A new episode of WandaVision is streaming today on Disney+. And in all my years of being a professional television watcher, it just might be the strangest show I’ve ever seen.
You can check out our full review of the show (written by Adam Holz) here, but in brief, here’s the setup: The show features two slightly lesser-known Avengers from the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Wanda Maximoff, whose enigmatic abilities have given her the professional name Scarlet Witch; and Vision, a sort of supernatural android whose forehead used to house one of the famously powerful Infinity Stones.
Well, Vision technically [Spoiler Warning] died in Avengers: Infinity War, much to Wanda’s grief. Twice, actually. (The two had been something of an item in the movies.) But now, according to the Disney+ show, both are very much alive—albeit in a very strange place. They seem to have landed in an alternate reality based on, of all things, old television sitcoms.
“We are an unusual couple, you know,” Wanda tells her husband toward the end of episode one.
“Oh, I don’t think that was ever in question,” a black-and-white Vision quips. Cue laugh track.
It’s all pretty weird and curiously delightful. And at first glance, it might look like just one big gimmick: People love sitcoms. They love nostalgia. They love superheroes. Why not stuff ‘em all together in one show? And it’s apparently working: WandaVision is already one of television’s biggest, buzziest shows.
But I think WandaVision is more than an innocuous television distraction, simply (if cleverly) aping the sitcom it spoofs. It’s even more than the Easter-egg rich, multilayered superhero story taking place (so far) along the show’s edges. You could read it as a commentary on television itself.
You don’t have to sit through much of WandaVision to know something unnatural is behind it all. As Wanda and Vision skip through decades worth of sitcoms, their whole existence feels like an artifice—a happy bubble that hides a more sinister reality. And that reality burbles into the machinery from time to time: A flash of red blood in a black-and-white episode. An apparent beekeeper who crawls out of a manhole at the end of Episode 2. Commercials that emphasize Wanda and Vision’s ties to their own “real” world. For instance: The second commercial features a watch made by “Strucker” with a Hydra logo firmly stamped on the face. Hydra is a villainous entity in the MCU, and Strucker was the Hydra operative who, essentially, created Wanda and her brother (Piotr)—fostering their superpowers so they could go head-to-head with the Avengers. (You can see him at the end of Captain America: Winter Soldier.)
Some Internet speculators believe that this sitcom universe is one of evil design, made to trap these superheroes and keep them from some critical task. Others believe that Wanda herself made this universe as a way to shield herself from her own dismal, Vision-less world.
Both theories illustrate how we non-superhero types use entertainment, too. Particularly, I’d argue, how we use sitcoms.
Consider the world in the 1950s and ‘60s. The Iron Curtain had fallen over much of Eastern Europe in 1946. U.S.S.R. had developed the atomic bomb in 1949. The Cold War was at its coldest.
It was in this environment that the television sitcom was born. I Love Lucy premiered in 1951. The Honeymooners launched in 1955. The Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched—two sitcoms explicitly referenced by WandaVision, began their runs in 1961 and 1964, respectively. Many of the most successful sitcoms in television’s Golden Age were wildly domestic, featuring relatively simple, laughable problems that could be solved in 30 minutes or less. The boss is coming to dinner. An embarrassing mixup at the potluck dinner. Talent show chaos.
These shows were created to be a gentle escape from the real world’s real problems—a chance for people to laugh and forget their anxieties for a bit.
But, of course, they never would’ve worked had that anxious viewing public not wanted them. Needed them. And then, demanded them.
To this day, in our own anxious age, some of the most popular streaming shows are sitcoms of old. Friends. The Office. Parks and Recreation. For some—perhaps especially during the age of COVID-19, when real friends are often only available by screens themselves—our sitcom buddies become part of the fabric of our lives. We care, in a very real sense, what happens to The Office’s Jim and Pam. We follow the saga of Ross and Rachel on Friends. They’re part of our reality. And, as such, we find ourselves in theirs, if only for a time.
Few of us lose ourselves in their reality. But a few of us, on our most desperate days, might wish we could.
If WandaVision goes down this path, stripping away the television artifice one episode at a time, the takeaway is fairly obvious. As comforting as this world may be, Wanda (and Vision?) can’t hide there—not when there’s work to be done. And neither can we. Television has its merits, but we must always keep it in its place—and at arm’s length.