Wednesday is the latest in a noble tradition (Inspector Clouseau, Frasier Crane, PC George Dixon, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, et al...) of secondary or marginal fictional characters being spun off to become stars of a new venture; in this case, it’s Wednesday Addams, scion of the proto-Goth family that began in cartoon form in the New Yorker as far back as 1938. In Tim Burton’s new Netflix product, the character (most famously played by Lisa Loring on TV and Christina Ricci on film) is wrenched from her kinfolk and deposited in a New England boarding school.
It has a lot going for it, including an excellent overall look, and some nice one-liners. (Presented with a black dahlia as a welcome gift to the school, Wednesday deadpans, “It’s named after my favourite unsolved murder.”)
But there’s a fundamental problem. In their move to the status of protagonist, previously sidelined characters are inevitably fleshed out, given enhanced back stories, friends, families, jobs that we don’t know about. But the whole point of Wednesday is that she’s a blank-faced vacuum, a vehicle for existential bleakness, with nothing behind the stare. The new version, played by Jenna Ortega, is on screen almost the whole time and a vacant glower isn’t enough to keep a big-budget show running on its own. So, although she’s still dressed in black and expresses bristling contempt for conventional pieties of niceness, Ortega’s Wednesday is humanised. Even before the opening credits, when she dumps piranhas in a swimming pool to punish the jocks who are bullying her little brother Pugsley, she allows herself a small smile of triumph. Old Wednesday, real Wednesday, would never allow her cool to crack so much.
Overall, she’s closer to the high-functioning autistics inhabiting The Big Bang Theory than the (literal and metaphorical) monsters that Charles Addams created. Ultimately, she’s good. And, in this case, that’s bad.