[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers through Episode 2 of WandaVision.]
WandaVision is weird, but not without precedent. The MCU/Disney+ television show takes its cue from the genre and formal conventions of broadcast television, and even (especially?) in its earliest, most formative years, broadcast television has been weird — partially because of its status of intimacy within the American household, partially because the early talent pool consisted of vaudeville and theatre writers/performers who were more than willing to muck with people out of the gate, and partially because the creators of the form needed to immediately set themselves apart from the golden removedness of seeing a film at the cinema. George Burns interrupted the plotlines of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show to speak directly to the audience about what they were watching; Ernie Kovacs disrupted the early visual language of television to present a series of surreal, form-breaking vignettes; and now, WandaVision is here to heighten and jam all of this into a pleasing, gripping, and very, very, very weird blender.
In an effort to track exactly how WandaVision dialogues with television tropes, forms, and sitcom styles before it, we will be unpacking every episode’s references and engagements, giving you a clue into just how creatively unprecedented this MCU series is, but also a brief history of broadcast television itself. Shall we begin?
Episode 1 throws us squarely into classic 1950s sitcom territory, giving us the production design, the 4:3 black-and-white photography, and the general visual “vibe” of these types of shows immediately. I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, The Honeymooners (down to Kathryn Hahn’s off-screen husband being named Ralph, Jackie Gleason‘s leading Honeymooners character) — these are the classic shows WandaVision’s first entry wants us to think about (with the note that the show is more interested in presenting the prosperous middle-class politics of a Beaver than the working-class struggles of a Honeymooners). But the episode also does a touch of future-telling in its obvious aping of Bewitched, a 60s-to-70s sitcom about a witch trying to hide her real identity, not only in its similar premise but in its usage of chintzy special effects (the insert shot of wedding rings appearing, the seam in the jump-cut apparent, is charming and accurate to what you’d see on a Bewitched). Its farcical plotting, its reductive relationship and gender dynamics, its broadly-pitched slapstick multicam performances (in particular, I love Paul Bettany stepping through the piece of furniture in the opening credits, rather than tripping on it like his Dick Van Dyke Show influence might have done); all of these familiar elements are here to soothe and charm you… until they begin to poke at themselves, and poke at you.
The satirical jabs at the post-war baby boomer era are various and effective. Vision goes to work at a job he doesn’t understand, exposing himself to culture he openly finds irrelevant and trite — but that’s okay, because he’s contributing to society’s squeaky-clean images of “success” and “pleasure.” Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen, Emmy-worthy) stays at home, cooking and cleaning, trying to understand why and how she needs to celebrate her husband — but that’s okay, because she’s contributing to society’s positioning of women as housewives, especially thanks to Hahn’s badgering methods of assimilation. The pleasures of this episode are many — the writers, led by creator Jac Schaeffer, obviously understand and love the comedic rhythms, so tightly theatrical in inspiration, of early multicam sitcoms — but they’re all a facade, an attempt at assimilation into this life. And I’m not just speaking of the slowly gurgling idea that Wanda and Vision are escaping their fraught “MCU life” for a more friendly “television life.”
The 1950s economic postwar boom meant that a TV found its way into every suburban household, giving every suburban resident unprecedented access to information — information centered for and controlled by white sources of power that told its viewers to keep fleeing cities to the suburbs, to watch out for the Russians dropping the bomb on us at any moment, to be warned that foreign Communists have infiltrated our America at every corner. It’s okay to isolate yourself from all this pain and inoculate yourself with consumerism, with convenience, with the domestic, easily wrapped up, American exceptionalist pleasures of television comedy.
WandaVision says the quiet part out loud, framing its assimilation story not just as more plot-driven MCU shenanigans, but as an arrow shot at the xenophobic culture of the era that produced such pop culture. In other words, WandaVision is explicitly an “immigrants trying to survive in America” story, and its supporting characters cannot always keep their derision under wraps like they might be able to in an actual TV comedy (or in the “wholesome, polite” society we keep being told the ‘50s were like). When it’s revealed that Wanda emigrated from Sokovia, a fictional Eastern European country, Vision’s boss (the always fearsome Fred Melamed) barks that “we don’t break bread with Bolsheviks.” It’s a stunning piece of social commentary amplified more by its couching within the formal elements of the culture of the time.
This level of textual darkness, of examining the American human’s tendency to other, to fear, to fight, brings us to the scariest moment of the episode, an explicit visual breakdown of our usual friendly multicam method of production and cinematography that happens to introduce a new, if brief, classic televisual influence into the stew. In the nascent world of classical television drama, networks often broadcast “filmed plays,” original pieces of “live theater” broadcast on TV. These works boasted top-tier writing, acting, and directing talent, many of whom cut their teeth in the revolutionary New York theater scene of the time; and from these sterling pieces of work (buy this Criterion Collection set if you want a taste) came a young writer by the name of Rod Serling, who created a show by the name of The Twilight Zone. In both his live plays and his influential horror anthology series, Serling advocated for intense psychological clarity, for an insistence that the scariest monsters were human beings (the Red Scare allegory “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” making this point the most explicitly), and for a filmmaking style rife with bold shadows, uncomfortably close lenses, and a general sense of claustrophobia.
The Serling of it all explodes in this one key sequence of WandaVision’s first episode. During their best attempts at hosting a dinner for Melamed and his wife Debra Jo Rupp (herself a “nostalgia-yielding sitcom” vet thanks to That ‘70s Show), a fraught demand for the happy WandaVision couple to share their story and be “regular Americans” turns into a choking hazard for Mr. Heart. As he chokes on his food (breakfast for dinner), the cameras push in slowly, taking us out of our comforting wide shots and flat studio lighting into oppressive singles, shallow depths of field, background lights fading into nothingness as our subjects stay visible in shadowy, sweaty, paranoid, segmented frames. Performance-wise, we see three different reactions to this disruption, this shift into a Twilight Zone. Bettany, eerily, blankly, stares at Melamed, unsure of how to proceed. Rupp, very frighteningly, keeps laughing and telling Melamed in a “joking” matter to “Stop it,” playing this gulf between genre modes like an oppressive security blanket; we have to stay in “sitcom mode” no matter the obvious truth of what’s happening in front of us or we’ll all die. And Olsen finally leans in to this new Zone, dropping her act to say, in an abruptly pointed, lower register, “Vision, help him.” Vision shows his true self by reaching “into” his boss’ throat to remove the food, and suddenly, we’re back to sitcom-land again, everyone pretending we didn’t just have the wool pulled over our eyes, pretending that everything is still fair even as the glasses fall and break.
In Episode 2, we jump roughly a decade in genre time into the world of 1960s television comedy. Most specifically, the episode evokes I Dream of Jeannie, a 1965-1970 sitcom also about a powerfully supernatural woman trying her best to seem “normal” in American society, down to its similar animated title sequence and climactic shift into Technicolor (which Jeannie did 30 episodes in). And while we’re not fully shifting into flower-power hippy territory (nor were many of the television comedies on air at the time), elements of sexual innuendo and hip mod culture begin to meld in, as they did on other ‘60s shows like The Monkees, Batman, and The Avengers (not those Avengers). Wanda’s hair is stylish and hip; the musical arrangements are tinged with swanky latin jazz; and an opening scene fuses the separate beds together (a common scene in the early, chaste days of television) into one, ending with a pretty clear promise of sex!
But where some televisual elements of WandaVision begin to progress — including scary but thrilling Pleasantville-esque sequences of specific objects (and blood) starting to pop with color — others stay regressed in an attempt to keep the peace, to ignore societal changes and truths with placations and comforts, to urge its viewers and participants to sink into “this little charade,” as Vision puts it, and not suffer. If we look even a little closer, we’ll start to see how insidious the consumer-comfort-pop-culture complex is: This episode’s fake commercial is for a Strucker watch (as in Hydra member Wolfgang von Strucker), a bold stab at the United States’ tendencies to go into capitalistic beds with ex-Nazi businesses after war, selling their traumatized veterans products from the very people who traumatized them. Vision himself starts to understand this precarious, very American, borderline cultish tightrope walking on the line of fear and acceptance, of buying and secluding, when he attends a neighborhood watch meeting and explicitly accuses a neighbor of being a Communist (a tactic he likely learned not only from his boss, but from watching Senator Joseph McCarthy on television).
Eventually, Vision’s wielding of this lesson takes a darker, more cynical turn — albeit one performed with broad comedy panache by Bettany. It also shows us why WandaVision and the humans who populate it (and, frankly, our actual world) need to use well-known television comedy signifiers to keep everyone safe. Vision and Wanda decide to perform a magic act during the neighborhood talent show. One problem: Vision has assimilated a little too far into humanity, accidentally swallowing a piece of gum, which screws up his inner machinery and, effectively, makes him drunk. Thus, Vision is ready (though unstably so) to show us the actual magic of his and Wanda’s nature, performing tricks for their neighbors that are unexplainably supernatural. The humans are not impressed, not ready to accept Vision and Wanda for who they really are. They are terrified, even angry (later, a more sober Vision remarks that they’ll “string us up for ruining the show”). To placate them, Wanda must (by using her own magic) “prove” that it is “fake” by inventing wires, mirrors, and other apparati to illustrate how they “actually did it”, and most importantly, give these human consumers the sense of superiority and understanding they need to simply keep living.
To be broad about it: We watch and love television because we know it’s fake, controlled, manufactured by professionals who have no desire to place us in danger, make us feel unsafe or unloved, or challenge our self-assigned smartness. Both with its metatextual utilization of classic sitcom tropes and production devices, and here within its explicit Episode 2 text, WandaVision takes this thesis of televisual safety, gives it to both us and its characters somewhat straightly, before bending it all until it breaks. “Tonight we will lie to you, and you will easily fall for it, because humans have a limited understanding,” says Vision to his magic show audience, and he is not wrong. But his television world is a lie, too, one he and Wanda have only a limited understanding of, one we’ll watch modify and mutate until it’s destroyed, leaving what’s sure to be a heartbreaking wake in its path.
WandaVision is now on Disney+ with new episodes airing every Friday. Check back on this article after every new episode of WandaVision to see the latest exploration of their TV genre influences! For more, check out our round-up of Easter eggs from Episodes 1 and 2.
You’ll get familiar faces likes Scorpion and Sub-Zero, but also new character Cole Young.
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