Some moments in the ongoing Disney+ Marvel series WandaVision elicit a chuckle, usually metafictional winks to TV comedy conventions. In the third episode, a woman frantically tries to hide her pregnancy like any number of celebrities have in past TV shows. She holds a bowl of fruit in front of her belly, and whirls through a number of massive coats that exist to jokingly draw attention to her condition instead of hide it. It’s a charming bit that, with repetition, grows stale within the same episode. WandaVision is a mélange of classic sitcoms that has no interest in what made those shows work. Each episode imitates a different era of TV, with the first doing the ’50s, the second the ’60s, and so on. Over the course of its short run, the show has dropped its initial front of charm and become nothing but further connective tissue for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
At first, WandaVision plays its cards straight: superhero lovers Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) seem to exist within an alternate reality that cycles through sitcom tropes and aesthetics for no perceivable reason, with the façade cracking slightly each episode. The couple’s relationship was mostly developed offscreen between the movies Age of Ultron (Vision’s introduction) and Avengers: Infinity War (in which Vision was killed). It’s eventually revealed that Wanda has used her reality-shifting powers (whose definitions have always been vague) to take over a small town in New Jersey, retreating into this fantasy world to live out a “normal” life with Vision while grieving his death. The show has a marvelous conceit: That Wanda’s trauma — something which different characters often loudly remind us the show is about — stems from a childhood lost to war, and that she reverts to a place of comfort that manifests via the sitcoms she’s always turned to for solace. But showrunner Jac Schaeffer and director Matt Shakman have no follow-through on this concept beyond shallow pastiche. “What is grief, if not love persevering?” Vision says to Wanda at one point. The assumption is that simply acknowledging her grief will be enough for her to deal with the loss of her loved ones.
The show finds no reason to tackle a different decade with each installment, other than elongating the barebones plot into nine episodes. The homages to classic sitcoms are designed the same way as the myriad Easter eggs scattered through the wider MCU, for committed viewers to point at the screen and say, “I get that reference!” Despite being built on the notion that the works it’s referencing are important to Wanda, the series never meaningfully explores that quality while emulating their aesthetics.
Take I Love Lucy, the main template for the first episode. From its very beginning, that show hits you with a new joke every few seconds. Even when they’re just working through the plots (which are essentially built to move us from joke to joke), the performances are heightened and aware of the audience. Everything, from reaction shots to goofy costuming to pratfalls, exists to make the viewer chuckle and keep them invested. The touchstone for the second, ’60s-set episode is Bewitched. While WandaVision transposes its premise of abnormal folks trying to blend into normalcy, it doesn’t bother to indulge in hijinks the way the original does. Samantha’s inability to wean herself off magic provides the perfect foil to Darrin’s straight man, but WandaVision has two Samanthas for leads without a Darrin.
Olsen and Bettany have comedic chops, but the series is more interested in its overarching plot than the dynamics of its inspirations. As the show goes on, it loses interest in imitating sitcom plots, with each episode instead just putting a different aesthetic spin on the ongoing story. Scenes from outside the non-sitcom world occupy a progressively increasing share of the running time (often with obnoxiously arch commentary). This execution feels especially lackluster when one considers the wealth of untapped potential. Imagine Olsen playing Peg Bundy, or Bettany imitating Frasier Crane. The show also doesn’t bother to build up its ensemble cast, usually disposing of supporting characters after a single episode (wasting huge comic talents like Fred Melamed and Debra Jo Rupp in the process). The exception is Kathryn Hahn, who essentially fulfills a different decade’s idea of the comic relief archetype with each episode, but even her work loses its luster after she’s turned into an exposition machine late in the game. WandaVision doesn’t allow any meaningful relationships to develop through consistency. A big part of the fun of actual sitcoms comes from seeing how a familiar group adapts and reacts to new situations.
WandaVision is structured similarly to Marvel’s films, moving from one setpiece to the next with minimal emotional depth beyond characters vocalizing their experiences. Some critics have argued that the pastiche is formulaic on purpose, a sincere reflection of the boring comforts of mainstream television. But this is insulting both to the creators of the iconic imagery that WandaVision pulls from and the audience that loves it. It also undercuts the show’s theme of processing trauma through nostalgia. The implication is that shows made for comfort are somehow automatically lesser than contemporary “prestige” TV. If that were the case, the series wouldn’t have dedicated so much energy to recreating imagery from those works. But this recreation is akin to a Disney World ride, with cast members wailing catchphrases at guests. Every single thing in the show is telegraphed, all while nudging the viewer about the references. Is there any reason to watch WandaVision when we could simply revisit the shows it claims to love instead?
New episodes of WandaVision have been premiering each Friday on Disney+. The final episode drops March 5.
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