WandaVision is TV nerd paradise. Not only is it the first entry of Marvel’s comic book franchise on Disney+ — a landmark in the studio’s sweeping assimilation of all media — but it’s full of TV catnip.
The first two episodes (available now) riff on the most classic of sitcoms: The Dick Van Dyke Show. The layout of the house and the miscommunication plot devices are identical, while Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen are doing their best to channel their inner Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. They do a good job, although there is no substitute for the chemistry of the original pair.
The show has an obvious appreciation for its sitcom forefather, but it’s even more interested in deconstructing that genre. While a lot has yet to be revealed, it is clear that the sitcom structure of the show is a mental prison of sorts for Wanda (and possibly Vision, who died in Infinity War). Both she and her husband can’t understand how they arrived in their current circumstances, a nod to the in media res nature of many sitcoms, and the overtly fake facade of their reality cracks a bit more with each episode.
Colors periodically poke out from the black and white landscape Pleasantville-style. Strange messages break in and out of radio transmissions and sometimes their neighbors seem to notice how Wanda and Vision don’t seem to belong. Each of the first two episodes ends with the credits rolling over a laugh track as the camera zooms out to a colorful world watching the events play out on a television screen.
The deconstruction of the sitcom is one of my favorite obsessions. It is television’s most prominent and established genre, something I’ve made videos about here, here, here, and here. There’s something overtly artificial about them. Tidy storylines wrap up in 25 minutes and nothing ever really changes. They’re comforting that way, but that formula is also so well established that it’s ripe for commentary and critique.
We can see snapshots of America’s cultural atmosphere in old sitcoms, something WandaVision comments on in the second episode, as Wanda merges their separate beds into one. However, those snapshots are often just as fake as the reality Wanda and Vision find themselves in, presenting a sanitized white, suburban utopia. Old sitcoms never touched on segregation or racism, on gender or sexual identity, or politics. Everything was homogenous, a unified illusion meant to push forward an idealized world.
For who? Well, as the residents of Westview (WandaVision’s fictional town) are so quick to note, it’s “for the children.”
Coincidentally, this is the same place the superhero genre finds itself in. After 23 movies in the MCU, audiences are more than familiar with the blueprint, and more recently movies like Deadpool and Logan and TV shows like Watchmen and The Boys are deconstructing that narrative, commenting on the underlying structures that they serve. The Boys took aim at corporate virtue signaling and capitalism, Deadpool and Logan hit at the comic book tropes we’re so used to, and Watchmen recycled those tropes to comment on America’s history of systemic racism.
WandaVision seems interested in taking part in these conversations in both the superhero and sitcom genres, which is no easy task. The first episode struggles a bit to balance homage and commentary, but the second episode finds its footing during a talent show sequence, striking the right tone with humor serving as a paper thin shield against the underlying terror suburbia posed to anyone who wasn’t part of that homogeneity.
Wanda’s comic book counterpart is a mutant rather than an infinity stone product, and this series seems to call back to those roots. The mutants of Marvel comics were stand-ins for who society might call “degenerates,” those who exist outside the norms of society, whether those are members of the LGBTQ community or racial minorities (it’s not hard to see parallels between Professor X/Magneto and MLK/Malcolm X).
While the MCU has always shied away from such touchy political topics, it’s at the heart of Wanda’s comic book relationship with Vision and at the heart of this show. Only time will tell us if the show is capable of actually reaching its ambitious potential, but the early returns are promising.