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.

Kid’s Stuff: Another among others in Addams Family 2

The Addams Family 2 (2021) - IMDb

Before I spend too many words praising Addams Family 2 – which I will be doing – I want to start by referring back to the last time the Addams Family was a main subject of this blog. I have been relatively consistent since my writing of that piece in situating the creative rights of artists to make use of old media over that of firms to continue to profit off their purchased ownership of them. I persist that Adult Wednesday Addams was sufficiently transformative that, even within the bounds of copyright law as conceived, it should constitute IP protected parody. This film is a product of MGM’s ownership claim which I do think is harmful to a franchise venerable enough (Charles Addams having died over 30 years ago) that it really should be public domain. With that said, The Addams Family 2 is a remarkably good family film and the things they do with Wednesday, in particular, as a character are interesting. This film presents a favorable counter-point to the failings of The Mitchells vs the Machines and in light of my criticism of the latter for the ways in which it reinforced patriarchy and demanded that children must recognize parental hardship in the face of mistreatment I think it’s valuable to show how this film, through the use of a lighter touch and a different family dynamic managed to use the same premise: father arranges a road trip in a bid to connect to his increasingly distant daughter, to much better effect.

The fascinating thing is the extent to which these two movies mirror each other. There is, as mentioned above, a very similar inciting incident. Wednesday is increasingly distant from her family, whose foibles have become terribly irritating to her. Gomez is anxious that his daughter is acting aloof and impulsively decides to take the family on a cross-country roadtrip. Meanwhile a tech billionaire has devised a new product which works poorly and Wednesday holds the key. His interactions with the family drive the a-plot of the movie and provide an action frame upon which to hang an exploration of a father-daughter dynamic. This is all hauntingly familiar to anyone who has watched The Mitchells vs the Machines. There are, however, two very significant differences between these films and they are the sources of the strength of the Addams Family 2 over the older film. The first is that The Addams Family 2 uses a much lighter touch with the conflict between Wednesday and Gomez and a much healthier relationship dynamic between Gomez and his wife than the triangle formed by Katie, Rick and Linda in The Mitchells vs the Machines.

Unlike Katie and Rick, there’s nothing really wrong in the relationship between Wednesday and Gomez. He’s a loving and doting father who still sees Wednesday as his little girl. Wednesday sees the impulsive, passionate, affectionate Gomez as embarrassing and cloying. Like Rick, Gomez has to learn to trust his daughter to make good decisions for herself but Wednesday doesn’t need to come to any sort of cathartic understanding of Gomez’s perspective. She just has to come to accept that heredity isn’t a straight jacket and that she doesn’t have to renounce her family ties to create her own identity. This understanding on her part is sufficient to resolve her conflict with Gomez and restore the family to harmony. Morticia, meanwhile, is not caught in the middle. She acts as a confidant and helper to both Wednesday and Gomez, giving Wednesday an important plot MacGuffin that serves to cement her place in the family but also talking through parenting strategies with Gomez and, in fact, sharing agency over his mistakes.

It’s unsurprising that any modern configuration of the Addams Family has Morticia and Gomez being the sort of couple who talk through their fears together and who come to mutually agreed parameters with how to act that they both follow through on, but it is refreshing in comparison to Rick’s boorish anachronism. And this changed dynamic helps to drive home that Wednesday’s parents truly love her unconditionally and want the best for her. If they fail it’s because they’ve not calibrated how ready she is to decide, for herself, what is best.

The other significant difference is the handling of the villain. In Mitchells vs the Machines I was always very dissatisfied with the easy way Mark Bowman is let off the hook. Although his decision to discard PAL was the inciting moment of the a-plot action, he is quickly eclipsed as the villain. He regrets easily and at the end of the film has learned the error of his ways.

There’s no such kindness given to Cyrus Strange. He’s a rotter through and through. In the initial moments of the film Wednesday, at a school science fair, devises a machine to transplant animal traits into humans. The example provided is transferring the ability to solve Rubik’s cubes from her pet octopus into her oafish uncle Fester. Strange, played with airs of Steve Jobs and Tony Stark in equal measures, witnesses the demo and immediately tries to con Wednesday into giving her invention to him. She refuses, claiming it’s built around a “family secret.”

However Pugsley, Gomez and Morticia attend the science fair too, despite Wednesday’s admonitions for them to stay away, and between Pugsley’s pyromaniacal reconfiguration of another student’s baking soda volcano and Gomez and Morticia’s PDAs they manage to both destroy the venue and mortify their daughter.

Gomez then proposes a road trip to bring the family back into harmony and as they are leaving they’re confronted by a lawyer claiming that Wednesday is not, in fact, an Addams but has been switched in the hospital – a danger later made more plausible when Fester admits that he snuck into the hospital on the night Wednesday was born and upset all the babies, a situation he resolved by juggling said newborns. He says he’s mostly sure he put all the babies back where they went. Gomez and Morticia aren’t particularly interested in discussing their anxieties about being hounded by a lawyer seeking a paternity test with their aloof daughter but she overhears them discussing the issue and goes on a quest to discover the truth of her parentage.

Of course it’s all a con. Strange heard about the disruption at the hospital and used it as a basis to supplant Wednesday’s family in the belief it would gain him access to her technology. Although his aesthetics – black turtlenecks and holographic displays – point to the stereotypical billionaire-entrepreneur-inventor character, Strange is more of a Dr. Moreau. His great plot is to create human-animal hybrids to staff militaries and call centers. That’s right, the evil plot of the villain of this movie is to try and do the thing from Sorry to Bother You. He fakes a DNA test and tries to persuade Wednesday that she is really his long-lost daughter. This goes poorly for him and by the end of the movie Strange has been transformed so that his appearance corresponds to the ugliness of his heart. His lies are exposed and he is killed by Uncle Fester, now transformed into a tentacular kaiju by the side-effects of Wednesday’s treatment. None of this is ground-breaking to anybody who has paid attention to the themes of the Addams Family in the last (checks calendar) 57 years. The Addams Family are strange but loving. The beauty of their hearts becomes revelatory despite their outward strangeness while their enemies all start quite mundane but their own inward monstrosity slowly is revealed through the awful ways they treat the lovable oddballs of the cast. This works as well with the animated characters today as it did during both the Julia / Huston / Lloyd / Ricci movies and the original TV show. The gloss of tech billionaire helps to drive home the mundanity of Strange and makes the revelation of his monstrosity thus that bit more poignant.

The funny thing about the Addams Family movie is how low-stakes it all kind of seems. Wednesday is always so obviously an Addams. It’s present in the steampunk lab she sets up in the science fair and her “tremble brief mortals” monologuing about her experiment. It is deployed in a moment of legitimate humour when, in an effort to hide her from the lawyer, the Gomez enrolls Wednesday in a Texas child beauty pageant. Another girl in the group politely asks Wednesday what her talent is and Wednesday reveals that it’s min reading before promptly and horrifically invading the other girl’s mind, sending her screaming from the room in abject terror.

Later, during the same sequence, Wednesday is in the midst of the other girls on stage but, ignorant of the expected dance moves and blocking she keeps getting shoved around by the other girls until, at the moment of the climax of the musical number, she reveals a dagger secreted in her boot and cuts a rope backstage, spilling buckets of *ahem* red paint on each of the other girls in a delightfully deranged callout to Carrie.

In general the movie subverts the expectation of conflict. In one scene Wednesday commands Lurch to show a gang of bikers what his cold dead hands can do. He sings a disco number and ultimately replicates one of the best scenes from Tangled (only better because I Will Survive is a bop whereas I’ve Got a Dream is one of the Disney Princess line’s weakest songs.) In a later scene Lurch is sent into conflict with a bruiser in the employ of Strange but the villain’s thug immediately changes sides – it transpires that he was previously Lurch’s room mate at the asylum Gomez retrieved Lurch from and they’re quite fond of each other. In fact this show delights in setting up conflict and then giving us a moment of harmony instead as much as it does in setting up something mundane and pleasant – a science fair, a marriage proposal, a beauty pageant, and so on – only to transform it into absolute carnage. There is a winking kind of edge to the humour in this film which, at its best, manifests like the Carrie homage and, at its worst, is pretty much bog-standard weed jokes trading off the stunt-casting of Snoop Dogg as Cousin It. Which really isn’t all that bad when you get right down to it.

I wouldn’t say that Addams Family 2 is without flaws. Some of the fine details of the beauty pageant scene will almost certainly have reasonable critical readings that will point to some issues with perspective and power relations in the United States and the use of a vial containing a drop of blood from every member of the Addams Family as both a metaphor for the bonds of family and as a literal tool to save Fester from the unintended consequence of Wednesday’s hubris is a bit overly treacly for a movie that generally slashes away the maudlin with a riot of camp excess. However what we end up with, though imperfect, remains one of the better realizations of a non-toxic family comedy about a daughter growing up and a father struggling to come to terms with this. Wednesday is a freak. And so are her family. And their freakishness is not the same as hers and it bugs her. She doesn’t like PDAs and REALLY doesn’t want a hug.

But what makes it good is that, while Wednesday learns it may occasionally, rarely, be OK to give her freakish dad a hug because she loves him and cares for his feelings, she doesn’t have to be like her parents. She can be other than them. And being different, being other, doesn’t invalidate the bonds between them.

And that’s alright as a message by me.

Hollywood and Fan Creator culture – copyright isn’t as simple as pirates and police

sad youtubeI’ve always been a fan of the Addams Family, as such it isn’t surprising that I found Melissa Hunter‘s fanseries, “Adult Wednesday Addams” to be absolutely adorable.

So I was sad a few days ago when I found out it had been pulled. Speculation on the internet was ย that it was brought down because of backlash over the cat-calling episode (which I really wish I could link to because it was absolutely brilliant, sadly, it is now gone).

This does not actually appear to be the case. Rather the issue is an entirely different one, and one which is much more complex than yet another blow in the ongoing culture war would have been.

When I heard about the copyright strike against Adult Wednesday Addams I immediately visited the Tee & Charles Addams Foundation, the rights-holder for the Addams Family, and the organization which had brought the copyright strike against Hunter’s series.

I located the contact information and wrote the following letter to them:

I’ve always been a fan of the Addams Family in pretty much every one of its iterations. And I was a huge fan of the Adult Wednesday Addams webseries, which was funny, intelligent and tonally in keeping with the character. As such, I’m distraught over the news that your foundation has forced its removal from Youtube.

While I understand that you are the copyright holder, and legally you are acting within your rights, I think in this case you are sorely mistaken to have taken this action.

I ask, as a fan, please do not obstruct this wonderful little webseries.


sincerely,

Simon McNeil

I didn’t expect any response, but I figured letter writing campaigns have been successful in the past, and the best way for them to be successful is for somebody to start writing letters.

However I was mistaken. A mere four hours after I wrote to the foundation, I received a response from Kevin Miserocchi, the Executive Director of the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation.

Here is what he said to me:

Dear Simon McNeil,

Thank you for your comments concerning Charles Addams and his Family and the suspension of Melissa Hunter’s on line series titled The Adult Wednesday Addams. Perhaps this will help to enlighten you about the situation that has caused this to happen rather than assuming we don’t care. Unfortunately for all involved it is not as simple as you may be thinking it is: The Moneyed Establishment versus The Artist – on the contrary.

We have a contract with MGM to produce a full-length animated feature film of The Addams Familyยฎ to look exactly as Charles Addams originally painted them. That contract prohibits anyone from portraying those characters in any media during the life of the contract.

Regardless of her talent or the breadth of her audience or the entertainment it gave you, the online series is a violation of that contract, something for which both Melissa Hunter and this Foundation could have been sued heavily. You can thank Melissa Hunter for not having understood the need to contact us so as to obtain a license to protect her show. Now it is too late and she will have to wait to resume her career as the Adult Wednesday Addamsยฉ until a year after the film has been released. Hopefully, she realizes that she already has an audience and merely needs to change the title of her show and her appearance.

With best regards,
H. Kevin Miserocchi, Executive Director

So what we have is instead what appears to be a pretty awful contract. Apparently, MGM has purchased an exclusive license to the Addams Family in all media. Furthermore, according to Mr. Miserocchi, the foundation is liable for enforcing copyright on behalf of the license holder (MGM) at risk of lawsuit.

That’s all rather odious.

Now I will note that the substantial snark in the last paragraph is not very nice; and comes off a bit disingenuous. If the contract is as strict as Miserocchi describes previously, it wouldn’t have mattered if Hunter had come to the Foundation first, they would have been required to say, “no.” And I rather doubt her webseries could provide sufficient revenue to beat out MGM if it came to a competitive bid. Whatever MGM paid the foundation for this license I’d suggest they invest some of that money into a PR coordinator because there would have been much more diplomatic ways to communicate the message above.

And here’s where things get complicated. Adult Wednesday Addams is a perfect example of a fanseries. It was created by a single person (or a very small team), it has a very limited cast, episodes are based on a straightforward simple premise, riffing on something the creator / star / director / writer obviously loves.

But videos on Youtube are monetized, and the Adult Wednesday Addams videos, based on the number of views they had before being taken down and the average payout for ad-views on Youtube, might have made as much as $13,770.

Now that’s not much money, but it’s not nothing. And it’s money made through the unlicensed use of a copyrighted piece of IP.

There are two main camps on this issue. On one hand, some people will say that copyright in this case is just established industry players cutting out small-scale creatives. Considering it’s posthumous IP (Charles Addams died in 1988) they’d probably argue for some flexibility. And besides, Adult Wednesday Addams wasn’t hurting anybody and certainly wasn’t stealing any bank from MGM.

The other camp would argue that what Hunter did was technically illegal, and that the Foundation acted both within their rights but also within their own best interest pulling the plug.

I come down somewhere in the middle. My personal opinion about copyright terms would, if it were magically converted into law, put the Addams Family in the public domain – just barely (I’m a proponent of lifetime + 20 years). And 13 grand (or less) is really not that much money. And honestly the Adult Wednesday Addams webseries wouldn’t be likely to impact MGM’s revenue in the slightest – the enforcement of such strict contract terms on the foundation by MGM seems a bit overreaching.

On the other hand, the state of the law in the United States is (very loosely speaking) lifetime + 70 years, and Adult Wednesday Addams was a potentially revenue-generating product making use of that IP. And there’s a reason that Fan Fiction writers don’t sell their stories.

So I do see both sides of the argument, and both have some merit. I think, ultimately, our current copyright climate is poorly designed to handle technologies like Youtube, which can automatically take a piece of fan fiction and convert it into a profit-generating product. This isn’t even the first time this year that we’ve seen this problem.

I think we need to reexamine copyright law within the bounds of new technology. Doubling down on penalties through things like the Digital Milennium Copyright Act hasn’t worked; the vast grey area between fan product and professional product demonstrates that clearly. But copyright is also important; as much as I might like creative commons licensing and as much as I might call for a shorter than average copyright period, I’m not against copyright as a concept.

But studios and rights-holders suing or threatening to sue fans for their enthusiasm over IP isn’t cool either.

I don’t think I have an answer for this one guys. But if you do, please let me know.