The streaming revolution means we now have more drama content than ever but that doesn’t always mean it is better. Running across eight episodes, Wednesday, which debuted in late November on Netflix, is a typical example of a series that starts off firing on all six but then falters a bit. The reason is that is gives away all its smarts in the opening couple of episodes; thereafter there is nothing else in its armoury save for a series of twists that make the show less humorous. Only then it delivers in the last two episodes which dial up the excitement in a delightfully bombastic finale.
The altogether kooky Wednesday Addams is sullen teenagerhood personified; sharp with the put downs, a loner, self-confessed sociopath; as goth and sullen as they come. She is packed off to yet another school after her behaviour has led her to be thrown out of eight previous establishments in five years things pan out a little differently. Her expulsions were not for mere rule breaking and standard acting out. In the opening sequence we see her take revenge on bullies by chucking some piranhas in the swimming pool! She’s that sort of girl.
Her actions are usually motivated by a sense of doing the right thing even though she would not admit it and even if her methods are a little extreme. If people just left her alone not a lot would happen. This time though she’s packed off to Nevermore Academy, one of those schools for the unusual located in a gothic building in the middle of nowhere. Here, she is probably not the strangest pupil though her lack of conformity (and her mother Morticia’s chumminess with the Head) means she gets a uniform in shades of black rather than the blue stripes on her fellow pupils’ blazers. Of course this makes her stand out even though she’d rather not.
She has to room with her opposite – a girl called Enid who loves colours and gets excited about everything that Wednesday has no interest in. They’re a mismatched duo who will become friends except they actually don’t really till the very end. However much Enid tries to accommodate Wednesday’s dark outlook and help her solve mysteries, she is not really rewarded. At the end of part six she walks out to room with someone else, you can’t help but support her. Too much arch cleverness can be very wearing. Yet she comes through in the end and even turns into a wolf to help out. Its that sort of series and we’d all like a friend as loyal as she is.
It soon turns out that odd things are happening at Nevermore not least a monster in the woods which is offing hikers and which some locals in the town of Jericho believe comes from the school. Then there’s some unusual connections between the faculty and the town which has its own dark history of dubious Pilgrim behaviour. And there’s the secret society called the Nightshades entry to whose hideout is via a couple of finger snaps, one of a few funny call back to the 60s Addams Family show. Oh and a mystery about Wednesday’s parents.
In each episode – all of which have the word Woe in the title- we also witness some of the school’s traditions including a vicious boat race in costume which is fun, a secret society whose purpose remains vague but they do have a nice underground cellar and an archetypal ball which seems a tad conventional for a school like this one. Though it does include what is surely the series’ most iconic moment when Wednesday does her goth dance, something that has at time of writing been watched 24 million times on YouTube! It is very cool but if anyone else tried those moves it wouldn’t be, so please don’t try!
There’s also a variety of alter egos- one character is a Gorgon so wears a hat constantly and then when about to go on a date accidentally looks in the mirror and freezes himself! These hidden powers enable the narrative to run with the identity of who the monster really is – and there are plenty of clues and red herrings. These sorts of things highlights the line the show straddles- is this an analogy for high school or a fantasy series? Or a comedy? It never quite decides which is very of these times.
While there is a large cast to draw from and you suspect different people of different things much of the focus of the series lies on Jenny Ortega whose able to bring subtle differences to Wednesday’s deadpan aura as matters develop. She’s a difficult character to like as a heroine- this sort of role is usually the acerbic sidekick- but with a self-assuredness belying her age Wednesday starts to investigate these multiple mysteries while navigating school life with dark elan. Jenny O is brilliant in every scene and gradually you come to see that Wednesday’s attitude to life is perhaps not as mad as it first seems. She brings some subtle moments too, not easy when the character as written seems impervious to emotion. When she finally shows some feelings in the last episode it’s a real lift.
The cast also includes Gwendoline Christie who revels in the role of the slippery Principal Larissa Weems. Outwardly over smiley, inwardly tolerating matters she seems to have her own secrets and appropriately is also a shape shifter, she is splendid. Joy Sunday also has a great role as the school’s Queen Bee, Bianca Barclay complete with weird eyes that give her an otherworldly presence. Both actor and script steer Bianca away from the stereotypical bully towards something more interesting. There are a couple of boys attracted to Wednesday though she seems slightly ignorant of the fact they both want to go out with her. Percy Hynes White as rich Xavier and Hunter Doohan as Sheriff’s son and part time barista Tyler are both set up by the production as potentially the monster. In a twisting plot the revelation that Tyler is the monster- albeit controlled by someone else- is the only non surprise because the production make him the kindest, most innocent guy but then show a brief moment where he is screaming in the bath and you think- yep, he’s the monster. What is good though is the scene where Tyler suddenly turns nasty to Wednesday’s face, its such a instant switch. The question of who is controlling this beast- called a Hyde, a nice literary nod- is knottier to unravel and as with the monster the first culprit identified is not guilty.
The first four episodes are directed by no less than Tim Burton and he brings his customary skills to bear on a visual palette that is very him- even the sign over the gate of the school is classic Burton lettering. He also oversees some memorable scenes such as Wednesday playing the cello on the school roof, the brief but disturbing glimpses of the forest monster and a statue unveiling that goes wrong. The narrative also contains some less fanciful, harder material- Wednesday’s propensity for psychic flashbacks leads to a sequence where the town’s beloved Pilgrim hero Joseph Crackstone is seen burning `heathens` who are chained to the floor. However I would suggest that the other two directors- James Marshall and Gandja Monteiro are able to give the narrative more momentum though of course they get the juicier material to play with. Inventive use is made of Thing, the disembodied hand who manages to become an integral part of the story even if this is sometimes used to help the plot along.
As the series develops the mystery element heightens with each episode offering a new twist to the story which reaches back into the village’s history and Morticia’s time at the school. Sometimes this works, other times not so much - a whole episode about Gomez’s supposed misdemeanours is somewhat of an anti-climax in its conclusion and might have been something best held till season two. Also Wednesday’s acerbic sharpness of the first half of the season sometimes feels forced later though there are examples of Wednesday becoming a little more approachable though not necessarily amenable. This is the series’ dilemma - it is the biting reproaches of the initial episodes that give the show its USP but as soon as you start to develop the character these inevitably seem out of place. So sometimes the writers must work hard to conjure scenarios in which others would accompany Wednesday into such danger.
Where this does come together though it’s effective. A prank at the school’s annual dance the Raven channels Carrie in its imagery. A nocturnal visit to Crankstone’s old haunt is especially thrilling when the monster turns up and pursues them round the rickety building. Things like this do highlight the series’ skill in creating interesting visuals- later we see a painting of Wednesday playing cello coming to life. Even so you get the feeling that some of these things are simply written in to impress rather than to service the plot. The final two episodes, especially part eight, are a brew of terrific hokum as the crazy Pilgrim Crankstone is resurrected using some of Wednesday’s blood and jars containing body parts of the monster’s victims. Our chief villain turns out to be Christina Ricci, who thirty years ago played Wednesday herself. She underplays her villainy rather effectively which isn’t easy to do. The monster itself is a terrifying thing. Just when you think you've seen every type of creature tv can offer, this is a really impressive creation as good as anything on Stranger Things and that's a high standard and I would even caution it might scare some. It scared me!
The finale really brings enough turns of fortune to ramp up the excitement considerably and breaks through the reserved, clever nature of the previous seven episodes to reveal heart, heroism and a crazy Pilgrim in a hat. It may not be meant to be taken too seriously but amps up enough power to make you do so anyway. Its worth mentioning too that the incidental music, credited to both Danny Elfman and Chris Bacon is excellent.
I think younger viewers will love this series, clearly primarily designed for them. I’m a little more reserved about it but there’s no doubting the front and behind camera skills on view and even though the main character can be infuriating Jenny Ortega gives a top class performance. A second season? There are hints there will be and the success of the first makes it almost inevitable but the writers will really need to come up with something that isn’t just a repeat of what we’ve seen. And now Wednesday has thawed just a little and been through so much with her fellow pupils they can’t just go back to how things were. Should be interesting...
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