How often do you get to say an actor is the best thing on TV and mean it?
But during the eight glorious hours of the http://netflix.com drama Wednesday, it is Thing that steals the show.
In the latest Addams Family spin-off – currently the platform’s most-watched title ever in a single week – the four fingers and thumb engage viewers with a performance that is, by turns, hilarious, endearing and, at one stage, heart-breaking.
Thing makes its first appearance when Morticia (Catherine Zeta Jones) and husband Gomez (Luis Guzmán) drop their morbidly sinister daughter Wednesday (Jenna Ortega) off at her new school, Nevermore Academy.
Needing someone to keep an eye on her, they secretly release Thing from the bottom of the car, from where it scuttles off like a frantic spider on its secret mission, only to be discovered quickly by Wednesday, denouncing her parents as ‘evil puppeteers who want to pull my strings.’
In a show that is essentially a war between ‘normies’ – the seemingly normal people – and ‘outcasts’ – the entire school and pretty much everyone else, Thing is an ally not only of Wednesday but her werewolf roommate Enid (Emma Myers).
You have to hand it to Victor Dorobantu, the Romanian magician and illusionist behind the limb whose character, Thing T. Thing – but known as just Thing – was created for the first Addams Family series in 1964.
Wednesday director Tim Burton, the goth flick legend behind Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and more, reportedly insisted that Thing be played by a real actor who had to be on set during filming – and it wasn’t an easy part.
Despite some necessary special effects, it’s Dorobantu’s real hand that carries the action.
It runs, points, opens bags, engages in arguments, sulks, makes friends, goes on rescue missions, sets fire traps – ‘My hands are clean’, says Wednesday – and even becomes the victim of an assassination attempt.
The contortions require Dorobantu to manipulate himself in several ways – he finds himself upside down, sticking through cut-outs and hiding behind walls in a blue body suit that is digitally removed from the final edit.
When the action is physically impossible, there’s an array of prosthetic stand-ins.
Thing is the James Bond of the metacarpus world.
But the real magic is the way Thing pulls at your heartstrings.
Thing helps Wednesday try to escape, turns her sheet music when she plays the cello, and delivers messages written on its palm. And, when Wednesday is captured by the normies, it is left to Enid to interpret Thing’s messages through its every movement. Talk to the hand? She does so, brilliantly.
It’s the greatest normalization of weird, and their relationship is at the heart of a show that celebrates love and friendship in utterly bizarre and often insane ways.
A late-blooming monster, Enid is a joyous comic creation all round and her bond with Thing is glorious.
The surprise birthday party she and Thing arrange for a distinctly unimpressed Wednesday is touching in its efforts to show two people who love the strange girl, desperately trying to please her – and Thing’s party hat is the cutest, funniest prop.
Her communication with the hand is where we see why audiences have been grabbed by Thing, and when one cuts away all the modern movie tricks, it’s character that matters – and it is Thing’s different relationships with each individual that give the hand a distinct personality of its own.
Enid’s relationship with Thing is also the antithesis of that with her parents, disappointed that she has not turned into the werewolf that is her destiny. All she has to show for it until the final episode are the occasional long nails, and they are keen that she attend Lycanthropy conversion at a summer camp for werewolves.
Lycanthropy – an actual condition defined as a type of madness involving delusions of being an animal.
‘Don’t you want to wolf out and finally be normal, honey?’ asks her mother, citing the example of cousin Lucille who, after seven weeks in the Balkans, ‘was howling at the moon in no time – as it should be.’ It’s just one of many laugh-aloud moments.
When Uncle Fester (Fred Armisen) puts in an appearance in episode seven, it is clear that there is bad blood between him and Thing.
How can a hand display resentment? It’s nothing short of miraculous, and in all of Thing’s scenes Dorobantu manages to make every sinew talk through its own unique sign language, in order to convey meaning.
The tightness of a finger, the clenching of a fist, the softening relaxation of the whole hand that, looking at its stitches, has clearly seen so much in its small life.
And then there’s the moment of death when Thing is stabbed. It’s one of many moments when the perfectly chosen and written music – a mixture of familiar hits and original score – delivers another emotional level that, in Thing’s case, contributes to our understanding of this multi-layered character. Yes, character. I defy you not to engage with the disembodied appendage as exactly that.
So, as Uncle Fester administers electric shocks to try to resurrect Thing, it appears as if all is lost.
Not since ET lay dying in an incubator have I been so emotional, willing a creature back to life. But phew! Just like ET, Thing’s wound heals and lives to fight another day, with Wednesday even more determined to take on the Normies – ‘This ends now.’
Given the success of Wednesday and the genius of Thing, a natural step would be another spin-off, called, simply, Thing – a movie, perhaps. The Next Big Thing?
Thing is to Wednesday like Buzz Lightyear was to Woody in the first Toy Story – the hero who saves the day.
Thing is your favorite pet, your play buddy, your savior, and the Thing will be with you no matter what, when the rest of the world appears to conspire against you.
I predict an Emmy and a Golden Globe for Dorobantu – don’t you just want to see that hand pick up an award? Maybe awards ceremonies could go one step further and have Thing onstage alongside the hosts, interpreting what they say with its signing.
The warning at the top of each episode promises ‘Language, violence, threat’, but watch it for the characterization, the writing, the humor, the exquisite cinematography, the extraordinary special effects. But watch it most of all for the Best Actor performance by Dorobantu.
You have to hand it to Netflix. Literally.