Though werewolves, sirens, and Gorgons abound, there’s no Frankenstein’s monster on Wednesday. But the show itself is a shambling corpse crudely assembled from pieces of undead media: Fans of teen fiction will recognize moldering chunks of everything from Veronica Mars and Mean Girls to Harry Potter and Wicked, with a slice of Gilmore Girls tossed in for good measure.
But the influence you won’t find anywhere is, ironically, The Addams Family.
Over the course of 80-plus years, Charles Addams’ 1930s comics have been adapted into multiple live-action movies, animated films, and TV series (not to mention a Broadway musical and a few video games). With this Netflix spinoff, creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar are clearly playing to fans of Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1991 movie and its sequel, which have become perennial favorites thanks to their dry wit, clever sight gags, and stellar cast.
These films also work because they’re about, y’know, the entire family of Addams and their gothic mansion of comedic horrors. Sure, part of the fun is watching these goth weirdos interact with mundane suburbanites. But it’s even more about the delight of seeing them playing off each other. Despite their propensity for homicide, they’re one of the most loving, functional families in all of pop culture. In other words, no Addams is an island.
Wednesday’s first mistake of many is separating the title character from her family almost immediately. Following a series of expulsions, Gomez and Morticia (Luis Guzmán and Catherine Zeta-Jones) have sent their daughter to study at their own alma mater, Nevermore. The boarding school is a cut-rate Hogwarts situated at the edge of a Stars Hollow-esque New England town, complete with a hangout coffee shop. In short order, the writers make the baffling choice to turn Wednesday into a teen detective investigating a string of mysterious murders.
The show’s laughably lazy version of “wizards” and “muggles” is “outcasts” and “normies”; and Nevermore, the writers remind us over and over again, is a haven for the former. While taking her on a tour, Wednesday’s chipper roommate Enid (Emma Myers) tells her that it’s a school for “outcasts, freaks, monsters—fill in your favorite marginalized group here.” And sure, their classmates are vampires, werewolves, seers, and the like—but they’re definitely not weirdos, let alone marginalized. No, Nevermore is populated by rich, mostly white kids who are as cliquish and put off by otherness as the students at any regular high school. For example, one teen is weirded out by the fact that Wednesday’s outfit is … monochromatic?
Over the course of eight listless episodes, Wednesday investigates grisly deaths perpetrated by a bug-eyed (and badly CGIed) monster. Along the way, she gets caught up in a love triangle, makes friends, and thaws the ice around her black heart.
We don’t know about you, but the very last thing we want to see Wednesday Addams become is an emotionally enlightened do-gooder; we come to this character for po-faced one-liners and casual sadism. Instead, we watch her unite the Queen Bee (Joy Sunday) and the Nerd (Moosa Mostafa) under a common cause, and navigate a love triangle with the trust-fund Bad Boy (Percy Hynes White) and the townie Nice Guy (Hunter Doohan).
The show’s dialogue is flavorless at best and laughable at worst. (See bully taunts like “Check out this greedy little freak” and “What are you? Alto, soprano, or just loco?”) And we get the sense that neither Gough nor Millar has talked to a teen in several decades; the Nevermore kids routinely read a blog about school gossip. (Welcome to 2005, we guess?)
The writers also take baffling liberties with history: Nevermore’s most famous alum is Edgar Allan Poe (because …“The Raven”?), who, IRL, went to boarding school in London. But that’s nothing compared with the series’ inscrutable lore involving Pilgrim colonists terrorizing other colonists who “live in harmony with the Native folk.” (No Indigenous characters ever appear onscreen.)
Though she has zero to work with, horror-movie fave Ortega does what she can with her character, nailing the deadpan delivery Christina Ricci perfected in the ’90s movies. She gets the series’ few good lines, dropping rapid-fire anecdotes about hibernating with grizzlies and the death of her pet scorpion. But the actor can’t make up for the fact that this version of Wednesday is the epitome of what fandom circles call a “Mary Sue”: Everyone she meets becomes instantly fascinated by her, and she’s skilled at everything she tries—cello, martial arts, fencing, novel-writing, archery, and botany, to name a few.
Speaking of Ricci, she plays a side character on Wednesday—one of several big names on the series who, having nothing to do with the boring material, don’t do much of anything. In sharp contrast to the live-wire spark between Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia’s Morticia and Gomez, Zeta-Jones and Guzmán don’t have an ounce of chemistry between them. Others caught up in this dreck include Gwendoline Christie, Riki Lindhome, and Fred Armisen. What’s more, horror legend Tim Burton directed half the season’s episodes; but the show’s visual language is so flat that you’d never know.
Gough and Millar have a long history with teen-genre potboilers: They dipped into the superhero world with Superman high-school drama Smallville, which ran for a whopping 10 seasons. Next, they took a stab at fantasy with MTV and Spike’s The Shannara Chronicles. These shows were formulaic in their own ways; but they don’t hold a candelabra to the profound unoriginality of Wednesday.
Wednesday premieres November 23 on Netflix.