will come along to distract her. Hard to think of anything that could dethrone “Did my dad kill someone?,” but godspeed! Before Wednesday’s attention can be pulled elsewhere, the sheriff rolls into the Nevermore quad to arrest Gomez for murder. What’s sort of funny about this is that you’d think it would have some effect on Wednesday’s already precarious social status, but, despite Weems’s insistence that she’s not fitting in, everyone we’ve met seems to either be obsessed with or amicably indifferent to the young Ms. Addams.

Wednesday and Thing go visit Gomez in prison, and he gives one version of the Garrett Gates death story. According to Gomez, the Gates family was the oldest and richest in Jericho. Garrett was infatuated with Morticia, who wasn’t interested in him, and Garrett’s crush turned into a full-on stalker situation. Morticia tried to get help from the police, but they ignored her. On the night of the Rave’N dance, Garrett, acting like a feral maniac, broke into the school and wound up having a makeshift sword fight with Gomez — in the pouring rain, very climax of Beauty and the Beast. As Gomez tells it, he picked up Garrett’s sword and Garrett strode right into it: “It was a terrible accident.”

Sure, it sounds plausible, but Wednesday has been playing Russian roulette with her dad since she was 12, and she knows his tells. She tries to tell the sheriff all the coincidences — the coroner’s “suicide,” parents’ weekend, the timing of these events with Wednesday’s ongoing investigation — are WAY too coincidence-y. But all the sheriff tells her is that there’s no DNA match with the claw — oh, and by the way, the entire Gates family is dead, for sad and gruesome reasons all allegedly rooted in Garrett’s demise. Personally, I find the death of a one Laurel Gates way too sketchy to be believed: She drowned abroad?? Yeah, that girl is still out there, 100 percent.

We get a lovely bonding moment with Wednesday and Pugsley, who is grateful to be fishing with his favorite bait (grenades). Apparently because Gomez confessed, there won’t be a trial? I’m not a legal expert, but if we’re in Jersey, that’s … not how that works. Both Addams children know their parents will go insane if they have to be apart for more than 20 minutes. Pugsley believes Wednesday can find a way out of this, so off she goes.

Morticia, supposedly wanting to be alone where no one could find her, went to the Nightshade library. Wednesday tracks her down easily. I’m surprised at how quickly Wednesday confesses that she feels like she “could only ever exist in your shadow” at Nevermore, always coming up short where her mother excelled. (I would suggest Wednesday adopt a more Tracee Ellis Ross attitude of living in her mother’s embrace!) Morticia tries to tell her daughter that not everything is a competition, but Wednesday has yet to see this wisdom in this way of looking at the world. (And, to be fair, it’s easier to say that when you’re someone who always wins everything.) When Wednesday tells her mother that the Nightshades are a dopey social club she couldn’t be bothered to join, Morticia reveals that the Nightshades used to be a mission-oriented pack of rebels, founded by Goody (!) to protect outcasts.

In this moment of mother-daughter intimacy, Morticia admits that she is the one who stabbed Garrett — though still in more of an oops-manslaughter than a premeditated-murder kind of way — and that Gomez took the blame to protect her. As Morticia remembers it, Garrett seemed barely human: He was foaming at the mouth. And Wednesday figures something out that her parents overlooked: What if Garrett was POISONED before the fight even began?!

I love this twist-on-the-twist. The only way to confirm the hunch is to dig up Garrett’s body. Why the Addams women think no one will catch them at this is beyond me, but it’s all worth it for Wednesday’s absolute glee at getting to grave-dig. Catherine Zeta-Jones’s delivery of “I don’t want to spoil your fun” as she eyes the manicure she has no interest in chipping is just perfection. They open the grave and find the proof they’re seeking, but not before the police arrive. “Guess there’s gonna be an Addams family reunion in lockup tonight” is a little ba-dum-chhh for my tastes, but I’ll allow it.

While her parents make out through the bars of their cells, Wednesday has a vision: Garrett died from nightshade poisoning! He was dying before he was stabbed. He’d planned to spike the punch bowl of the Rave’N and massacre all the Nevermore students — he’d been sent to do so by the sheriff — but the vial broke in his pocket and poisoned him before he could execute his plan.

Of course, our friendly neighborhood mayor was part of the cover-up. Ansel Gates, he reports, hated outcasts. And the mayor had to falsify the autopsy report in order to “keep the peace.” Morticia sneers that all the mayor really cared about was his reputation. “You could’ve saved Garrett’s life if you had done your job when I lodged my complaint about him stalking me,” she says. “But men like you have no idea what it feels like not to be believed.”

Gomez is released, and he even makes peace with Sheriff Galpin (“I don’t hold grudges. Only blood debts.”) In the rush of victory, Wednesday not only compliments her mother but admits that she’s having visions that are violent and uncontrollable. Morticia explains that visions are disposition-driven: Morticia is a “dove,” whose visions are generally happy; Wednesday is a “raven,” and without proper training, she will go completely insane. Oh, and the only one who can train her is someone “from the beyond.” Ironically, this means the person who is likely supposed to be Wednesday’s psychic sherpa, Goody Addams, is also someone whose hunger for vengeance was so intense that she could not even save herself.

Mayor Walker looks over the Gates family report, and I am TELLING you this totally means the daughter is still alive. She would be a little bit younger than Gomez and Morticia, right? So she could be Dr. Kinbott?? OR WHAT IF SHE IS/WAS TYLER’S MOM … WOULD THAT EXPLAIN EVERYTHING?!

As she says good-bye to her family, Wednesday allows herself to be hugged and even air-kissed. Progress! As she looks through the old yearbook that night, she realizes that Weems is a shape-shifter. I feel like this is sort of a lame way for her to find that out … like, am I to believe that the students making the yearbook just put a picture of Judy Garland in it and didn’t realize it wasn’t Weems?

Or did everyone know she was a shape-shifter, in which case, wouldn’t Morticia have also known and said something about it? In any case, Wednesday confronts her principal about this revelation. But Weems’s mantra is always that the ends (protecting the school from “controversy”) always justify the means (in this case, covering up Rowan’s murder with the blessing of Rowan’s dad). Before they can go any further, they’re interrupted by the sounds of screams from outside: SOMEONE has burned the words “FIRE WILL RAIN” into the lawn.

Sources: 1,2,3,4,5,6

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