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A New Woe

Wednesday. (L to R) Thing, Jenna Ortega as Wednesday Addams in episode 104 of Wednesday. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

or, How Netflix’s Wednesday isn’t like the other Addams Family stories.

Preface: I ADORE the Addams family. I always have. Even as a child, I loved the Addams family (and spurned the Munsters). And I was still a teenager when I discovered the darkly morbid comics of Charles Addams, the cartoonist who created the characters who would eventually bear his name. (Fun fact: the original cartoon characters had no names, being typically drawn in one panel vignettes that simply didn’t need such to land the punchline.)

Tl;dr — I just finished watching Wednesday, and I love it, but there’s a caveat, which I’ll get to later. I think Alfred Gough & Miles Millar did an extraordinary job of walking the fine line between the strange and often disturbing humor of this world. In fact, there are elements of this show that directly play off details from the original comic strip, from the look of Gomez Addams to Mrs. Weems (originally the family babysitter) with remarkable faithfulness.

If I’m being honest, I have very little to complain about.

But since that’s never stopped me before, here we go:

  • Given that the Hulk-like transformation of a certain character absolutely shreds clothing, how did no one notice? Also, screw changing into a monster, it’s their quick-change ability that’s the real super power here.
  • “Goody” is a title, damn it. Short for “Goodwife” and used for older married women of commoner status in Puritan society. This is like naming your daughter “Auntie.” It makes no sense unless used as an example of Addams Family whimsy, in which case, I’d have appreciated a lamp shading of that fact.
  • Hunter Doohan looks every bit of his 28 years, and fat chance I’m going to sign off on him being a teenager. As a result, it makes his character’s attempts to romance Wednesday creepy af, and I’m 95% certain that wasn’t intended.
  • That is not how emojis work.

That’s it. Those are my complaints.

So let’s talk about that caveat: the show’s relationship with humor. Ironically enough, also the show’s relationship with violence, death, and empathy.

Basically, let’s talk about murder. (Please note, I am not including the 2019 animated cartoon in any of this discussion.)

This isn’t a critique of Wednesday, the TV series, because I actually think it attempts to patch a flaw I’ve always felt existed within the Addams Family. It doesn’t always do this successfully, and in fact it often dips into narrative dissonance in the attempt, but the fact that it tries at all is really interesting.

Here’s the problem: Death has no meaning in the Addams Family.

It’s not just that they’re psychopaths (although they are) but that death and violence is, literally, a joke.

I’ll use a scene that appears in both the original Charles Addams cartoon and in the first movie as an example: Morticia sees a knife in Wednesday’s hand, asks if that’s meant for Pugsley, and upon hearing ‘yes,’ upgrades the weapon to a significantly larger and more deadly cleaver before sending her daughter off to murder her son. Which is horrifying and grim and funny as hell. And yet, in all these “play” sessions (which mirror the equally violent rivalries between Gomez and his brother Fester), we never see either child with significant injuries. The intention of violence is shown. The consequences? Never. I’ve seen a lot of attempts to explain this, most of which amount to: they’re monsters and thus presumably either heal or are flat-out unkillable (this later seems unlikely given that Wednesday’s greatest ambition at one point was to be burned at the stake like her Great Aunt Calpurnia). But it’s fine! This is playtime, let’s pretend, and we laugh and take it that way. No permanent harm done, even if murder is the most popular topic of conversation at every Addams family meal.

Unfortunately, this excuse comes crashing to the ground when it collides with characters we know are not monsters. Characters whom we can’t convince ourselves just ‘got better’ off-camera.

This happens viscerally in Addams Family Values, when the children are sent to Camp Chippewa and end up making their own unique changes to the Thanksgiving play — which culminates in them literally burning Wednesday’s rival Amanda at the stake and roasting two camp counselors alive. Now, the camera cuts away before we know for certain that Wednesday puts the girl to the match, or that the counselors die in their own immolation, but there’s little reason to think this isn’t exactly what happens. And we know damn well that none of those three were unkillable, unlike the Addams family themselves. Does the FBI ever come knocking at the Addams family door sometime later, wanting to talk to Wednesday and Pugsley about a little light mass murder? No way to know. (I don’t assume the Wednesday TV series exists in the same continuity, and there was no sequel to Addams Family Values. RIP Raul Julia, you absolute legend.) Within the framework of this story, people were (probably) genuinely hurt and (likely) really died. The jokes land, but only because we could (and did) cut away and never, ever confirm what actually happened.

It’s a matter of timing. Everything about the humor of the Addams Family, from the original cartoons to the TV show and movies which followed, relied on perfect timing — being able to cut away from the story at just the right moment, leaving the grisly results to the imagination but never on the page or screen. Yes, the entire Addams family is gathered up on the roof to pour boiling oil on the very mortal Christmas carolers below, but as long as we don’t see the oil land, we can laugh.

Which brings us to Wednesday, where we can’t just cut away, because in a serial-format TV show, cutting away from a scene without ever explaining what happened is called a continuity error.

(Warning: lots of spoilers follow.)

Our story starts off when Wednesday is sent to boarding school after she introduces two bags of piranhas to the swim-team’s pool in revenge for their bullying of her brother. The scene is paced in perfect Addam’s family style: We have the intro, Wednesday’s sadistic glee as she watches the fish do their work, the captain of the swim team attempting to exit the pool just as the piranha reach him, red blooming in the pool. Cue camera cut-away just as he starts to scream.

We later learn that he lost a testicle. Presumably, he could have lost a lot more. Make no mistake, this is at least assault, probably attempted murder. Presumably the only reason Wednesday gets away with it is because she successfully committed a crime too weird for the police to want to write up. Mostly, it’s still the classic Addams Family joke, just one with a little more follow-up than is typical.

But as a result, Wednesday is sent to her parents’ old boarding school, The Nevermore Academy, where all the weird monsters that live in the greater Addams family universe are finally given a name: Outcasts. And here, one of the major plot threads that runs through the early part of season one is the revelation that Wednesday’s father Gomez might be a murderer.

Um…and?

How is that remarkable? How is that news? Isn’t every member of the Addams family likely the perpetrator of at least a little homicide? It’s not even an ugly, sneaky kind of murder, but a crime of passion between two high school boys literally fighting over an equally young Morticia–a dramatic duel in the rain that is absolutely in Gomez’s wheelhouse.

And yet, Wednesday is upset by the idea that her father might be a murderer. Wednesday claims to be completely blase about murder, snarking when her mother tries to emphasize the seriousness of the piranha incident (“That boy’s family was going to file attempted murder charges. How would that have looked on your record?” Morticia says. To which her daughter replies, “Terrible. Everyone would know I failed to get the job done.”) but she also goes to great lengths to prove her father’s innocence. She’s clearly upset about his welfare, not his reputation. Likewise, her parents put off telling Wednesday the truth (that it was Morticia that killed the boy, and it was self-defence), because…

Because. Because Wednesday isn’t that kind of show. It can’t be.

The arrival of Wednesday to Nevermore is a watershed moment. Besides kicking off the plot, death suddenly matters. We can’t edit out consequence. And honestly? I kind of love that the writers largely don’t try (mostly–the Poe Cup race does have one classic Addams family homicide moment, as a treat).

The Addams family members continue to joke about and trivialize death the way they always have. When Wednesday confesses that there have been two murder attempts on her life in the week she’s been at the school, her father responds with nostalgic delight. They behave exactly the same way they always have, the same way we expect. They are completely faithful to the original material — or at least, they start off that way.

The brilliance of this show, imo, is that their joking is revealed to be a bluff, and reality calls them on it, hard. The sheriff is not willing to overlook Gomez’s crimes and yet when he discovers he’s wrong about them, is man enough to apologize (and Gomez is man enough to accept that apology). The other monsters going to Nevermore (even the ones who support Wednesday) are unwilling to be complicit in her plans to torture someone for information. Everyone is horrified when one of the students is seriously injured. Murder is bad. No one is killed as a punchline, and Wednesday, despite all her protests to the contrary, has just as strong an emotional response to her loved ones being injured as a “normal” person would. The show gleefully calls her on her bullshit, which results in her slowly realizing she cares (even if she’ll never admit it). By playing it absolutely straight, the writers have interjected a depth into the Addams Family I honestly wouldn’t have thought possible.

Part of this is accomplished by giving an usual amount of depth to the other characters. Bianca, a siren with mind-control powers who is set up early to be Wednesday’s rival, is not treated the way Amanda from the movies was, but is a real person with her very own real problems. When she and Wednesday finally reach an accord, it’s with no shift at all to Bianca’s core personality–a real rarity in these sorts of shows where the villain’s face turn often feels like they’ve been replaced with a doppelgänger. (Likewise, Wednesday’s growth arc is satisfying without feeling rushed or fake.) Enid? Oh, I could wax on about Enid, the bubbly dorm mate foil to Wednesday I absolutely ship (sorry, Xavier and Tyler). I expected her to be two-dimensional. She wasn’t. I could go on.

Nobody is just a joke, and as a result, neither are their deaths. Even the damn coroner, who we see on screen for approximately three minutes in total, gave me enough background and personality to feel genuinely sorry when I realized he’d been murdered.

People have real feelings, and Wednesday can hurt those feelings, and this too is a consequence that the writers don’t cut away from. I could still like Wednesday while simultaneously cheering when one of her friends finally gave her the verbal lashing her manipulative behavior so completely deserved. People are complicated.

The result of which is a show that I found far more interesting than my expectations led me to believe. I can only hope Alfred Gough & Miles Millar show as much care in season 2.

But I will definitely be watching it.

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