Experience stacks, competitive advantage, and Netflix’s “Wednesday”

The new Netflix series about the daughter from The Addams Family going to a Hogwarts-style high school doesn’t ignore the earlier versions of the story: it embraces them, which is part of why it succeeds.

By Brad Berens

One difference between artificial intelligence and the human kind (at least for now) is that AI is amazing at pattern recognition while humans are terrific at pattern forging.

We can’t help ourselves. We use analogies to understand the world around us, asking of any new experience, “OK, what is this like?” and then using a rapid compare-and-contrast to figure out how the new thing is similar to but also distinct from the old thing. It’s not just inside our heads where this sort of forging happens: businesses can channel that pattern forging energy for their customers or (with entertainment) audiences.

The delightful new Netflix show Wednesday, starring Jenna Ortega as Wednesday Addams, is a master class in this sort of channeling. It elegantly deploys references to 85 years’ worth of other versions of The Addams Family stories, as well as references to other horror and teen supernatural television (Sabrina the Teenaged Witch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and movies (Harry Potter, Twilight).

For the viewer who recognizes these references, there’s an extra level of cognition that sparks, amplifying the overall experience.

I’ve talked a lot in these columns about such extra levels as “experience stacks” where prior experience activates context while using or consuming products, including narrative.

The smallest example of an experience stack is a rhyme, like in the theme song for the 1960s “Addams Family” series:

They’re creepy and they’re kooky
Mysterious and spooky
They’re all together ooky
The Addams Family.

“Kooky,” “Spooky,” and “Ooky” (?) have no intrinsic relationship. They have a spatial relationship: we recognize that they rhyme because each word comes at the end of a line of the song. The spatial context activates our recognition that the words sound alike.

Experience Stacks are optional but additive: a viewer does not have to recognize any of the references to early Addams Family stories to understand and enjoy Wednesday. This is important because it helps us to think differently about customers and identity.

Most of the time, business people think about the identities that their customers have outside the context of buying and/or using their products. If you hang around marketers, for example, you’ll hear them talk about how their targets are women aged 18 to 34 or families with Household Incomes (HHI) higher than $150K.

What Wednesday helps us to see is that the savviest businesses create an identity that the customer can only access when she or he is using the company’s product. Businesses can win by focusing on who the customer becomes, not who the customer was a few minutes ago.

Shakespeare was the all-time master of doing this. The experiments in customer identify creation that he started in the late 1590s are still bearing fruit today in a business success case study that has lasted for centuries. This is the topic of the book I’m writing, but in this piece I’m focusing on Wednesday because 85 years is easier to bite off than 400.

Note: There’s going to be a major spoiler at the end of this piece because it helps make my point, so if you haven’t started or finished watching Wednesday, then stop reading when you see the words Major Spoiler below.

Addams Family context

The Addams Family is a collection of weirdos who take topsy turvy delight in things that typical people find repellant: they prefer funerals to birthdays, misery to happiness.

New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams created the characters in 1937 as part of regular pieces that ran until his death in 1988. The 1960s series (starring Carolyn Jones as Morticia, John Astin as Gomez, and Lisa Loring as Wednesday), ran from 1964 to 1966. The 1990s saw two Addams Family movies (starring Anjelica Huston as Morticia, Raul Julia as Gomez, and Christina Ricci as Wednesday), and there were two recent animated Addams Family movies (starring the voices of Charlize Theron as Morticia, Oscar Isaac as Gomez, and Chloë Grace Moretz as Wednesday). This barely scratches the surface of the many other versions of The Addams Family that have come out over the years. (A little searching sent me down a deep rabbit hole.)

The Addams Family had a history of activated context before Wednesday. The 1960s show aired Fridays on ABC while the similarly-themed The Munsters aired Thursdays on CBS, so it was almost necessary for viewers to compare the two different shows to each other.

Most versions of The Addams Family act as total reboots. What’s different about Wednesday is that it does not ignore the earlier versions of the story: it activates them again and again. The most obvious instance of this is the choice to cast Christina Ricci—who played Wednesday Addams in the 1990s movies—as Marilyn Thornhill, a science teacher at Nevermore Academy, the boarding school Wednesday reluctantly attends.

There are other activations. For example, at one point a peer says to Wednesday that he finds her “kooky,” to which she replies that she prefers “spooky,” a reference to the 1960s theme song.

Other contexts

Beyond just activating earlier versions of The Addams Family, Wednesday also activates other contexts. Tim Burton directed half of the episodes, and the aesthetic of the show (particularly the monsters) connects vividly to many of Burton’s other movies, like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, and Corpse Bride. Danny Elfman’s distinctive musical style also connects Wednesday with Burton’s two Batman movies.

We can’t help ourselves. We use analogies to understand the world around us, asking of any new experience, “OK, what is this like?” and then using a rapid compare-and-contrast to figure out how the new thing is similar to but also distinct from the old thing. It’s not just inside our heads where this sort of forging happens: businesses can channel that pattern forging energy for their customers or (with entertainment) audiences.

Wednesday even activates the previous work of the two creators, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. When Wednesday goes to town for a session with her therapist, the office building where Dr. Kinbott works shares space with “Millar and Gough Realty.” Any viewer who saw the opening credits might recognize those names, but experienced viewers might recognize those names and remember “Smallville,” the early 2000s WB/The CW series that Gough and Millar created about the adventures of a young Clark Kent in high school before he becomes Superman. This is similar thematic territory to Wednesday.

The Smallville connection helped me to notice something else unusual about Wednesday: unlike similar teen supernatural stories (Buffy, Vampire Diaries, Riverdale), Wednesday doesn’t hyper sexualize any of the students at Nevermore Academy. There are a few couples, but we don’t see them hopping off to bed. Nor do the female students wear low cut or bare midriff outfits, and we never see the male students shirtless (a bare-chested Tom Welling was the icon for the first seasons of Smallville). This is all the more remarkable because as a streaming service Netflix, which does not avoid onscreen sex (see the recent Blonde Marilyn Monroe biopic and the just-launched Lady Chatterly’s Lover for steamy examples), could have made Wednesday quite explicit.

The character of Wednesday Addams is distinctively and idiosyncratically feminist: she wears black clothing, almost never smiles (star Jenna Ortega reveals an electric, Julia Roberts/Anne Hathaway grin only once during the eight episode season), and never worries about what other people think of her. Wednesday is not a pleaser, which comes into vivid focus when thinking about how she is different from her peers in teen horror TV series.

My Addams Family experience stack

I watched the 1960s series in reruns as a kid, saw both of the 1990s movies, vaguely remember a 1970s animated TV series (and a guest appearance by The Addams Family on Scooby Doo), was devoted to Buffy, have seen many Tim Burton movies and other teen paranormal series. Other viewers will have different pieces of their Addams Family experience stacks.

By repeatedly activating these prior contexts, the creators of Wednesday deepened my pleasure in watching the show. They also kept me engaged with the whole experience of watching (that is, the combination of the story and the telling/performances of the story), which meant that when my attention wandered it wasn’t to my grumbling stomach or my iPhone: it was to the interplay between Wednesday and its antecedents.

The many activated contexts of Wednesday bonded me more closely to the show, coaxing me to hurry up and watch all eight episodes in just a handful of days. This is a competitive advantage that other businesses of all varieties can emulate.

Wednesday is a terrific show. You should watch it, and I’m hoping for a second season.

Major Spoiler (don’t say I didn’t warn you)

Activated additional contexts can sometimes act as spoilers for the current experience. That happened for me in Wednesday.

The show is a whodunnit: over the course of the season we learn that there’s a monster killing people and that the monster is controlled by a villain whose identity does not get revealed until the last episode.

Even though the show worked to direct “and the villain is…” attention to Wednesday’s therapist, Dr. Kinbott (played by Riki Lindhome, who is also half the satiric folk duo Garfunkel and Oates), the fact that Christina Ricci was in the cast signaled that her character, Marilyn Thornhill, would be “the big bad” in the end.

Ricci is too skilled and too high profile an actress to take a second tier background character in a show about the Wednesday Addams character that first made her famous. There had to be a bigger reason for her to be there… and there was.


Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Post and/or LinkedIn, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).


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December 7, 2022