Woe to Tim Burton – A review of Wednesday

Recently Netflix announced that the 2022 Jenna Ortega fronted limited series, Wednesday, surpassed the viewership record previously set by Stranger Things. Now, of course, we have no reason to actually trust Netflix on this. The company is notoriously opaque regarding user data. However it is safe to say that Wednesday has been a pretty big deal in the November media market, perched between the Halloween horror boom and the start of the Christmas season.

Now it would be pretty easy just to pan Wednesday. One could, as one recent reviewer succinctly put it, say that Tim Burton is a hack and that Wednesday is simply, “what if a goth?”

However I don’t think that’s quite fair since Wednesday does have quite a lot to recommend it. Looked at principally as a vehicle for showcasing the talents of a young actress the show succeeds handily and Jenna Ortega delivers an exceptional performance of a young woman seething over with emotion while maintaining a carefully cultivated shell of blank-faced snark. In this endeavor she is supported by some standout performances. Gwendolyn Christie as Principal Weems is excellent and what little we see of Luis Guzman and Catherine Zeta Jones as Morticia and Gomez is likewise delightful. Guzman captures the precise ratio of wholesome kindness and concealed menace that marks most portrayals of Gomez and compares favorably to Raul Julia’s performance in the 1991 film from which Wednesday borrows heavily. Meanwhile, while Catherine Zeta Jones is not at all comparable to Anjelica Huston as Morticia, her sadder and more restrained take on the Addams matron is nevertheless well-executed and interesting.

Another key performance in the series which we must discuss is that of Danny Elfman, whose score elevates every scene it is in. it’s also worth noting that this isn’t just a Tim Burton show. Miles Millar and Alfred Gough are producers and led the writing room and their influence is at least as evident in the final production as Burton’s both through the introduction of several extraneous kung fu set pieces which I certainly didn’t complain about despite their tonal dissonance with the rest of the series (I miss Into the Badlands) and also in a rather specific sort of teen-mystery-with-supernatural-elements vibe that harkens back to Smallville.

What we end up with is a show that actually succeeds quite handily on a scene-by-scene basis. Gough and Millar deliver a decent writer’s room when it comes to comedy and the jokes, for the most part, land well. Again this is helped by Ortega’s excellent performance.

And despite some people complaining that this show has the “netflix look” I think it’s worth pointing out that any Burton production is likely to feature a relatively dark image punctuated by highly saturated colour and a lot of coloured lighting during night scenes. I mean we do remember Beetlejuice, right?

So if Wednesday is a well-acted comedy with a funny script, an excellent score and a perfectly passable colour palette then why is it so painfully unsatisfying? I think that the answer is largely because the theme is a chaotic mess.

But before we dig into precisely how the theme fails I think it might be valuable to look at Wednesday’s most obvious (if unspoken) influence: Adult Wednesday Addams. Now, when this webseries first arose into notoriety I covered it – I quite enjoyed the work and was rather annoyed that the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation had issued a copyright strike against it. In the subsequent years Melissa Hunter, the creator of the webseries, re-hosted it at her own domain and it has remained available there as it probably is defensible under US copyright law as a work of parody. But it remains an unauthorized imagining of what Wednesday Addams might be like a bit more grown-up.

Now, at the time, the justification for the copyright strike was actually because of an exclusive rights agreement made with MGM for the 2019 film The Addams Family, which I have to admit to enjoying despite the sour taste left in my mouth by the treatment of Hunter. This film was successfully received enough to produce a sequel, The Addams Family 2 which I reviewed quite favorably. Now the premise of Adult Wednesday Addams was that Wednesday, now grown, encountered a variety of Millennial problems of the (late-Obama era) day and would respond to them, well, like Wednesday Addams from the 1991 movie and, especially, its 1993 sequel Addams Family Values whose summer-camp sequence clearly informed Hunter’s take. But all of this was largely used by Hunter as a vehicle for culture and media criticism, generally with a pop-feminist approach.

But notably, for the sake of comparison to our principal subject of review, this show isolated Wednesday from the rest of the Addams Family and then juxtaposed her with normal people who could react to her self-assured morbidity with a variety of reactions in order to tell a joke or make some point on a culture issue. This is effectively how the jokes of the Wednesday series are structured. Even when she’s among the “outcasts” (more on that mistake later) of Nevermore Wednesday remains surrounded by normal people. For all that Nevermore’s denizens are werewolves, vampires, gorgons and psychics of various stripes literally none of them are creepy, kooky, mysterious or spooky in the way the Addamses are. Nevermore is as much part of American cultural hegemony as Pilgrim World is and only the Addams family is situated at all outside of this normative regime. As the other Addams family members only really appear in one or two episodes of the season this causes Wednesday to stand alone.

This is a problem because of how such a positioning impacts the themes of the series. And it’s at the thematic level that Wednesday begins to fall apart. The Addams Family has, since its 1964 iteration, been fascinated with the question of integration. From the first episode of the series the Addamses are presented as an inverse of the waspish suburbia they find themselves in. The conflict in the first episode of the TV series presents a neurotic pair of newlyweds who are distraught to find out their neighbours (and landlords) are the creepy and kooky clan. Despite the class difference at play here the newlyweds assume their integration into a cultural norm elevates them above the title family. As the episode goes by the couple discover first that the Addamses, as a result of their class position, are inescapable. After the man cooks up a plot to escape the lease via a work relocation to Hong Kong Gomez buys his company so that the new neighbours can stay and enjoy the Addamses hospitality.

This inversion, of course, helps to highlight the message that this ’60s show presented: that America could only create an other of people from disparate cultures because of their relative class positions. Absent the economic lever integration would be necessary and accommodation for cultural difference among people of goodwill was the only sane course of action. The 1991 movie flipped this question on its head and asked what would happen if it fell to the Addamses to integrate a new member. It turns out that they’re pretty good at it. The less we say about the late-90s TV revival The New Addams Family the better.

However Wednesday is definitely a product of the post-deconstructive era where the writer’s room are starting from the assumption that the idea of the theme of assimilation in the Addams family is well-known to the audience to the point where deconstruction effectively becomes unnecessary. And so within Wednesday we do get a story which tries very hard to be about integration and assimilation. In the series there are two distinct classes of people: normies and outcasts. The outcasts comprise the undead, psychics and monsters and Nevermore is their school.

The question of whether Nevermore, which stands alone from town, should integrate is quite loudly proposed by the show. In fact the best episode in the series centers around a town tradition called “Outreach Day” in which the outcast students of Nevermore come into town for the day to volunteer at local businesses. In this episode it is quite openly exposited by the mayor that Nevermore is allowed to continue, despite the disagreeable nature of its inhabitants, because of the financial pressure the institution can bring to bear. As such Outreach Day is a reminder to the normies that they must allow Nevermore to continue. Integration is not an issue.

The central conflict of the episode centers around Principal Weems compelling Wednesday to perform a concert together with the school band from the local normie high school. This additional pressure from the principal then interferes with Wednesday’s ability to continue her investigations into the central mystery of the season. However Wednesday gets her own back at the principal by rigging a catastrophe during the concert, vigorously playing the cello while all around her panic, while explosions flare and the statue of the normie town founder Joseph Crackstone melts. It is a very well shot little piece of chaos. But Wednesday later repudiates Weems that the town and the school are far too alike in that they keep secrets and smooth over conflicts in the name of propriety. Unlike the cheerfully oblivious Gomez of the 1964 iteration the outcasts of Nevermore are perfectly aware that the normies hate them – they just find it convenient to use financial pressure and back-room deals to keep a lid on the violence.

But of course this fails. Laurel Gates is plotting to bring the violence to a boil and the truth is that she doesn’t really need to do that much. Town locals including the Sheriff and the mayor’s son all want Nevermore and its outcasts gone and are happy to engage in this othering behavior. The mayor’s son, in particular, bullies and torments outcast children every chance he gets, even spraying red paint all over a dance party in a half-assed reference to Carrie executed with far more charm in The Addams Family 2.

As the series progresses we discover that one of the secrets Nevermore covered up was that Garret Gates (Laurel’s brother) died from poisoning rather than a sword through his chest – the poison had been intended to murder the entire student body of the outcast school.

But this situates the Nevermore institution as being complicit in preserving this violent state of affairs. They are equal partners in the cover-up. This critique of Nevermore as an institution is continued when we encounter the Nightshades: a secret society that exists within the school and that began its existence as effectively an Outcast equivalent of the Black Panthers. This cabal was formed to protect outcasts from normie violence and to avenge the same when they failed in the former. We learn they were founded by Wednesday’s ancestor, Goodie Adams, in response to the genocidal violence of Joseph Crackstone: the same town founder whose statue Wednesday destroyed and whose sanitized history is displayed at the local attraction Pilgrim World. But the Nightshades are severely reduced. They are nothing more than a social club who meet in a library full of history books none of them ever read. When they encounter Wednesday she’s raiding their library and they ask her to join. She rebuffs them.

This show has a very negative view of institutions that preach integration. Every institution we see in the series from the officials of the town of Jericho (mayor and police) to the school to its clubs is a den of deadly secrets that exists to conceal that the power relations of the town were founded when the survivor of a genocide exacted revenge upon the people who committed it. But this reorganizaiton of power relations is necessarily incomplete because of how history has been mystified. As nobody knows who the Nightshades should be, why Nevermore is built on the site of Crackstone’s tomb or who really killed Garret Gates the conditions of violence that led to the initial genocide remain ever present.

If this show had the courage to be fully destituent in its view of the institution, if it had the braveness to make the climax of episode 3 a true thematic representation of the season, then this would be a very different review. Unfortunately this is not the case. Instead there are a few key elements that muddy this message and make the thematic elements of Wednesday a confused mess.

The first is the sad story of the Hydes: outcasts too outcast even for the outcasts.

The Hydes are a category of monster who lurk behind seemingly normal facades until activated via trauma, poison or hypnosis. Whoever succeeds in activating a Hyde will become the Hyde’s master and it will do their bidding but, beyond that, these outcasts are (possibly but probably not) mindless fonts of brutal violence. Because of the intrinsic violence that Hydes represent this school full of vampires, werewolves and gorgons refuses to admit Hydes. The full force of the carcerial is used against a suspected Hyde and anyone suspected of this form of difference is bound in chains.

Now showing how an institution replicates social divisions even while ostensibly being a haven against the same would be a pretty normal deconstructive gesture but Wednesday doesn’t do that fully. Instead it reifies that Nevermore is quite right to take its zero-tolerance position on Hydes. The Hyde turns out to be a willing and enthusiastic participant in murder and genocide. This is not the straightforward matter of a Caliban like enslaved other forced into acts of malice. This is someone who arrived at bestial monstrosity and said, “yes. I like this.”

The next problem to a destituent read of Wednesday would be Goody Addams. The Addams family should be the intrusion of the outside into normative American life. This is certainly something the more recent cartoon movies understood quite well – and the depiction of Wednesday in particular, in the recent cartoons reinforces this read clearly. This is made harder when Wednesday has an ancestor so similar to her that she’s portrayed by the same actress who was the one who personally hunted down the genocidal town founder, cursed him to eternal torment, founded the school on ground reclaimed from him and founded the vigilante group who protect outcasts from future harm. By tying Wednesday so strongly to Goody Addams we do not have a situation wherein an institution is, in itself, a corrupt den of secrets. Instead it becomes a revanchist sort of message where the school has fallen from a position of past glory and must be revived.

This becomes even more evident when Wednesday, late in the series, announces she believes a prophesy that showed her as the destroyer of Nevermore might actually be depicting her as its savior. This puts Weems in an odd position of simultaneously being Wednesday’s most visible antagonist and also her strongest ally throughout the back third of the season. But there’s problems with the characterization of the school’s student body. To whit they’re far too normy. The vampires are just pale kids who wear sunglasses. The gorgons are normal kids who wear beanies. The werewolves might have coarse manners but they are also very normal kids who do normal high-school kid stuff. The only “outcast” at Nevermore who acts culturally distinct from the normies is Wednesday herself. By framing the school this way we get less a conflict between two cultures mediated via an inverted class relationship that situates hegemonic culture as at a disadvantage and instead we get some iteration on the Hatfield-McCoy feud.

This show also really half-asses its critique of the police. Sheriff Gates sucks. I mean I have only encountered one police officer in a TV series who I like less – Sherriff Acosta from the Scream series. Sheriff Gates is exactly the sort of man who makes every encounter a little worse for his involvement. He keeps dangerous secrets, he’s emotionally abusive to his son. He’s closed off and uncommunicative. He’s just generally a complete asshole.

So of course the show has to validate that he’s actually right about some of his behaviour. The cathartic conclusion to the oedipal psychodrama with his son positions him more like Sergeant Al Powell than Sheriff Acosta. Don’t get me wrong. This show is hardly copaganda. The cops are mostly useless and that’s when they’re not an active hindrance to our protagonist. But again the show lacks the courage of its conviction and tries to weasel out a bit of a “both sides” in the final episode. The show concludes with Nevermore closed for the semester but not forever. Laurel Gates’ plot to revive Crackstone and purge the “outcasts” has failed but new mysteries await Wednesday (should Netflix decide to pick up season 2.) Sheriff Gates is still the sheriff. Wednesday neither saves nor does she destroy any institutions. Some of the people at the top are replaced. There will be some staffing changes at Nevermore come season 2 and a new mayor for Jericho but this seems to plant the blame for all the secret-keeping and conspiracism firmly on the shoulders of individuals rather than the institutions they serve. It’s not that the Nightshades devolved into a social club due to mystification from their material origins – they just needed an Addams to lead them. This is a show that wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants Wednesday to be right that the institutions she’s surrounded by – from the medical panopticon of a court-ordered psychologist to the school to the police – are corrupt and in need of bringing down but also that they can be reformed if only the right people occupy the right seats. Damnit I want my fully Foucauldian Addams Family retelling and not this half-measure.

And so Wednesday remains a fun momentary distraction for parents of spooky children but little more. It’s not like Wednesday has a toxic thematic message – it doesn’t have a coherent thematic message at all besides perhaps “it’s good to have friends who understand you” – so I’m not saying, “give it a miss” so much as “calibrate your expectations.” If you go in expecting a funny show with two good fights, one good dance, and two really good cello solos but little else to do or say you’ll be fine. Jenna Ortega is a talented new actress and I’m glad to see her getting a larger role after playing a second-fiddle in recent outings like Scream (2022) and X. But it really drives home that you can’t expect a coherent critique of normativity from Tim Burton. And we can all, perhaps, admit at last that it was good he passed on the 1991 film and cleared the path for Barry Sonnenfeld to direct in his stead. Because, building largely on the aesthetic legacy of Sonnenfeld’s movie and on the hastily redacted fan-series of Melissa Hunter, Burton managed to make… a mess.

It’s a funny mess. It’s a well-acted mess. But it’s still a mess. But I suppose, considering how Netflix is hyping those numbers and the obvious sequel bait of the final episode, it’s a mess we’ll likely get a second helping of and that I, ever the fool when it comes to the Addams Family, will probably start watching the day it comes out.

And at least it’s better than The New Addams Family.

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