Although the main character’s name was inspired by the poetic line “Wednesday’s child is full of woe,” “Wednesday” is generally a delight, thanks almost entirely to Jenna Ortega. Having outgrown her Disney Channel days, Ortega makes the Addams Family’s now-high-school-age daughter the coolest humorless goth sociopath you’ll ever meet, in a Netflix series that’s more kooky than spooky or ooky.
Director Tim Burton sets just the right visual tone – a mix of the comedic and macabre that resembles “Edward Scissorhands” – while teaming up with “Smallville” producers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who know something about building a TV show around an extraordinary teen. Indeed, when Wednesday gets enrolled in a new private school, Nevermore Academy, she tells the headmistress (“Game of Thrones’” Gwendoline Christie) about her frequent moves from school to school, “They haven’t built one strong enough to hold me.”
That might change at Nevermore, a Poe-etic name for this haven for the weird and witchy, with a supernatural vibe that’s as much Hogwarts (or X-Men) as Charles Addams’ signature comic strip.
Not only does Wednesday have to deal with dawning psychic abilities and the strange visions that go with them, but a mystery emerges that turns the suspicious lass into an ill-tempered, ebon-clad Nancy Drew, trying to ascertain who’s responsible as the clues begin to circle back to her own family tree.
It’s obviously a fairly derivative mashup of genre elements, but the mix works in part because even the smaller ingredients are tasty, from Catherine Zeta-Jones and Luis Guzman as Wednesday’s parents, Morticia and Gomez, to her sidekick Thing, who obtains a dress she wants by employing – what else? – a “five-fingered discount.” The writers extract a great deal of comedic mileage from that extremity, so give them a hand.
What separates “Wednesday” from similar efforts (Netflix’s “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” comes to mind), ultimately, is Ortega, who somehow manages to be relentlessly strange, a portrait in unblinking intensity and oddly endearing all at once. When the character description includes never raising one’s voice or cracking even the hint of a smile, that’s no small feat.
Throw in nifty touches like having Christina Ricci, who played Wednesday in the 1990s movies, as part of the school staff, and the local sheriff (Jamie McShane) dismissing Wednesday and her classmates as “the Scooby gang,” and the series operates on multiple levels.
Perhaps inevitably, “Wednesday” can’t sustain its initial kick as the serialized story unfolds over eight episodes, and the ending becomes too chaotic. Then again, that’s hardly a surprise given the nature of source material designed more for little jokes than a big sweeping story.
Seeking to bring something new a property like the Addams Family, which has been done so many times before, isn’t easy without altering its DNA. To its credit, “Wednesday” rises to the challenge and mostly manages to make it look like a snap.
“Wednesday” premieres November 23 on Netflix.