‘Wednesday’ Review: Jenna Ortega Delightfully Seethes in Netflix’s Moody YA Mystery

Tim Burton directs the first four episodes of this “Addams Family” riff that’s more “Veronica Mars” than “Sleepy Hollow”

Jenna Ortega as Wednesday Addams in "Wednesday" (Netflix)

How do you solve a problem like Wednesday Addams? On the face of it, the eldest child of the cheerfully goth Addams Family has it made in the shadows: She’s become the clear favorite Addams ever since her shift from a mildly morose little kid on the “Addams Family” sitcom from the ’60s (based on the comics by Charles Addams) to the deadpan comic engine of the “Addams Family” movies of the ’90s (based on both the series and the comics), where she perfectly played by a young Christina Ricci. But Ricci’s success in those Barry Sonnenfeld comedies has meant that future incarnations of the Addams Family have struggled to figure out how to keep Wednesday in the spotlight. A short-lived Broadway musical cast her as a conflicted young adult, yearning for her normie boyfriend and self-conscious about her family’s weirdness; the recent animated movies made her more of a disdainful child prodigy. Neither approach feels quite right; both sand down the character’s sharper edges.

The new Netflix series “Wednesday” attempts to restore them — sort of.

Though “Wednesday” has long been trumpeted as director Tim Burton decamping, like so many other distinctive filmmakers, for streaming television, fans expecting a triumphant return to the Hammer Horror aesthetics of “Sleepy Hollow” or “Sweeney Todd” may be disappointed. Burton directs the first four of eight “Wednesday” episodes, and while he sets the show’s template in certain ways — Danny Elfman musical themes, Colleen Atwood costumes, black tones so richly inky they feel like color, plus splashes of actual color for contrast — it’s clear from the jump that this is the Addams clan reimagined for a CW-ready fantasy-mystery YA series. Burton is just on hand to lend it a dash of genuine outsider empathy and mall-goth cred. In other words, it’s more “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” than “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

The show, created by “Smallville” vets Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, sends a reluctant Wednesday (Jenna Ortega) off to Nevermore Academy, a Hogwarts-like boarding school populated by werewolves, vampires, sirens, and other teenagers of fantastical origin. Wednesday has no equivalent powers — she has been plagued with psychic visions, but keeps this a secret from her family — but Nevermore seems like a more accommodating option after she exacts bloody revenge on some public-school bullies. Luckily, her parents Gomez (Luis Guzmán) and Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) are alumni who have pull with the principal Larissa Weems (Gwendoline Christie).

Putting Wednesday Addams at a school full of weirdos might seem like it would moot her outcast status, but there’s at least some cleverness in the way that she maintains her remove even in a heightened environment: Truly, it’s not Wednesday’s mordant interests or black-and-white-and-black fashion sense so much as her icy and unyielding demeanor that alienates her from others. Also, these supernatural youngsters are just as plugged in as any contemporary kid, while Wednesday is proudly analog.

Wednesday abandons her plans to escape from Nevermore when a mystery falls into her lap: A student appears to be killed by a mysterious monster, then turns up seeming very much alive the next day. What’s out there in the forest? (Yes, just like in “Harry Potter,” this magical boarding school features a forbidding forest and a quaint adjoining town.) Does it have to do with her parents’ past at the school? As she investigates, Wednesday starts forming social connections, at times seemingly against her will. To add yet another comparison point to this omnivorously derivative series: She’s Veronica Mars with better clothes and worse wisecracks.

Doubtless, some fans will yearn for something bloodier, weirder, scarier, and/or wittier (or at least scripts that don’t regularly misuse certain words and phrases; yeesh). Yet taken on its relatively kid-friendly terms, “Wednesday” has its charms. Chief among these is recently anointed scream queen Ortega (of “X” and the fifth “Scream”), who carries the show through a sea of tall, handsome, largely interchangeable boys. Burton and the other directors alternate dead-center medium close-ups of Ortega that have a comic-panel clarity with wider shots that make clear just how diminutive she looks next to most of her co-stars. Ortega also seems to understand how much of the Wednesday vibe is physical, and when she occasionally breaks her requisite stillness — for sudden jerks into her psychic visions or, most delightfully, an unexpected dance sequence that’s both unbridled and tightly controlled — it’s impossible to regard anything else on screen.

The show also has a lot of fun with Wednesday’s designated sidekick/pet Thing, a disembodied hand that does her bidding (with the occasional rude gesture thrown in), and with Wednesday’s roommate Enid (Emma Myers), an untransformed werewolf who horrifies her new pal with unceasing bubbliness.

Though not all of the other student characters are so entertaining, “Wednesday” is still at its best when it keeps the familiar faces of Gomez and Morticia offscreen. Ortega has successfully reinterpreted Wednesday in a way that mixes the deadpan of Ricci (who appears here in a supporting role) with seething teenage hostility, plus some hints of vulnerability over the long haul. Guzmán and Zeta-Jones, sadly, are mostly just doing watered-down imitations of their big-screen counterparts. (Fred Armisen does capably riff off the sitcom version of Uncle Fester in his late-season appearance, generating much-needed laughs.)

Ultimately, the central mystery of “Wednesday” is more exposition-heavy (and, admittedly, suspect-packed) than truly twisty, and many of its relationships feel more dutiful than heartfelt. It’s an engaging character study under the delusion that it should also work as a lore-filled ensemble saga, borne from a desire to fit in with its chose TV genre. This is an irony dark enough for Wednesday Addams to appreciate it — and has given us a Wednesday, at least, worth appreciating.

All eight episodes of “Wednesday” premiere on Netflix on Nov. 23.