When you see a contemporary movie or television show riff on the conventions of old-school sitcoms, it’s fairly obvious what the point is: Boy, the past sure was terrible, huh? Whether it’s “Too Many Cooks” or that creepy bunny family living in a laugh-track netherworld in Inland Empire, we’re meant to be repelled by the artificiality of a bygone formula that, for decades, was the bedrock of American entertainment. Shows like I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Brady Bunch and The Cosby Show offered a wholesome, exaggerated vision of domestic bliss — all the while supported by approving laughs, either from a live studio audience or added on after the fact. These beloved programs created a homogenized view of ourselves, with family being treated as the crucial pillar in modern society. Indeed, that bland portrait of sitcom life became the way Hollywood instilled in audiences a sense of what was “normal” and “right.”
No wonder, then, that writers and creators started rebelling against it. This century’s wave of edgy single-camera comedies is the most obvious rejection of those feel-good, heteronormative banalities, but the backlash began long ago, with even a mediocre film like 1998’s Pleasantville seeming faintly radical by suggesting that old-timey TV shows (and, by extension, the bogus suburban dream they promoted) were a lie.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a theatrical juggernaut for more than a decade, but this year it moves to the small screen with WandaVision, a stylish, ambitious undertaking featuring two of the Avengers’ supporting characters. You have probably not spent much time in the last couple years thinking about Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), Marvel’s star-crossed superhero lovers, but they’re front and center in this new Disney+ series, which premieres Friday with two episodes. (A new episode will hit the streaming site every Friday afterward through early March.)
But what will be most novel about WandaVision is its format. The show evokes not just the look of old sitcoms but also their antiquated worldviews. The commentary is fairly obvious, as is the expectation that something more nefarious is going on underneath the series’ polished surface. The real mystery is whether viewers will want to keep tuning in to find out what that is.
The first half-hour episode sets the stage, presenting Wanda and Vision as a typical suburban married couple. He works at an intentionally generic blue-collar job — it has something to do with computation forms — while she’s the knowingly clichéd daffy housewife. Of course, we recognize that this is all a ruse: Supposedly set after Avengers: Endgame, WandaVision finds these two Avengers hiding out in the quaint little town of Westview, living in a house that looks like a replica of the one Rob and Laura occupied on The Dick Van Dyke Show. The show is shot in black-and-white in the boxy aspect ratio of old TV programs — it even sports an unsettlingly cheery laugh track — and to add to the sense of déjà vu, Wanda and Vision are surrounded by supporting characters and plotlines that evoke the simplistic mentality of 1950s/1960s sitcoms. Wacky misunderstandings, corny jokes, a patriarchal attitude toward marital gender roles: The “sitcom” element of WandaVision isn’t meant to be funny but, rather, a critique of a repressive culture that could never accept oddballs like superheroes, or anyone else who’s not part of white, straight America.
The period details and shooting style are impeccable — even the theme music within the sitcom is spot-on — but pretty quickly, I was getting restless, for two reasons. First, the problem with watching a faux-sitcom that’s not supposed to be funny is that… well, it’s not funny, leaving you watching a program that keeps reminding you how consciously lame it’s trying to be. (WandaVision isn’t meta in the form of, say, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, where the deconstruction of TV tropes is entirely the point.) Second, we quickly get hints that all is not as it appears. The pilot involves a very sitcom-y premise — My gruff boss and his wife are coming over for dinner, and Wanda and I aren’t prepared! — but within that straight-faced story is a strange wrinkle in which it seems like the very fabric of the show, for a moment, gets gummed up. Disney made the first three episodes available to critics, and I can report that similar glitches in this particular Matrix happen a few more times. Clearly, we’re not being presented with the whole picture of Westview (or the sitcom realty within WandaVision). So what’s going on?
It’s hardly a groundbreaking thesis that seemingly innocent small-town America contains its share of moral rot and weird happenings — David Lynch has made an entire career out of this notion — and, thus far, WandaVision doesn’t have much new to say about suburban life or the sitcoms that tried to romanticize it. Likewise, if you’ve seen Far From Heaven or The Truman Show or The Stepford Wives, you’ve basically got the gist of this show’s insights into conformity, consumerism, sexism and casual bigotry. Directed by Matt Shakman, who helmed a lot of episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the series has to instead rely on its clever recreation of different sitcom eras to keep things lively. Intriguingly, the characters don’t age as they jump seamlessly from period to period with each new episode. (For instance, the third episode is decked out in the groovy fluorescent colors of 1970s shows, with hairstyles, clothes and catchphrases to match.) Not unlike Mank, much of WandaVision’s pleasure is derived from how impressive it is that its creators copied an old aesthetic. It’s a whole program built around Captain America’s “I understood that reference” gag.
Ultimately, though, if you’re watching WandaVision, you’re a Marvel fan and/or you want to see if you can unravel the show’s central mystery. The clues can sometimes be tantalizing. How does color suddenly come into this black-and-white world? What is the meaning behind the strange non sequiturs occasionally spoken by stereotypical comic-relief neighbors like the bawdy Agnes (Kathryn Hahn)? I’ll avoid spoilers, but let me just say that you should avoid the Disney+ trailers online, which hint at the show’s possible direction in such a way that, once you grasp it, is impossible to forget. Put succinctly, I think I know where we’re heading because it makes perfect sense if you can recall what Wanda and Vision were up to around the time of Infinity War and Endgame.
Six episodes remain of WandaVision, with promises of big action sequences and ominous occurrences still to come. But it also appears that the sitcom-riffing will continue. (It looks like the 1980s are represented — which made me curious what an Arrested Development-style episode of WandaVision would resemble.) But once you guess the show’s big secret, you’re stuck with little more than a bunch of pop-culture plundering.
The very idea that family sitcoms represent real life has always been ridiculous — they’ve been a fantasy from the start — and so when new shows mock old shows for this, it mostly just comes across as smug and easy. Plus, it’s a little rich for Marvel to poke fun at dusty pop culture: Its entire business model is based on repackaging and recycling a collection of popular characters who have been ingrained in our society for generations. What’s old is new again in WandaVision, which in more ways than one plays into a lazy nostalgia for a faraway time that seems less complicated than the one we’re living in now. Feeling superior to an antiquated worldview is pretty hollow when you’re asking us to relish in it simultaneously.