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All eyes on are 'Wednesday' in this playfully droll 'Addams Family' spinoff

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams began drawing his gloomy illustrations about a family of ghoulish misfits in the 1930s and continued drawing them until his death in the 1980s. In the 1960s, ABC presented "The Addams Family," a delightful TV series about those characters for which the cartoonist finally gave them names - Gomez, Morticia and their young children Pugsley and Wednesday. Spinoff movies followed in the '90s, in which Christina Ricci was introduced as Wednesday. And now Netflix is launching a TV series spinoff called "Wednesday" with a former Disney Channel star in the title role. Our TV critic David Bianculli loves it and has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: In 2016, Jenna Ortega starred as Harley, the fourth of seven children in a Disney Channel sitcom called "Stuck In The Middle." It was a sort of Disney-fied, female-centric version of "Malcolm In The Middle," with young Jenna introducing her character by breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STUCK IN THE MIDDLE")

JENNA ORTEGA: (As Harley Diaz) This is what happens when there are seven kids and you're stuck in the middle. If my family was a week, I'd be Wednesday.

BIANCULLI: Well, now, only six years later, Jenna Ortega is Wednesday, playing Wednesday Addams, the eternally glum Addams Family daughter in a new Netflix series where her character is now front and center. This new adaptation is created in the premiere episode written by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. Their last adaptation of a well-known comic was the long-running Superman origin series "Smallville." For "Wednesday," they've assembled a team that does justice to the movie versions, the original TV series and even the New Yorker drawings. The theme music is by Danny Elfman. Many of the eight episodes provided for preview, including the premiere, are directed by Tim Burton.

The look and tone of the series is perfect, and so is its dry, dark sense of humor. And appearing as Gomez and Morticia are Luis Guzman and Catherine Zeta-Jones. In this early scene, they're riding in the family hearse, driving a reluctant Wednesday, played by Jenna Ortega, to the exclusive unusual boarding school they once attended.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WEDNESDAY")

LUIS GUZMAN: (As Gomez) I promise you, my little Piper, you will love Nevermore. Won't she, Tish?

CATHERINE ZETA-JONES: (As Morticia) Of course she will. It's the perfect score for her.

ORTEGA: (As Wednesday) Why? Because it was the perfect school for you? I have no interest in following in your footsteps, becoming captain of the fencing team, queen of the dark prom, president of the Seance Society.

ZETA-JONES: (As Morticia) I merely meant that finally you will be among peers who understand you. Maybe you'll even make some friends.

GUZMAN: (As Gomez) Nevermore is like no other boarding school. It's a magical place. It's where I met your mother. And we fell in love.

ORTEGA: (As Wednesday) You guys are making me nauseous, not in a good way.

ZETA-JONES: (As Morticia) Darling, we aren't the ones who got you expelled. That boy's family was going to file attempted murder charges. How would that have looked on your record?

ORTEGA: (As Wednesday) Terrible. Everyone would know I failed to get the job done.

BIANCULLI: Ortega is just great as Wednesday, droll and deadpan and about as far from a Disney Channel performance as you can get. She's like a goth Lisa Simpson with her own defiantly individual character quirks. She rejects cellphones, listens to music on a Victrola, plays the cello for solace, and writes poetry on a manual typewriter. When she's paired with a roommate who's all smiles and pastel colors, they make for an odd couple indeed. Luckily, there's a self-labeled dorm mom who tries to make Wednesday feel more welcome, Ms. Thornhill. And she's played by none other than Christina Ricci, the Wednesday from the 1990s movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WEDNESDAY")

CHRISTINA RICCI: (As Marilyn Thornhill) I'm Ms. Thornhill, your dorm mom. Apologies I wasn't here to greet you when you arrived. I trust Enid has given you the old Nevermore welcome.

ORTEGA: (As Wednesday) She's been smothering me with hospitality. I hope to return the favor - in her sleep.

RICCI: (As Marilyn Thornhill) Well, here's a little welcome gift from my conservatory. I try to match the right flower to each of my girls. And when I read your personal statement in your application, I immediately thought of this one.

ORTEGA: (As Wednesday) The black dahlia.

RICCI: (As Marilyn Thornhill) Oh, you know it?

ORTEGA: (As Wednesday) Of course. It's named after my favorite unsolved murder.

BIANCULLI: Murder, as it turns out, forms the spine of this first season of "Wednesday." Bodies begin piling up. There's a monster on the loose. And Wednesday is on the case like a dressed-in-black Nancy Drew. Prime suspects include the school administrator, played by Gwendoline Christie from "Game Of Thrones." Ms. Thornhill shows up in later episodes, as do Gomez and Morticia. Thing and Lurch are here, too. And before it's over, Uncle Fester pops in, portrayed with goofy playfulness by Fred Armisen. Tim Burton and the other directors attack each episode with a respectful visual flair. This new "Wednesday" from Netflix fits right in with all the other entertaining versions that have come before. The characters and settings and subplots are just what you hoped they'd be. In the spirit of the classic TV theme song, I give "Wednesday" two finger snaps up.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE ADDAMS FAMILY" THEME SONG)

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed "Wednesday," the new Addams Family TV series spinoff on Netflix.

Tomorrow on Thanksgiving Day, we'll listen to my 1990 interview with Charles Schulz, the creator of the beloved comic strip "Peanuts." This Saturday is the 100th anniversary of Schulz's birth. Also from our archive, we'll feature an interview with Chuck Jones, the animator and director famous for helping bring to life the Looney Tunes characters Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny, and for creating the characters The Road Runner, Wiley Coyote and Pepe La Pew. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.