Netflix’s new series, Wednesday, comes with dark expectations born from a lofty, if uneven, pedigree. The brainchild of cartoonist Charles Addams, The Addams Family was unearthed for the world in 1938. Over the intervening years, the stories surrounding the Addams family took to various media beyond the artist’s own cartoon depictions. Perhaps the first to gain wide familiarity was the ABC television series that aired for two seasons beginning in 1964 starring John Astin as Gomez, the Addams family patriarch, Carolyn Jones as his wife in black, Morticia, and Lisa Loring as their daughter, Wednesday. Others rounded out the cast of oddball characters, but none captivated the public imagination as that of Wednesday, who, even in pre-pubescence, displayed sociopathic tendencies that fit right in with a family dynamic embracing the morbid and macabre, not realizing that such dynamic subverted traditional American values to hilarious effect. The Addams Family were the quintessential fish out of water without any self-perception as such.
In addition to the television series and magazine cartoons, the Addams Family received further exposure through video games, comic books, three films in the 1990s, and a musical, among other various merchandising properties.
The initial films of the 1990s, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (who later directed the first three Men in Black films), The Addams Family (1991) and Addams Family Values (1993), made a star of young Christina Ricci, who played daughter Wednesday to hilariously successful effect – in many ways, stealing both films from the elder performers with her numerous attempts to dispatch her brother Pugsley.
Turn now to 2022 and the Netflix series that takes Wednesday from pre-teen to full-fledged teenaged outcast, where she feels most comfortable.
The success of the Netflix series rests with the actor portraying Wednesday Addams – Jenna Ortega, who fully inhabits her character and delivers a brilliantly understated performance. It’s very hard to bring to any kind of life a character who exists as an expressionless caricature of twisted, morbid innocence and curiosity.
What is particularly striking about Ortega’s performance is that she is capable of conveying a depth of character beyond what she reveals in dialogue. Her dark (mostly unblinking eyes) are so expressive that one finds themselves enraptured by the performance she gives with the subtlest of eye movements and thoughtful gazes. She manages to say more with a slight shift in gaze or wide-eyed stare than with, perhaps, the whole of her dialogue. She’s just that much fun to watch. Ortega becomes Wednesday Addams and no gesture or expression is out of place. She knows this character and possesses her in full.
If I’m being honest, the comparison of Wednesday by viewers and critics alike to that of Riverdale is not altogether without merit. The series also bears resemblance to another recent CW offering, Nancy Drew (which will come to a close after its fourth season on that network). Wednesday gives viewers enough of a story to showcase its titular character. In interviews, the creators confessed that bringing this incarnation of the Wednesday character to life in this day and age required walking a fine line, and they had to be very careful that her dark asides (e.g., “If you hear me screaming bloody murder, I’m likely just enjoying myself.”; “I don’t bury hatchets. I sharpen them.”; “You can’t wake the dead. Believe me, I’ve tried.”; “I actually fillet the bodies of my victims then feed them to my menagerie of pets.”; “I know I’m stubborn, single-minded, and obsessive. But those are all traits of great writers… And serial killers.”) did not go too far, and did not stray into anything deeper than dark satire. As a young child, Wednesday’s musings among those outside her immediate circle of influence could be excused as precocious innocence and a lack of understanding of the import of her words. As a teenager, especially in this current climate of seemingly unprovoked mass violence, her dark quirks and observations/confessions could be potentially misconstrued as endorsements of violent, anti-social behaviors. As a society, we are losing the ability to discern the difference between truth and satire. So, the show’s creators had to tread lightly and update the satirical nature of the character without making her a role model for unrestrained malfeasance and violence.
Perhaps most importantly, Wednesday presents young girls with a strong, self-possessed character not afraid to be herself. True, she may not know any different. Though Wednesday is mocked and shunned because she is different, she never loses sight of who she is and who she wants to be. That vision of herself may evolve throughout the story, but it comes as she learns more about herself and what she desires and who she, with initial reticence, ultimately allows to get close to her. In the end, as her roommate, Enid Sinclair, states, “Most people spend their entire lives pretending to give zero Fs, and you literally never had an F to give.”
Jenna Ortega has brought something special to a beloved character. She carries this show (appearing in every scene short of perhaps half a dozen). And she makes the effort look so easy. I look forward to what (hopefully) comes next.