Netflix’s new phenom Wednesday, a Tim Burton–helmed Addams Family spinoff, has broken records and catapulted towards a household name status in the months since its debut. Having premiered on November 23rd, 2022, this show broke Netflix’s record for most hours viewed in its initial week and has maintained its top spot on the streaming service’s charts throughout its run thus far, in addition to being renewed for a second season weeks after the release of its first.
Despite the show’s astronomical popularity, many critics have slammed it as being more suited for The CW. For a network that introduced fan favorites like The Vampire Diaries (a show where two adult vampire brothers both fall for and date Elena Gilbert, a high-school-aged minor) and The 100 (a show where a teenage girl is tasked with leading her people after being stranded on a post-nuclear-apocalypse Earth), Wednesday does seem as though it could fit amongst the network’s lineup.
On January 26, 2017, The CW premiered its pivotal series Riverdale, a pseudo-noir modernized take on the Archie comics lore that acted as a cultural reset on the traditional Young Adult audience of its time. The show catapulted its cast into star status after it reached near-immediate success with its dark takes and unnervingly attractive leads. This standout for the network caught the eye of other studios ready to capitalize on this method of success.
What Riverdale accomplished by turning a well-known canon into a dark mystery show with hot 20-something actors working overtime to pass as high schoolers spawned a genre of its own–the “Gritty Teen Remake” of classic media, revamped in order to make a quick buck, spawning such titles as Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Nancy Drew, and even HBO’s Gossip Girl reboot (admittedly not a gritty remake, but one that bends over backward to appeal to the high school demographic much more than its predecessor did at the time). With the premiere of Wednesday, a YA addition to the Addam’s Family canon that follows the titular daughter as a teenager, the question of whether this show belongs in the same category as others born of the “Riverdale Effect” has been raised by viewers.
The first thing to note about any “Riverdale Effect” title is the “grittiness” of the material. The first season of Riverdale introduced a murder mystery that Archie and the rest of his group have to solve. While this plot aided in its massive critical and commercial success, the evolution of the show’s storylines culminating in the main group gaining superpowers and having to unite to prevent a comet from destroying the town illustrates how this piece jumped the shark around the time they introduced a board-game-worshipping cult three seasons prior. However, there are no Addams Family media without a healthy amount of “dark and twisty.” The whole schtick that comes with these stories is that this family is spooky and hilariously out there. Wednesday Addams has especially been depicted as a supremely dark figure – a child who revels in the horrors of the human experience.
Netflix’s Wednesday is the first piece of media to exist in the Addams Family canon that depicts Wednesday as a teenager. While the show masterfully handles her character in establishing a new understanding of this iconic figure in a more mature situation, there are instances in the characterization of Teen Wednesday that feel like Netflix’s forceful insertion rather than an exploration of what she could actually be like given time and experience. It’s entertaining to watch classic YA dramedy tropes (petty school rivalry, forced angst, love triangles, and compulsory Gen-Z-Dialogue, for example) happen around Wednesday while Jenna Ortega fights tooth and nail to keep her character rightfully unbothered, but the Riverdale comparisons ring the loudest in these same areas.
While there is a litany of things to appreciate about the show (Tim Burton easter eggs, the wondrous handling of Edgar Allan Poe as a legacy hero figure, and Jenna Ortega’s masterful performance, to start), there is much work to be done to ground the story moving forward. A serious, conscious effort needs to be made on the part of the executive team to make it less of a cash grab for Gen Z audiences and more of a body of work that this and other generations can find accessible. Wednesday’s current construction has moments of writing that are so jarring that it brings its audience out of the world that has been masterfully created from the beginning. Herein lies the unifying fix for any “Riverdale Effect” title that has yet to be done: if the creative team can lean away from trying to be a “hit with the teens” and more towards writing their supporting characters as if they were real people, these comparisons would not be an issue – and we, as an audience, wouldn’t be subjected to moments comparable to: “Well then I guess you’ve never experienced the epic highs and lows of high school football” as a response to a minor character admitting to being a child drug mule, or “I’m weird. I’m a weirdo. Have you ever seen me without this stupid hat on? That’s weird.”