‘Wednesday’ is plagued by the influence of the CW

Illustration+by+Ryan+Yau

Photo: Ryan Yau

Illustration by Ryan Yau

By Ryan Yau, Assistant Living Arts Editor

The new Addams family spinoff “Wednesday” released last Wednesday. 

The eight-part miniseries focuses on a teenaged Wednesday Addams as she transfers to an outcast-only boarding school—“outcast” encompassing werewolves, sirens, and gorgons. It takes the famous intellectual property of Charles Addams and places it in a somewhat banal, Harry-Potter-esque boarding school context.

But “Wednesday” is plagued by a far more malicious conceptual demon—the indelible influence of the CW’s schlocky signature style. Wednesday is inexplicably caught in the middle of a small-town murder mystery conspiracy, as if popular TV showrunners have no idea what could propel their stories otherwise.

To borrow a phrase from Obama: let me be clear. I enjoyed “Wednesday.” 

It starts with the casting. The 90s Addams Family movies undoubtedly found a lightning-in-a-bottle cast that would be difficult to best, and the 60s sitcom had the power duo of John Astin and Caroline Jones as the famous parents.

Jenna Ortega, as the new eponymous Wednesday, had substantial shoes to fill—it’s not a stretch to say there is no Wednesday Addams without Christina Ricci. In the 60s sitcom, she was a young girl with no discernable personality, as is common with children. Ricci’s performance in the 90s movies introduced her signature wry humor that made her a fan favorite, and that has permeated every following iteration.

On top of this legacy, Ortega has the undertaking of protagonism. Despite the odds, she successfully renews the character, providing necessary subtlety to portray Wednesday as a person too caught up in her own characterization to be sincere.

What “Wednesday” does best is interrogate the Addamses in a 21st-century context. Wednesday’s trademark sardonicism and unwillingness to emote may be cute for a child, but can be annoying for an adolescent. Wednesday’s colorful roommate Enid acts as a perfect foil, showing that one can be assertive without pushing people away.

That’s not to say the snow alienates Wednesday from the audience—she’s still easy to root for, her wit can be as sharp as ever, and it’s always gratifying to watch her interact with snobbish antagonists.

Other aspects of the Addams world were given the same type of reevaluation.

Gomez and Morticia have always been the best characters of the family, and their evergreen  relationship was much of the reason why—but what once subverted the archetypal dysfunctional marriage of the 60s sitcom landscape is not so revolutionary today. While openly-loving, hypersexual parents are great fun for an audience, it would be annoying if you were their child in the inward-facing seat of their hearse.

The macabre nature of their interactions is also questioned. Much of the Addams’ shenanigans involve death, violence, or torture—with each iteration of the Addams Family, its members become more openly murderous. What the 60s sitcom could only imply was more explicitly shown in the 90s movies—Wednesday is constantly shown tormenting her brother Pugsley, albeit never in a graphic manner.

“Wednesday” takes the concept further, opening with Wednesday unleashing a pack of piranhas on a group of swimming high school bullies, deducting their ball count by one. In the same episode, Gomez is implicated as a murderer—an natural consequence of his love of swordfighting and overprotective romantic nature.

All of these elements work—in fact, the further the Addams’ anachronistic lifestyles stray from modernity, the more entertaining their hijinks.

But looming over the triumphs of “Wednesday” is the shadow of one broadcast television network whose stylistic trappings have suffused the past decade of teen TV—the CW.

To understand the CW’s grasp on popular media, we need to talk about Archie. What started as an innocuous all-American comic series about a red-haired boy and his exploits was reanimated in 2017, when Archie and his town of Riverdale were morphed by the CW into “Riverdale,” a sexed-up saga of infidelity and murder.

There was TV before “Riverdale,” and there was TV after “Riverdale.” Even the CW was different before Riverdale. Then, the network was more known for its soapy adaptations of superhero stories, namely “Arrow,” “The Flash,” and “Supergirl.” Though those pulled on similar tropes of love triangles and twist villains, the specific set of tropes associated with “Riverdale” had not made their way into the showrunning lexicon.

It’s impossible to talk about “Riverdale”—or even all of dramatic serial TV—without mentioning “Twin Peaks.” Often noted as one of the most influential shows of all time, the quasi-soap murder mystery weaved a great ensemble of characters, who were all cheating on each other, around a central compelling murder mystery, sprinkled with dream logic and cosmic horror. The show simultaneously satirized soap elements, like labyrinthine webs of infidelity, while also fully playing into those tropes.

Season one of “Riverdale” is fascinating because the showrunners seem to genuinely believe they were making the next “Twin Peaks.” All the elements are there, but without any of the finesse.

“All roads on ‘Riverdale’ lead back to ‘Twin Peaks,’” showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa once said in an interview with Vulture.

Even so, there’s an earnestness to the early seasons in its chimeric chasing the tails of “Twin Peaks” that could be construed as admirable. Later seasons, some of which entail the uprisings of multiple cults, abandon any desire to be taken seriously and lean into an ersatz brand of camp.

“The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” the CW’s adaptation of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” may be a more apt comparison to “Wednesday” as another sitcom-to-miniseries adaptation. It’s marked with the same overdramatic tone that washes over “Riverdale,” but manages to retain sincerity for twice as long—two seasons. By the first episode of the third season, the show has incorporated faux-camp musical numbers.

Where these CW efforts fall short is in trying to replicate the aesthetics of camp without the core earnestness that makes kitsch engaging. When something is in on the joke of its own garishness, it usually fails to replicate the unique quality of being sincerely bad.

Anyhoo, “Wednesday” seems to find itself at an early stage of adapting CW show traits. The central driving force of the plot is a mystery involving a monster attacking hikers around Wednesday’s new school, and the school and town’s possible involvement in the cover-up.

By nature sitcom characters are designed to be propelled by the plot, and Wednesday as a sitcom relic would be no different. But the flavorless implementation of an overdone murder mystery storyline is somewhat disappointing.

Albeit “Wednesday” makes a point to introduce a larger community of mystical outcasts, and in doing so explores some implications. But the plot somewhat overemphasizes the superheroics of the story, which end up amounting to not much except for generally tedious superpowered battles.

The Addams Family world is rich enough to be entertaining as a more straightforward slice-of-life series—the very conceit of the family is that they are creepy and kooky in a square society. With a capable cast to embody the characters, the showrunners didn’t need to stray so far from the franchise’s roots.

Ultimately, “Wednesday”’s adoption of CW-esque flourishes included to spice up the series are detrimental, and only forecast negative trends in the landscape of popular TV.