Wednesday–An incredible heroine and a spellbinding new genre series on Netflix

Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s been a great year, with excellent genre series seasons in sci-fi like Strange New Worlds and The Orville, The Rings of Power and Vikings: Valhalla in fantasy, Archive 81 and The Sandman in supernatural/horror, The Offer and Van der Valk in drama, The Imperfects and Moon Knight in superhero, as well as new seasons of some of our past favorites.  But who was expecting a reboot of the Addams Family to knock our socks off?  It probably should have been obvious with the involvement of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman.  If you loved Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Stranger Things, or earlier modern classic shows live Veronica Mars, Haven, and Grimm, and yes, even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, get ready for the next worthy genre mile marker in Netflix’s Wednesday.

Even if you are a die-hard fan of the beloved Barry Sonnenfeld movies or the 1960s series starring John Astin or decades of animated series and movies, all based on Charles Addams’ groundbreaking comics, you’ll quickly find that writers Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Kayla Alpert, April Blair, and Matt Lambert weren’t messing around when they adapted and updated the characters for the 2020s.  But the success of the series rests squarely on the shoulders of actor Jenna Ortega (Scream, Jane the Virgin).  Ortega is unflinching in her ability to step into the shoes of what is a weird, or strange, or morbid girl at first blush.  But what Ortega reveals is that at her core she is perfectly normal.  She just likes what she likes.  In a new school where weird is the norm, even she doesn’t think she’ll fit in.  It’s a trait consistent with the prior versions of her character, and it’s also what makes a great coming of age story successful.

Wednesday is a curious girl–she’s interested in all sorts of things–and she’s open to trying new things even if at first she’s a bit hesitant.  That’s part and parcel of the YA–young adult–genre.  But this takes YA further–it’s not just another CW Network soap opera for teens.  You can probably find a bit of everyone, even yourself, in the character of Wednesday Addams.  She’s smart, she has a personal code, and she’s loyal to her family and friends–once she makes some–even if she reserves the right to terrorize her own brother Pugsley.  Kiernan Shipka had similar heavy lifting as Sabrina Spellman in her series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina–taking a beloved character and making her all her own.  The difference here is the writing doesn’t fail at any point–Sabrina had a few clunky episodes each season and even when Wednesday takes a detour in its first eight episodes, like introducing Fred Armisen as the perfect Uncle Fester, it’s actually one of the series’ high points.  It’s also not your typical bloated streaming series like most of the offerings on Netflix, HBO Max, Paramount, Disney+, and Prime Video.  The story didn’t waste any time in its eight tightly-paced episodes.

Although you can’t beat the casting of Wednesday’s family–Catherine Zeta-Jones for mom Morticia, the hero of Greendale Community College himself, Luis Guzmán as dad Gomez, George Burcea as Lurch, and Isaac Ordonez as Pugsley, the characters in this story are there for good window dressing.  Ortega’s Wednesday takes center stage and doesn’t let go, and it’s something wondrous to watch.  How can anyone hold a stare like that so long?  How can she stay so still?  She has the acting chops.  So does the supporting cast, chief of which is the fantastic and perfect Emma Myers (Dead of Night) as new roomie Enid, but also Gwendoline Christie (Star Wars third trilogy) as the school principal, Jamie McShane (Star Trek Picard) as the sheriff, Riki Lindhome (The Wolf of Snow Hollow) as her psychiatrist, former Wednesday actor Christina Ricci (and star of Burton’s Sleepy Hollow) as one of her teachers, and peers played by Hunter Doohan, Percy Hynes White, Joy Sunday, and Moosa Mostafa.

But right along with Ortega is her sidekick Thing–everyone’s favorite disembodied hand-of-glory.  Victor Dorobantu, a 25-year-old magician from Romania (where most of the series was filmed), played the chatty hand using motion capture techniques to remove everything from the frame but his hand, something like Andy Sirkis as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.  Dorobantu wore a blue visual effects body suit with minor prosthetics added to his wrist, but the character–as you’ll find in every spellbinding scene–was all his mastery, working with director Burton to combine American Sign Language, military hand signals, and Morse code into something that looks like a real language.

As for tropes, fans of supernatural series will find beats and character archetypes twisted and spliced in new ways from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Haven, Charmed, Grimm, and Stephen King, and the show taps into the teen mystery genre as Wednesday tracks down mysteries like Veronica Mars or Nancy Drew.  If there are a few hiccups they are easy to overlook, like the fact that nobody in colonial America would have used the name Goody for a young girl (it was a title like Mrs., short for goodwife).  The series gets it 99% right, expanding on the world-building of past incarnations into a story sustainable for a few more seasons.

Callbacks to the earlier versions are spot-on, beginning with the memorable finger snap.  Danny Elfman brings his own signature sound over from the likes of his themes from Batman, Beetlejuice, Corpse Bride, Men in Black, and Alice in Wonderland.  And four-time Oscar winner Colleen Atwood (Alice in Wonderland, Arrow) gets her costume designs as evocative as ever.  Some plot elements might be compared to the Harry Potter movies, but the themes here are more accessible and inclusive, especially the discussions of the normies–those without supernatural abilities, and the outcasts–those vampires, werewolves, sirens, and others like Wednesday who can tap into the spirit realm.

If you’re looking for a read-alike to the Wednesday series, you should check out borg writer and award-winning author Elizabeth C. Bunce’s Myrtle Hardcastle series of mystery novels.  You’ll especially notice story beats in common with Premeditated Myrtle and Cold-Blooded Myrtle.  The series follows a young sleuth named Myrtle Hardcastle, who is similarly looked upon as Wednesday, as she attempts to solve murders in her English town in the Victorian 1890s.  Swap Wednesday and Thing for Myrtle and her opinionated cat Peony and I bet you’ll find your next favorite heroine in this series, the only series to have been a two-time finalist for the Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, and Anthony Boucher awards–winning the Edgar Award in 2020.  (She also wrote a short story about a hand-of-glory in an anthology called Bones with writers including R.L. Stine).

One of the best series you will watch this year, Wednesday is now streaming only on Netflix.

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