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TV Review: “Wednesday” – Catholic Review

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NEW YORK – The cartoons of Charles Addams (1912-1988) have cast a long shadow over black humor. Collected from books and adapted to a wide variety of media, his work has proven to have a rich and enduringly popular legacy.

So the mid-1960s saw the debut of ABC’s live-action television show, “The Addams Family.” In the mid-1970s, an animated version briefly aired as Saturday morning fare on NBC-TV. Twenty years later, ABC has launched its own cartoon series, with John Astin, the network’s first Gomez Addams, now voicing the clan’s cheerfully morbid patriarch.

Around the same time, Barry Sonnenfeld directed two films – the self-titled original and the sequel “Addams Family Values” – which had mixed success both at the box office and from critics.

Jenna Ortega as Wednesday Addams in “Wednesday.” (Courtesy of Netflix)

The second film’s poor financial returns cast doubt on the franchise’s future on the big screen. But any expansion of it seems to have been entirely blocked by the untimely death, in 1994, of Raul Julia, who had taken on the role of Astin.

More than 25 years passed before a duo of less-than-memorable animated features followed, both co-directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon. Video games and a straight-to-DVD movie are other entries in the canon.

Now, Tim Burton is stepping forward as director of “Wednesday,” a spinoff named and centered on the daughter of the macabre comedy family. All eight episodes of the series, which stars Jenna Ortega in the title role, are streaming on Netflix.

Given the affinity between Burton’s sensibility and that of Addams, the creative combination seems, at first glance, promising. Yet despite an impressive gothic atmosphere, a laser-intense performance from Ortega, and occasional witty exchanges in the dialogue, a diffuse plot with too many competing storylines prevents the production from fully coalescing.

The tone of the show and its appropriate audience are indicated by the opening sequence. To avenge his bullied little brother, Pugsley (Isaac Ordonez), whose bullies are on their school’s swim team, Wednesday introduces the piranha into the pool the thug boys train in – with momentarily, but explicitly, bloody consequences.

Taking Wednesday’s subsequent expulsion as an opportunity, her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán), enrolled her in their alma mater, Nevermore Academy. As one might guess from the couple’s presence there, the student body at Nevermore is made up of eccentric outcasts.

Eager to escape rather than fit in, Wednesday is watched closely by the majestic Nevermore principal, Larissa Weems (Gwendoline Christie). She’s also annoyed by the cheerfulness of her new roommate, Enid Sinclair (Emma Myers), and the smugness of Nevermore’s reigning queen bee, Bianca Barclay (Joy Sunday).

Add to the mix at least two potential love interests, schoolmate Xavier Thorpe (Percy Hynes White) and local barista Tyler Galpin (Hunter Doohan), as well as mysteries past and present, and the sentiment that showrunners and writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar throwing too many balls in the air at once becomes unmistakable. The excess of elements thwarts the attention of the public.

Although sexual content is absent from the first two episodes reviewed, gruesome images and some rude expressions make the program strictly off limits for children. Mature teenagers, on the other hand, can take these weird, earthy ingredients more or less in stride. Like adults, however, they’ll likely struggle to stay focused on Wednesday’s overly disparate action.

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