A classic superhero show about classic sitcoms
WandaVision, the first small-screen production of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a TV show about TV. Or at least it appears to be. And that’s part of what makes WandaVision so fun. It’s Marvel, but seen through an old SCTV or early Saturday Night Live filter, as directed by David Lynch.
Wanda Maximoff, otherwise known as the Scarlet Witch, finds herself trapped inside an ever-shifting virtual reality of some sort comprised of settings and mores of classic sitcoms. Accompanying her is her android husband The Vision, last seen in the MCU in Avengers: Infinity War, unsuccessfully sacrificing himself to save the universe from Thanos. Oblique messages of warning emerge from pool-side radios. We have no idea yet who’s doing this to Wanda, or why.
To truly enjoy WandaVision, it would help to have some familiarity with the history of sitcoms. It would also help to have some familiarity with the MCU. The show packs its references denser than an Infinity Stone. The first episode takes place inside a late-50s, early-60s reality that criss-crosses The Dick Van Dyke Show with I Love Lucy. The second, further along the sitcom timeline, is an almost direct ripoff of an early-seasons episode of Bewitched. Though some critics have seen the third episode, I didn’t get a screener because Marvel is afraid of my ideas. But it looks to be headed toward Brady Bunch territory.
WandaVision works so well because the scripts excellently recreate the screwball plotting that made those shows so funny in the first place. Wanda has magical powers, and Vision can fly, phase through objects, and perform infinite computations in seconds. What happens when that wacky mismatched couple moves into an ordinary suburb?
Elizabeth Olsen, as Wanda, and Paul Bettany, as Vision, have pitched their performances perfectly to the genre. They are legitimately funny, even with a laugh track behind them. Kathryn Hahn, as a vaguely sinister neighbor, is just as good, and sitcom veterans Debra Jo Rupp and Fred Melamed are also part of the ensemble.
Yet there’s also a weird, creeping dread behind the proceedings. Little images of horror pop up from scene to scene. Interstitial commercials, containing Easter-egg references to Stark Industries and the sinister Hydra organization, parody the types of ads that used to run during these shows, but also provide sinister context clues to a darker conspiracy.
Because of COVID release and production delays, this is the first product from the MCU in more than a year. The MCU started as a straightforward superhero story, but has gradually evolved into an infinitely complex saga, complete with interstellar travel, extra dimensional transport, a quantum realm, and hints of a multiverse. Much like Marvel Comics themselves, it’s moved far past the Spider-Man Versus The Bad Guy stage. WandaVision has a captive audience, desperate for MCU content. And Marvel has decided to feed us something like an experimental limited-edition comic-book series that plays with form, character, and style. Though it would be nice if, at some point, someone threw a bus through a skyscraper.
It’s also one of the first major releases in the COVID (and soon-to-be post-COVID) era, which has blurred the lines between film and TV. With its arrival, and the fact that it’s going to be a hit of massive proportions, you can definitely say that we’re past the era of Peak TV, and into something else entirely. Let’s call it Post TV.
The best shows of Peak TV, like The Wire, Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad, turned TV, generally the realm of hack writing and acting, into the screen equivalent of the novel. They were sprawling, exciting sagas with broad themes, dozens of intricately-crafted characters, and memorable, quotable dialogue. The signature comedies of that era, like The Office, 30 Rock, and Community, were mostly meta-commentaries on the form itself, with their to-the-camera winks and in-show parodies of other shows.
WandaVision wants to have it both ways. There’s some sort of story that also fits into the mega-narrative of the MCU. But it’s also a commentary on and affectionate nod toward the sorts of TV shows that barely exist anymore. And it has everyone talking about its influences, more than anything, so that it becomes a commentary not only on the shows to which it pays homage, but on itself. And we never for a second stop to ask, “Why would someone who grew up in the 80s in Eastern Europe imagine that she’s part of an homage to I Love Lucy? And when is someone going to throw a bus through a skyscraper?” It doesn’t matter. If we get the references, that’s its own reward.
WandaVision announces that it’s the new kind of TV show, taking a fire extinguisher to the old products. Marvel and Star Wars and anything else Disney-related are preparing to blot out the entertainment sun, sucking up all the acting, writing, and directing talent. Realistic content about gangsters and drug dealing and things that actually could exist in the world are fading into the sunset like Deadwood itself. Welcome to Post TV, where context doesn’t exist, and everything is a super-powered fever dream about itself.