The news that Tim Burton would be directing half the episodes of “Wednesday,” Netflix’s new dramedy about the Addams Family’s death-obsessed young daughter, piqued interest. It would be Burton’s first real television work in nearly 40 years, since he directed episodes of “Faerie Tale Theatre” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” And Burton, an often magical storyteller attracted to off-kilter material, seemed as if he might be a good match for Charles Addams’s macabre cartoon family.
But neither Addams nor Burton appears to be the primary force behind “Wednesday,” whose eight episodes premiere on the appropriate day this week. The show was created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, best known for the young-Superman series “Smallville,” and the sensibility of “Wednesday” lines up with that earlier work: high-minded teenage melodrama. More focused on morbid humor, for sure, and, like “Smallville,” reasonably well executed and entertaining. But still, teenage melodrama.
Toward that end, the rest of the Addams Family is mostly absent from the show, though the actors playing those well-known characters are the big names in the cast. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Luis Guzmán, as Wednesday’s parents, Morticia and Gomez, feature largely in just one episode; the same goes for Fred Armisen as her Uncle Fester. Besides Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday, the one family member with a regular role is Thing, the disembodied hand.
“Wednesday” begins with a trademark act of calculated violence by its heroine, as if to establish her bona fides. It gets her expelled from high school — she’s older here than in earlier iterations, turning 16 in the course of the season — and sent to her parents’ alma mater, Nevermore Academy, a Vermont school for “outcasts” where the cliques are made up of werewolves, vampires, sirens and the like.
This situates the show among the post-“Harry Potter” proliferation of supernatural high school dramas, with the requisite town-versus-gown conflict, here characterized as the normies versus the outcasts. And when Wednesday discovers that people are being killed by a monster in the nearby woods, she goes into girl-detective mode, complete with voice-over narration that recalls “Veronica Mars.”
Amid these various familiar TV structures, the morbidity and sarcasm that have always characterized Wednesday become more of a motif, a running gag, than a defining trait. More fundamentally, her alienation from her schoolmates, teachers and parents becomes something she has to overcome. The through line of “Wednesday” is toward learning the value of teamwork, tolerance and human connection. Perhaps for the first time, an Addams Family story pushes Wednesday toward being more like everyone else.
This will not be what real fans of Charles Addams and his characters are looking for, and “Wednesday” is satisfying only on the level of formulaic teenage romance and mystery. On that basis it’s pretty tolerable, though. Burton’s episodes — the first four — have style and some wit, from an opening shot of Wednesday’s brother, Pugsley (Isaac Ordonez), falling out of his locker to the candy-colored beauty of a nighttime carnival scene, which includes a wonderful long shot of Wednesday chasing a schoolmate through the midway beneath a scrim of exploding fireworks. (Burton closes out his episodes with a baroque bit of mayhem, clearly inspired by “Carrie,” that is more excessive than inspired.)
The teenage-redemption themes of “Wednesday” are also a good fit for the 20-year-old Ortega, who broke in as a child actor on the Disney Channel and in CW’s “Jane the Virgin” and has since branched out into slasher films like this year’s “Scream.” She doesn’t do much with Wednesday’s mean-girl punch lines, which is at least partly the fault of the writing — they drop into the script like stones. (“I don’t bury hatchets, I sharpen them.” “Sartre said hell was other people. He was my first crush.”)
She’s good, though, with the side of the character that’s been invented for the show — she puts across this Wednesday’s submerged desire to connect with her effervescent werewolf roommate, Enid (Emma Myers, giving the show’s liveliest, funniest performance), and she gets at the small core of poignancy that’s there among the soap opera machinations and routine scary-creature battles. (Most of the latter come after Burton’s episodes, unfortunately.)
Also in the cast, in a medium-size role as the only non-supernatural teacher at Nevermore, is Christina Ricci, who portrayed a younger Wednesday in the two live-action Addams Family films of the 1990s. The joke is that the woman famous for playing the strange child is now the most aggressively normal character onscreen, and Ricci cleverly amps up her energy a little, as if it were a strain for her to make the switch. Like “Wednesday” itself, she’s crossed over to the side of the normies.