Wednesday review: Spoiler-free first impressions of Tim Burton’s Addams Family spinoff

Luis Guzman, Jenna Ortega and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Episode 1 of Wednesday.Netflix

The Addams Family gets a Harry Potter-style spin-off in Wednesday, a series that – based on the first episode – might be the perfect TV vehicle for Tim Burton, with the ideal actress in the title role.

Tim Burton was wanted for the 1991 Addams Family flick, and the director was a huge fan of Charles Addams’ original comic strip. But due to Batman responsibilities he had to pass, meaning the job went to Barry Sonnenfeld. Who in turn, nailed it. But Burton doing Addams always felt like the perfect marriage of artist and art, so it’s no surprise to see him taking the reins of this new eight-part Netflix series.

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By setting the show in a Hogwarts-style school, Wednesday ups the character count, meaning the show is filled to the brim with the kind of weirdos, oddballs, and outsiders that Burton has spent his career spotlighting.

Though Wednesday Addams remains unquestionably the star of the show, and she’s played by the brilliant Jenna Ortega. This is what we thought of the first episode…

Meet Wednesday Addams

A brief prologue finds Wednesday attending Nancy Reagan High School, where via voiceover, we hear that the Addams daughter appreciates the sadism of such educational institutions.

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The school’s water polo team are making her brother Pugsley’s life a misery, and as she’s the only one allowed to torture her sibling, Wednesday goes after them by dropping piranha into their pool during practise.

The result is claret staining the water, and Wednesday being removed from the school. Which isn’t the first time that’s happened, the teen being kicked out of eight educational institutions in just five years. But this time it’s serious – to avoid facing attempted murder charges, Wednesday must attend twice-weekly therapy sessions, while getting her schooling at Nevermore Academy.

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Nevermore is the new Hogwarts

If up until this point Wednesday has been a bit Riverdale or Sabrina, this is where it all gets very Harry Potter. And The Worst Witch. And pretty much every kid’s story that uses this template, as Nevermore is a magical school full of magical people.

We learn about the pupils therein from Wednesdays perky roommate Enid Sinclair, who via classic High School movie trope, describes Nevermore’s various cliques, which include the fangs (vampires), the furs (werewolves) and the scales (sirens).

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The protagonist of a Tim Burton movie usually doesn’t fit in, and Wednesday is no different, with Enid – and the cliques she describes – anathema to the young Addams. Her outsider status becomes even more pronounced when Wednesday challenges the school’s self-styled Queen Bee to a fencing match, which doesn’t go as planned.

Nevermore looks incredible, its darkness setting the school apart from Hogwarts. While it’s located in Jehrico County, which with its Harvest Festival and locals dressed as Pilgrims, is just the kind of cosy American town that Burton likes to satirise when his weirdos come into contact with so-called “normies.”

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What is Episode 1 of Wednesday about?

Beloved as they are, 1991’s The Addams Family and 1993’s Addams Family Values were barely movies, and more a collection of jokes and sketches. But Wednesday has eight hours of TV to fill, so writers and showrunners Alfred Gough and Miles Millar set up lots of plot to be explored in future instalments.

So mystery is introduced, via a series of murders in the nearby woods, and through something terrible that Gomez is alleged to have done when he attended Nevermore.

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And while Wednesday makes it clear that she has no interest in love or boys or family or children, the show features several eligible young men – including the sheriff’s son, and an old family friend – as potential suitors to change her mind.

Where are Gomez and Morticia?

This being a Wednesday spin-off, Gomez and Morticia are barely in the first episode, though we do get a sense of this iteration of the characters. And it isn’t great.

As Gomez, the brilliant Luis Guzman seems somewhat subdued, while Catherine Zeta-Jones also fails to make much of an impression as Morticia. Though, as the troubled relationship between mother and daughter is being set-up as a central storyline, it’ll be interesting to see how her characterisation progresses.

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So while comparisons with Raul Julia and Angelica Huston from the movies are perhaps unfair, they are also inevitable, and on this early evidence, these incarnations of Gomez and Morticia are much less engaging.

Jenna Ortega IS Wednesday Addams

Much better is Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday Addams, whose sardonic, monosyllabic delivery is hilarious, adding extra dimensions to her many one-liners. Her Wednesday moves like The Terminator, with the purpose of a gothic T-1000, only scarier.

The character already has layers, given history by way of a flashback to the last time she smiled, and hints at her future via Wednesday’s writing aspirations; ambitions that would be worthy if the teen could just get out of her own way.

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Thing also makes an appearance, the nature of which we won’t spoil here, while 1990s Wednesday actress Christina Ricci cameos as a kindly dorm mother, though not sure we’re buying her warm-hearted benevolence…

Is Wednesday good?

Episode 1 of Wednesday manages to do a lot over the course of its brief run-time. The show sets up The Addams Family, then separates the title character from her parents. It introduces Nevermore, and the creepy and kooky pupils who attend (and who definitely aren’t reminiscent of the kids in Harry Potter).

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We get a fist-full of mystery and a spot of potential romance, while the episode also manages to tell a brief monster-of-the-week story, which also helps set up the season’s overarching plot.

Making Episode 1 a fantastic opener – anchored by a darkly funny central performance from Jenna Ortega – which suggests that spending eight episodes in the company of Wednesday is going to be a scream.

Wednesday streams on Netflix from November 23.

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