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Marvel's 'WandaVision' turns back the clock

With its callbacks to classic American sitcoms, 'WandaVision', in its first two episodes, is a postmodern hall of mirrors

Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in 'WandaVision'
Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in 'WandaVision'

During a 2017 interview with the American writer George Saunders (whose fiction has involved theme parks more than once), I asked him what he’d build if given a grant to create theme-parks-as-conceptual-art. He replied, “This has no intellectual heft but I always thought it would be cool to have a theme park dedicated to classic television settings. So, you’d have a painstaking recreation of, say, the Petrie house from The Dick Van Dyke Show. You’d have the exact apartment from Friends and so on. And maybe some lookalike re-enactors in each. And the visitor gets a period costume. And is drugged into an agreeable, suppliant state, so that he/she laughs at everything. My dream would be to be the night watchman in that place and get to spend the night in different ‘homes’.”

The first two episodes of Jac Shaeffer’s WandaVision, the first miniseries in Phase Four of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), play out like a tastefully designed, high-budget black-and-white production of Saunders’ vivid dream. Super-powered telepath Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and her android boyfriend, Vision (Paul Bettany), have indeed been air-dropped into ‘Westview’, a town resembling a classic television universe —The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) in the first episode, Bewitched (1964-72) in the second. Callbacks galore in orderly fashion; Wanda looks and sounds like a composite of Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball from I Love Lucy (1951-57). Vision phases through an ottoman in the opening credits of the first episode, mirroring Dick Van Dyke’s falling over an ottoman in the original’s credits sequence. Ancillary touches include a live audience in the first episode and fake commercials including one for a toaster manufactured by Stark Industries.

WandaVision’s throwback ambitions, moreover, are telegraphed with the casting of Debra Jo Rupp as Mrs Hart, who’s married to Vision’s boss, Arthur (Fred Malamed). Rupp played the doting matriarch Kitty Forman in That 70s Show (1998-2006), a meta-sitcom that relied heavily on parodying classic television tropes, typically as dream sequences — during its eight-season run, there were skits parodying The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy and Happy Days, among others.

The fact that these parodies happened as dream sequences is an important detail for WandaVision, especially since we know that Vision is, well, dead after the events of Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Also, something feels seriously awry with Westview’s suburban fantasia. Everybody Wanda and Vision meet begins to feel like one of Saunders’ “re-enactors”, visitors who have been “drugged into an agreeable, suppliant state”. At one point, their neighbour Agnes (Kathryn Hahn) lets it slip: “Are you here to help us?” she asks Wanda, her voice trembling with fear. Meanwhile, a mysterious voice emanating from a radio asks her even more directly, “Wanda, who’s doing this to you?”

It’s here that WandaVision and its postmodern hall of mirrors soars above mere nostalgia. We know that Wanda, as the Scarlet Witch, is capable of telekinesis, telepathy — and mind control, after a fashion (that last bit hasn’t really been used by Marvel films since Avengers: Age of Ultron, but fans know that the raw power’s all there). What if she has created this classic TV theme park for herself and Vision as an elaborate grief response? Remember, thanks to Thanos and the Time Stone, she has seen the love of her life die in front of her twice in quick succession; more than enough fuel to send her into a reality-warping bender.

This hypothesis is given further ballast by the second episode’s ending, where a mysterious man in a beekeeper’s suit approaches Wanda and Vision. A panic-stricken Wanda says, “No!” firmly and (using her powers) turns the clock back to the cosy scene a few minutes ago when she was telling Vision about her pregnancy. The effect is meant to mimic someone ‘turning the dial’ to change the channel on an old-timey TV set (thereby reinforcing the pun in the show’s name; it’s not television, it’s WandaVision). Sure enough, the episode leaps forward by a decade again, as we shift to full-colour and the setting resembles the 70s universe of The Brady Bunch (1969-74) this time around.

Wish fulfillment and collective projection, after all, were the cornerstones of classic television, which is why this moment (and by extension, WandaVision’s central deceit as a whole) is so powerful. Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke weren’t just playing characters every week on a sitcom; they were saying and doing things designed to be the visual equivalent of comfort food. In Lucy and Desi, people saw the all-American couple. For white housewives, Mary Tyler Moore’s character, Mary Richards (who worked at a TV studio), represented the ideal of a modern, working woman with a fully-fleshed out inner life, plus dreams and ambitions that had nothing to do with a man.

In ‘E Unibus Pluram’ David Foster Wallace’s 1993 essay about irony and metafictional self-reference in American culture, there’s a pithy summation of the sociological role played by classic television: “If we want to know what American normality is — what Americans want to regard as normal — we can trust television. For television’s whole raison is reflecting what people want to see. It’s a mirror. Not a Stendhalian mirror reflecting the blue sky and mud puddle. More like the overlit bathroom mirror where the teenager monitors his biceps and determines his better profile.”

Later in the essay, Wallace warns readers and writers against the templatized usage of ironic self-reference, using (who else?) Mary Tyler Moore’s MTM Enterprises as an example. On a 1988 episode of St. Elsewhere, an MTM medical drama, a deluded patient (played by an actor from The Bob Newhart Show, another MTM production) believes he is Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Endless nudge-winks follow, the coup de grace being Betty White playing a surgeon — the patient promptly calls her “Sue” after Sue Ann Nivens, the character White played on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. With “tragic inevitability (…) and a too-straight face” White says he must have confused her for someone else. “There is nothing but television on this episode,” Wallace writes. “Every joke and dramatic surge depends on involution, metatelevision. It is in-joke within in-joke.”

The involution/metatelevision effect compounds over time in American television; Happy Days was a 1970s production that poked gentle fun at the 1950s, That 70s Show was a 1990s production parodying the 1970s (including and especially Happy Days) and so on. Disney and the MCU, with their rhizomatic sprawl of interconnected intellectual properties, are at a high risk of spiraling into the kind of ‘irony loop’ Wallace was warning us against. Out of the 20-plus feature films in the MCU till date, only outliers like Thor: Ragnarok or Black Panther can truly be enjoyed in a standalone capacity; the rest are often too dependent upon callbacks, upon the often tedious untangling of unresolved story arcs from other films.

On the evidence of these first two episodes, WandaVision manages to avoid this trap. Its allusive cleverness and production flair aside, it’s driven by a remarkable performance by Elizabeth Olsen, who balances her Lucille Ball ironic beats with a thoroughly contemporary depiction of trauma. Where exactly it takes the MCU remains to be seen, but for now these opening episodes mark an impressive and ambitious stylistic departure for Marvel.

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