‘Wednesday’ review: Jenna Ortega’s snappy performance is the best thing about this paint-by-numbers teen drama
Though Netflix is hardly the end-all-be-all of teen dramas (that title more likely goes to the CW), the streamer has recently carved a niche for itself as a purveyor of dark, gritty YA dramas: from Fate: The Winx Saga to Outer Banks to The Society, moody teen shows seem to be their bread and butter as of late. So, it should come as no surprise that Netflix’s latest series is spearheaded by the moody teenager to end all moody teenagers: Wednesday Addams. While the amateur detective structure may feel like an, at times, uninspired and arbitrary approach to such a bombastic character, Jenna Ortega’s leading turn as the eponymous Addams makes Netflix’s Wednesday a teen drama worth tuning in to.
Starring Scream’s Jenna Ortega, Wednesday, of course, follows the lovably morbid member of the Addams clan as she finds herself unwillingly attending Nevermore Academy – an elite private school for “outcasts” – mythologically powered teens like Sirens, Vampires, and Werewolves. Though initially Wednesday’s biggest problems are navigating the prickly social scene and attempting to find a way to escape her educational prison, she quickly finds herself embroiled in a decades-old monster mystery with startling ties to her family’s past.
Once a polite, pigtailed six-year-old, Wednesday reimagines its leading lady as a platform-wearing, mystery novel-writing, cello-playing teen: brought to life by 20-year-old Ortega, the series quickly makes it clear that this aged-up version of the character is full of more agency and depth than ever before – but no less lacking in a taste for the macabre. Admittedly, it’s not the first time that an adaption of the Addams Family series (which was in turn, of course, adapted from the New Yorker cartoon) has reimagined Wednesday in a drastically new light.
The 90s films helped establish the older, more sinister idea of Wednesday most pervasive in pop culture, and Wednesday is clearly taking its cues from that portrayal as opposed to the 60s series – down to the inclusion of Christina Ricci as a series regular. However, what’s fascinating about Wednesday is how little the series seems interested in tackling typical Addams Family conventions or even paying homage to the series beyond the use of the characters and the iconic double snap.
Though Morticia, Gomez, Lurch, and Pugsley may feature in the marketing, their presence on the show is infrequent and almost negligible – once we’re four or five episodes into the series, it would almost be possible to forget that this is a series inspired by the Addams Family – if not, of course, for the protagonist’s name and looks. Instead of simply regurgitating conventional Wednesday lines and tropes on an older version of the character, Wednesday instead strives to create a version of the character who exists independently from her family, with varying results.
On the one hand, it’s curious to watch the show characterize Wednesday as the series progresses. Although she may be most familiar to viewers as someone who enjoys the sinister and the macabre, she spends the majority of the series attempting to stop a series of grizzly murders and unsettling occurrences. Which not only raises questions about what kind of darkness she finds ‘endearing’ and where she draws the line, but also ends up making Wednesday feel more like a conventional Nancy Drew-type protagonist as opposed to the wildcard we’ve come to know her as.
Much of this shift in tone and characterization can be chalked up to the fact that she’s now the protagonist instead of a member of a larger ensemble, but it’s also a necessary byproduct of turning a famous side character into the star of their own show. Wednesday needs a way to fill its narrative beyond just watching our heroine exact revenge and cause misery – in order to care about this character, we need to see dimension just beyond the unorthodox quirks that make her so well-loved in the first place.
Though the writing itself (outside of the requisite aesthetic trappings) may be relatively by-the-book for teen mysteries, there’s one thing the series has going for it that almost single handedly rescues the character of Wednesday from feeling misguided – Jenna Ortega. It should come as no surprise that a series built around the general public’s goodwill for the protagonist would live or die by the strength of its leading performance, but Jenna Ortega’s turn as Wednesday is unmistakably the show’s strongest asset.
Perhaps the most pressing question in the mind of viewers is whether or not Ortega does justice to the character’s long, beloved legacy – and the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes.’ There aren’t many young actresses who can sell Wednesday’s constant macabre comments and deadpan delivery without veering into the bombastic or comedic, but Ortega nails the demanding balance of delivering not only an entertaining performance, but a thoughtful character exploration that expands on those who have come before her.
As Wednesday, Ortega of course has her stoic posture and deadpan glares down pat – whether or not she would be able to nail the darker aspects of the character was never in question. Instead, it’s the depth and dimension that Ortega brings to Wednesday which help her truly feel alive – though the writing may not be the most original, there’s a sincerity and vulnerability in Ortega’s performance that sells the idea that Wednesday really is just an oddball unsure of how to express her emotions. It’s an intensely charming performance – encapsulated perfectly by an incredible dance sequence in episode four – that anchors the series from start to finish.
Admittedly, the show’s writing doesn’t always do her justice – much of the dialogue is by-the-numbers genre fare with a sprinkle of modern flare thrown in – this is, after all, a Netflix teen drama. The writing shortcomings most frequently manifest in Wednesday’s peers – her roommate Enid (Emma Myers) is a walking, talking personification of mainstream Gen-Z culture whose constant jargon and slang is exhausted and often feels forced – especially when frequently played against Ortega’s unflappable Wednesday.
The narrative itself is also nothing new or particularly interesting – it’s a by-the-numbers supernatural mystery that one might expect from a midseason arc on a show like The Vampire Diaries or Teen Wolf. The inclusion of the ‘outcasts’ and their sects of supernatural creatures is an interesting attempt at a twist, but the execution doesn’t always land, and there isn’t quite enough thought put into exploring these dynamics to make them feel worthwhile.
Then, of course, there’s the shoehorned banality of a love triangle between Wednesday, a fellow Nevermore student, and a ‘normie’ from the outside world – a requisite YA drama element that feels particularly out of place when your leading lady shows virtually no romantic inclination whatsoever towards the two provided love interests or otherwise.
Luckily, though, where the writing falters, much of the cast is there to pick up the slack – Gwendoline Christie and Christina Ricci are particularly effective as Wednesday’s principal and horticulture teacher, respectively, and Joy Sunday makes for a compelling and multifaceted ‘mean girl’ in siren Bianca. As for the Addams themselves, Catherine Zeta-Jones is statuesque and practically born to play the icy Morticia, but she and her beau (Luis Guzman) hardly spend enough time in the series to warrant much mention.
Though it may not be the most well-written or interestingly directed show (for a series boasting Tim Burton as an executive producer/director, it’s shockingly lacking in specific perspective), there are still moments of personality that shine through. The inclusion of Thing in a significant capacity is a stroke of genius – the series utilizes the Addams’ hand-shaped friend in clever ways in both narrative and character-driven capacity. Between beloved source material, striking costume/production design, and a magnetic heroine in Jenna Ortega, Wednesday is a shaky but ultimately successful series that reimagines a classic character for a new generation.
Season one of Wednesday premieres globally on Netflix November 23.