We know the format so well. The smiles, the loving jabs, the ever-constant laugh track making us not feel alone while we chuckle at home. Of all television formats, the multi-camera sitcom is so ingrained in the modern American psyche — even if you claim to eschew all interest in television, you still understand the rhythms, recognize the catchphrases. For decades, sitcoms have been a happy place for millions of people: In its classic state, nothing is more comforting than a 22-minute slice of story pie, with all misunderstandings and hurt feelings forgiven in the final minutes. That’s why watching WandaVision not just play with, but tear down, those tropes isn’t just a thrilling experience for fans — it can even be a terrifying one.
There have been other TV shows technically set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Disney+’s first original MCU series (and notably the first major Phase 4 narrative to premiere, thanks to Covid) is a surprising deviation — for one thing, it makes a point of setting you back on your heels right from the beginning. Rather than coddle new viewers, the first episode introduces us to loving newlyweds Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) searching for suburban monochromatic bliss. As we quickly learn, she has “magical” powers and he’s an artificial creation who doesn’t eat, but beyond that they’re just like any other young couple trying to fit in and find happiness… right?
The answer is of course not, and the trickiest magic act series creator Jac Schaeffer manages to pull off is exactly how much to reveal about how “all is not what it seems.” In the first three episodes provided to critics (two will premiere on Friday, Jan. 15), plenty of clues about what’s going on here are dropped (and Collider will have plenty of coverage breaking down those clues over the next few days). But for right now, I can say that as a fan of magic, the experience of being fooled by WandaVision makes it truly captivating TV so far.
Thanks to all the publicity materials that have already been released, it’s not a real shock to reveal that each episode mimics a specific era of classic TV comedy. What is a shock is how delicious WandaVision‘s commitment to that mimicry is; you don’t need a Ph.D. in television history to notice how things change from episode to episode, but the details it draws into each shift, from production design to cinematography to wardrobe to performance, are simply remarkable. MCU fans are very used to trawling through each frame of a new film or show to find easter eggs, but here there’s a whole new level of artistry to appreciate.
To be clear, WandaVision does not make things easy for newcomers to the MCU. Committing to this approach is one of the show’s best qualities, because it keeps the core illusion alive, but does mean that you might want to do a little research before watching. But it’s not hard to see the appeal of this dense mystery appealing to those intrigued by the blend of hybrids, to mention its incredible stars.
That’s because one of the shining takeaways from the first three episodes is just how damn good both Olsen and Bettany are. Despite that early turn in 1995 as “Girl with Flowers” on her older sisters’ sitcom Full House, Olsen’s filmography has always leaned heavily into the dark and dramatic. So watching her make sitcom banter bubble and sparkle is the best of surprises, only amplified by her ability to find pathos and horror within the moments that demand it. To use a term honoring another redhead from the era of TV being paid homage, she’s a natural “comedienne,” but able to easily shift as the show demands. Listening to how the wry edge of her sitcom persona’s voice evolves from episode to episode is like music.
Meanwhile, Bettany has had a few comedic roles in the past, but none that demanded this level of full-on slapstick commitment — yet his follow-through makes him feel like a pro with 100+ episodes of syndicated hilarity under his belt. And it’s not just that he can deliver some killer punchlines, it’s how fiercely he throws himself into the relevant archetypes of each era while always allowing the glimmer of artifice to stand out. Vision is an extremely complicated character that has only had a small amount of screen time thus far to evolve, but the nuances of Bettany’s performance never let us forget just what kind of creation we’re dealing with here, and why this scenario is so much more than what it might seem.
Olsen and Bettany are supported by a promising cast that, of the episodes released, features standouts including veteran great Fred Melamed, That ’70s Show‘s Debra Jo Rupp, Buffy the Vampire Slayer alumni Emma Caulfield Ford, and Wrecked‘s Asif Ali. Also, I told myself I would spend an entire paragraph of this review on how good Kathryn Hahn is as “nosy neighbor” Agnes, but honestly now that I sit down to do it it feels like an impossible feat, because Hahn is just too good for mere words to encompass. (GIFs to come!) Her perfect echoes of the sitcom sidekick as they echo throughout time, mixed with the underlying tension brought out by whatever’s going on here, makes for a captivating performance we don’t deserve. (Much like how we don’t deserve Kathryn Hahn, full stop.)
I have no spoilers to offer here about where all this might be going, but if you know much about Wanda’s history from the comic books, specifically her struggle to control her world-bending abilities, you’re aware that WandaVision is primed to not have a happy ending. (There’s also the fascinating detail that whatever happens at the end of this season will play a direct role in the forthcoming Marvel movie Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.)
But beyond its place in the MCU ecosystem, a key part of what makes WandaVision so great so far is that it’s not a goddamn movie (said swearing brought to you by years of frustration over creators calling their TV shows “a 70-hour film”). The episodic structure of the series is essential to its existence, and the rich collection of details packed into each installment makes me grateful we’ll have several weeks to unpack them all.
Is the most exciting thing about WandaVision the fact that for the first time, Marvel is really trying something new? Perhaps. The artistic merit of the films and ancillary media that have been released since 2008 and become perhaps the planet’s most dominant pop culture franchise today has long been a point of controversy. For sure, unique creative voices like Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler have found ways to thrive within the framework established by Jon Favreau‘s first Iron Man film. But that framework has never allowed for this level of experimentation before now — meanwhile, WandaVision dares to actually really challenge the viewer.
Lots of weird stuff has happened in the MCU, but never before has an MCU property kicked things off by trying to make us think that said weirdness is, y’know, normal. It’s great TV on its own merits. But for those who relish these stories but always want them to reach further, WandaVision is a true triumph.
The first two episodes of WandaVision premiere Friday, January 15 on Disney+. Subsequent episodes premiere weekly on Fridays.
Watch or read our wide-ranging interview with the Marvel Studios President.
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