Netflix’s Addams Family series “Wednesday” successfully combines two genres in a way that makes more sense than most—the teen coming-of-age story and the murder-mystery plot. Over the last decade or so, there’s been a lot of shows that have merged the two, using violence to juice up the general teen fair of crushes, college admissions, and meddlesome parents. But where shows like “Riverdale” can feel forced to the point of silliness, “Wednesday” succeeds thanks to its familiar protagonist and her macabre-loving family.
Fans of the Addams clan get plenty of service in this eight-part series. Thing, the living, moving severed hand, is a full-fledged character with ongoing gags about skincare and manicures, plus an (only metaphysical) heart of his own. Fred Armisen shows up for episode seven as Uncle Fester, winkingly playing the bald criminal. And the show plays with the highly sexually charged dynamic between Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán). There’s even a bit with the two snaps from the famous theme song. For those with only a passing affection for the Addams family or the aesthetic of executive producer and director of half the episodes, Tim Burton, some of these bits may come to grate (we get it—they’re dark!). But there’s enough other stuff for fans and non-fans to enjoy.
Jenna Ortega’s performance as Wednesday elevates the series above pure nostalgia. She’s become a force in horror thanks to roles in 2022’s “Scream,” A24’s “X,” and Netflix’s “You” but while Wednesday may fancy herself to be living in a scary movie, her adventures are less blood-drenched and more camp comedy. Ortega excels in the role, leaning into a deadpan humor made all the funnier by her character’s lack of interest in anything approaching laughter.
The show’s directors get a lot of mileage out of Jenna Ortega’s physicality, particularly in the high school dance scene, where she manages to own the floor while staying true to her dark nature. And it’s not just for comedy—more than once, we see the smallness of her body on the screen as she faces off again forces much bigger than her. These angles give her confrontations extra power, marking her as an underdog even as her superior insight and tenacity set her up to be the story’s clear winner.
The show also leverages classic teen tropes to bring lightness to its dark halls, starting with the “Clueless” tour of the cliques at Wednesday’s new school. There’s also a convoluted sporting event that’s a clear parallel to Harry Potter’s Quidditch. The aforementioned prom/dance comes complete with a (what else?) “Carrie” moment. And there’s so much more—the stuffy headmistress, the love triangle, the secret society.
Along the way, everything works. The mystery is hard to figure out but clearly in place all along and concludes satisfactorily. The action is suspenseful with real danger looming for likable (if mostly side) characters. And the social commentary—about the vileness of settler colonialism—is gratifying.
Adding to these elements is Wednesday’s evolution out of, or at least through teen angst. She’s extremely sure of herself but with plenty of growing up to do. That makes her both an extraordinary and typical teen, someone who thinks they know everything while continuously being made to learn more. Over the series, we see her come to better understand her parents (even her mother!) as she comes into a more mature, less knee-jerk contradictory understanding of herself.
It’s rare to see a show so successfully mix coming-to-age character development with gross and gory ghouls and a serial murder plot on top of it all. By the end, I was smiling broadly, happy to have been back with these old friends and witnessing their familiar, family-driven hijinks.
If there’s ever a character for whom death and darkness don’t weigh her down but are a normal part of her high school years, it’s Wednesday Addams. And Netflix’s “Wednesday” makes the most of its heroine’s unique disposition.