Wednesday was almost a snap. Tim Burton's Netflix-friendly take on a teenage Wednesday Addams — played with steely brilliance by Jenna Ortega — begins with the character striding the halls of a public high school, praising, in voiceover, the "sadism" of the American education system. You can imagine a version of the series that continues down that path, a sharp-tongued "high school is hell" story about how an icon among goth girls might cope with people who care about the Homecoming dance. Instead, the show swerves: Wednesday unleashes piranhas on the water polo team and is swiftly expelled, then shipped off to her parents' alma mater, a supernatural boarding school known as Nevermore Academy.
The Addams Family franchise thrives on culture clash. Its appeal, which spans over 80 years of TV shows, movies, and Charles Addams' New Yorker cartoons, lies in the winking reminder that "normal" and "weird" are in the eye of the beholder. Faced with what society considers acceptable, the Addamses believe they're the only ones who see the world clearly. Nevermore is full of students like that. What does it mean for Wednesday Addams when everyone around her self-identifies as an outcast? Burton, who directs and executive produces the series, has called the character "an outcast among outcasts," and it's true — even vampires and werewolves think she's strange. But Wednesday holds so tight to making Wednesday the weird one that it wastes the potential of her weird school.
Wednesday, premiering Nov. 23 on Netflix, was created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, best known for creating the Superman origin story Smallville. Their instincts trend naturally toward that kind of fish-out-of-water tale: a remarkable teen who doesn't fit in with the locals. It's the type of story this show might have told well if Wednesday had never been expelled from public school. But it fits Nevermore like a square peg in a round hole, turning a school full of gorgons and sirens into just another normal, boring school. What does it matter that Wednesday's classmates have magical powers if they hardly ever use them because they're too busy worrying about who will ask them to the dance?
Credit where credit is due: Making the kids at Nevermore dull sure does make Wednesday Addams pop. Ortega gives an inspired performance in a very tricky part. A deadpan eccentric makes for a great scene-stealer, but to sell her as the lead, Ortega has to shade Wednesday with just the right amount of humanity, although not so much that she betrays the character's misfit legacy. She nails it. Her Wednesday is stiff and peculiar, the only person on screen capable of real wit. When asked how attempted murder would look on her permanent record, she replies, "Terrible. Everyone would know I failed to get the job done." If only her cleverest lines weren't buried between so many clunkers that even the good ones start to feel cutesy. It gets harder to appreciate Wednesday dropping into a conversation that she's "hibernated with grizzlies" when her insufferably cheerful werewolf roommate, Enid (Emma Myers), is saddled with Clueless-lite dialogue like, "Let me give you a wiki on Nevermore's social scene."
The conflict in Wednesday ostensibly revolves around a murder mystery, with Wednesday as the only witness. She's a goth Nancy Drew, now with bonus psychic visions, chasing a monster when no one else believes her. It's a fun role for a character who doesn't care what anyone else thinks — when Wednesday gets caught breaking the rules, she doesn't even break eye contact, much less make excuses. Her cool lack of interest in social norms only makes it more depressing that the eight-episode first season trips her up with so many trivial problems, like her love triangle with two boys with cardboard personalities. The show is clearly aiming for Harry Potter comparisons — especially in the second episode, which spends too much time on a school-wide relay competition — but at least the world of Harry Potter contrasted these teenage rites of passage against life's darker horrors.
Wednesday is lighter and emptier than its influences. It's a story about "outcasts" versus "normies" (witness Gwendoline Christie, as Nevermore's elegant and mysterious principal, proudly introducing a colleague as "our first normie teacher") without serious interest in oppression, bullying, or anything that might make someone an outcast. Wednesday herself gets in a few good digs at colonizers, thanks to the locals' obsession with their pilgrim ancestors, but the show's mythology muddles prejudice into an abstract concept. People are hated because they're different; the show won't get more specific than that.
You can bet there are pilgrims, though. The Netflix millennial nostalgia machine demands an homage to Addams Family Values, complete with the casting of Christina Ricci as a Nevermore dorm mom. What stands out most about Wednesday is how much it feels shaped and smothered by the Netflix house style, from the '90s-kid references to the meme-ready dialogue to the polished gothic aesthetic. Even Tim Burton's strangeness mostly gets lost. There are flashes of interesting visuals; the bug-eyed monster is a true Burton creation, and costume designer Colleen Atwood dresses Wednesday in an array of black-and-white looks that feel more interesting and playful than anything her colorful classmates wear. Wednesday filmed in Romania, lending Nevermore the sense that it emerged from a different century. But the blandly American town around the school is sterile and cartoonish, and so are the characters who aren't Wednesday Addams.
As for her family — including Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Gomez (Luis Guzmán), and Pugsley (Isaac Ordonez) — the mystery Wednesday is chasing gets personal enough to draw them in, but only intermittently. A late appearance from Uncle Fester (Fred Armisen) brings out a twisted fondness in his niece that highlights what the show might be missing by sidelining her family, especially when no one else at Nevermore is creepy and kooky enough to compensate for their absence. But she does get plenty of quality time with Thing (Victor Dorobantu), the family's living hand. Nevermore could use more lovable-yet-unsettling disembodied hands scampering around to shake things up.
The captions describe Wednesday's theme music as "jauntily macabre," an apt label for the series as a whole. It's carefully spooky but never edgy. Think of it as Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, another show that ran a weird teenage girl through the Netflix algorithm, but in reverse: This time, the main character is better than the show around her, not worse. Before Sabrina went off the rails, it had some fun preoccupying witches with comically mundane problems while ordinary high schoolers faced down terrors. Wednesday lacks that funhouse-mirror perspective on growing up, where the small problems feel bigger than the big ones. High school is just high school. Wednesday Addams would hate that.
Premieres: Wednesday, Nov. 23 on Netflix
Who's in it: Jenna Ortega, Gwendoline Christie, Emma Myers, Hunter Doohan, Percy Hynes White, Riki Lindhome, Jamie McShane, Christina Ricci
Who's behind it: Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (co-creators, executive producers), Tim Burton (director, executive producer)
For fans of: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Harry Potter
How many episodes we watched: 8 of 8