We all hide in sitcoms. Television dramas strive to be real, while comedies—traditionally underlining their gags with canned laughter—are comfort food with no attempt at verisimilitude. Those picture-perfect ensembles, those quips delivered on cue, those hi-jinks looping back to status quo in time for the end credits. Sitcoms are proud of being too good to be true.
Living inside them sounds like an idea Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker or The Good Place creator Michael Schur might explore in their own offbeat ways, and it is shocking to watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe throw two Avengers right into the weird end, exploring a superhuman romance through the prism of American sitcom history.
In WandaVision (streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Premium), Wanda Maximoff (played by Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (played by Paul Bettany), characters we know from the Avengers movies, appear stranded inside a different sitcom each week. The first episode, for instance, is set in a black and white 1950s sitcom, with the flavour and comic stylings of The Dick Van Dyke Show and a dash of I Love Lucy. The second is closer to Bewitched from the 1960s. The third, in technicolor, feels almost exactly like The Brady Bunch of the 1970s, with old-school punch lines holding together a surreal plot. The show intends to continue right through to modern comedies like The Office and Modern Family.
It’s an intriguing gambit. With no superheroes in theatres, a world hungry for Marvel’s amusing but formulaic blockbusters is chomping at the bit, and—knowing this adventure will lead directly into the next Doctor Strange film and the next Spider-Man film—filleting these episodes for clues. Over on theory-obsessive sites like Reddit, kids several generations removed from Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore are parsing classic TV episodes for clues and possible context. As scavenger hunts go, it’s mighty educational.
As romantic comedies go, it is made curious by Vision being dead. Superheroes never really die—intellectual property is immortal—but in Avengers: Infinity War (Disney+ Hotstar), the wise and powerful Android was killed twice. Yet here he is in a top hat, intoxicated by chewing gum, flopping around like Rik Mayall while his wife saves the day. What in the world is going on? Or, to be precise, what world is going on? Wanda Maximoff, also known as the Scarlet Witch, might have gotten short shrift in the movies thus far, but the comics single her out as the ultimate sorceress, one of the world’s most powerful mutants, one who infamously slashed Marvel’s bench strength once by simply saying the words “No more mutants”.
Is what we are seeing in WandaVision—the happy-go-lucky plot lines, the laugh track, the hiding of messy details under a “well, that’s TV” shrug—therefore something Wanda has conjured up, a coping mechanism for a world without Vision? An idealised world based on the American reruns she grew up on in Eastern Europe? Or is it some sort of temporal witness protection programme where Wanda is being held? For even as she often shapes the sitcom narrative, she doesn’t appear to be entirely in control. Each episode reveals more, but three episodes down, this could still turn into anyone’s mind game.
Yet—and mercifully—you do not need to be a Marvel junkie to dive in. WandaVision plays out like The Truman Show by way of The Twilight Zone, and no homework is necessary to enjoy the homages. The actors (with standouts like Kathryn Hahn and Teyonah Parris) embrace the nuttiness. There is much to love, from Bettany’s delightfully unreal over-enunciated accent, to the intentionally dated lines (Vision’s boss, played by the timeless Fred Melamed, calls an employee’s turtleneck “an embarrassing display of beatnik enthusiasm”), to the opening theme songs and the lovingly recreated set design.
As the name makes clear, this is Wanda’s series. Elizabeth Olsen is superb as the wacky housewife unable to cook dinner or remember why a date is important, and luminous as the 1970s woman getting pregnant-er by the minute. True to the way sitcom actresses have always dealt with having babies, she inadequately hides her belly behind fruit bowls and tables. She telekinetically makes dishes fly around, makes objects appear out of mid-air and, perhaps most importantly, restores sitcom normalcy whenever reality threatens to destroy the illusion.
Red keeps breaking through. It is the light on a toaster in a black and white advert, it is the colour of a toy helicopter, the colour of a neighbour’s blood, and when Vision tries to divulge a secret about a neighbour, he calls him a communist: Even in gossip he paints a man red. The devil has been mentioned a couple of times, and since this series has little room for incidental detail, there are whispers of Mephisto, a demonic (and unimaginatively named) comic book villain entering the MCU (which, if true, would mean many more dead characters springing back to life).
There is a creepy undercurrent to the exaggeratedly comic premise, and by shooting the first episode on an actual TV soundstage, where the fourth wall is literally removed so the studio audience can watch and laugh along, there is an attempt from Marvel to let us in, to let us laugh along while knowing the joke isn’t really the joke. I am thrilled to be playing along week on week, reading into expressions and dialogues loaded with intent, and dreading only the possibility that the eventual reveal isn’t as clever as this wondrous buildup. This had better not be a diversion, a red herring before things start going boom again.
Vision quotes Shakespeare in an episode and I, a man who watches far too much television, agreeably paraphrase: “All the world’s a soundstage.” I would personally like to live in the unpredictable worlds of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Atlanta or Archer. Given the number of times I revisit their episodes, perhaps I already do. In a way, we already are the leads in our own sitcoms. We just don’t know where the cameras and the plot twists are. There is but one rule. Once you begin to hear the laugh track, start worrying.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.