Done right, The Addams Family has the potential to be one of the most pure-fun franchises that Hollywood has. It’s a joyously macabre antidote to the white-picket-fence American dream, with a good old-fashioned gothic tradition and all the best bits of modern Halloween – severed limbs as a joke, big spiders, being very horny in a slightly weird way – thrown in.
In the 90s, the films The Addams Family and Addams Family Values took Charles Addams’s source material and played it along perfectly spooky lines, with Anjelica Huston and Christopher Lloyd vamping it up to the maximum and Christina Ricci playing a wonderfully psychotic little Wednesday. The question is, do you trust Netflix – the people who made both Tall Girl and Tall Girl 2, may I remind you – to carry on that fine tradition?
Well, they’ve smashed it. The first perfect choice is the format – Wednesday (from Wednesday 23 Nov, Netflix) casts Jenna Ortega, an Aubrey Plaza re-gen who is primed for stardom, as the titular Addams child, sending her to spooky boarding school Nevermore Academy after an incident involving piranhas, a swimming pool full of jocks and a lost testicle. There are sirens and lycans and vampires, but not in a Twilight way, and Wednesday is considered the weirdest weirdo at a school where a lot of the students legitimately feast on blood. What made Addams Family Values so funny almost 30 (What!) years ago was the contrast of the idiosyncratic vaudeville goth family (with an undead chauffeur and a pet severed hand) with cul-de-sac-and-prom-queen America. Here, they’ve tweaked the formula in a satisfying way: Wednesday’s sparklingly colourful roommate, Enid, could so easily have been written as a cheerful airhead who doesn’t “get” her new companion. Instead, she’s more than equipped to deal with her goth posturing while having a story of her own.
Second is the casting, which I think would be impossible to get more right. As Morticia, Catherine Zeta-Jones is less chewing the scenery than ravishing it at every glance, and Luis Guzmán is playing Gomez less as a frenzied lothario and more as a man who has been so agonisingly horny for so long it has sent him stupid. Gwendoline Christie’s in it being great, as ever, and it’s hard to overstate how perfect a Wednesday Ortega is: unblinking, unsmiling, po-faced and odd. There are a load of teenage hunks whirring around who are in love with her, and somehow in this world it all makes sense. There is an intense and completely unnecessary scene where she plays a jet-black cello. This is the kind of thing we need to see more of on TV.
Then there’s the mystery, of which there seem to be a couple: Wednesday keeps getting agonising visions of people’s deaths every time she touches them, which is not ideal, gargoyles keep toppling over and fires keep roaring out of control. There’s some deep unspoken history involving Gomez and Morticia, who met at the school, a monster on the loose and a crayon drawing that possibly predicts the future. In a way, Wednesday has taken the central idea of Harry Potter – what if there were a magical school that was haunted by one monster every year? – and exchanged the epic drama of Hogwarts for wry laughs. It’s really, really fun.
It is also just the right level of darkly horrible: Tim Burton, Hollywood’s goth-in-chief, has directed most of the eight-part series (Gandja Monteiro and James Marshall took two episodes each), and you can tell – every not-quite-in-focus severed limb, every cut-just-right off-camera scream, every piranha attack is poised to be just grim enough to be sickly enjoyable, but just kitschy enough not to be overwhelming. Every extra looks a little deliberately weird and there are a lot of grizzly scenes where people get their throats bitten out.
I think if Wednesday does the usual Netflix thing that happens to a series when it starts out good and people like it – ie runs for two seasons longer than it needs to and it becomes very clear that producers are reading fan threads on Reddit – then I’ll come back and write a critical re-evaluation, but for now: Wednesday is fantastic. I cannot wait to see what weird goth direction all the other streaming platforms go in as a result of it.
• This article was amended on 23 November 2022 to clarify that Tim Burton did not direct all the series. He directed four episodes and Gandja Monteiro and James Marshall directed two episodes each.