Marvel Does Pleasantville: Episodes 1 and 2 of WandaVision

Of the many Marvel and Star Wars related projects Disney (who, if I may remind you, are still not paying royalties due to Alan Dean Foster and other authors) has announced for its Disney+ streaming service, WandaVision was probably the one that I least knew what to make of.

I mean, even the whole setup – “We’re making a sitcom that’s a parody of other sitcoms, the protagonists are phasing android and a reality-bending mutant – oh yes, and it’s set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, too” – sounds like Disney and Marvel are trolling us. But then, I already suspected that Disney/Marvel were trolling us, when they announced they were making a Guardians of the Galaxy movie and we all know how that turned out. For in the past few years, Marvel has been at the point where they could tell pretty much any story, no matter how weird or offbeat (gonzo space opera, retro spy adventure, Afrofuturist fantasy, X-Files style paranoia mixed with space opera, heist movie with superpowers, etc…), and make a success of it. So why on Earth shouldn’t Marvel make a sitcom about an android married to a reality-bending mutant? If anybody could make it work, it’s them.

That said, I was skeptical about WandaVision for a simple reason. Namely, I don’t like sitcoms. I don’t watch sitcoms, I’m not familiar with most of the shows WandaVision is apparently trying to parody and I find US suburban sitcoms with their unfunny jokes and laugh tracks (Why, of why, are laugh tracks even a thing?) about as alien as if I were watching TV from another planet. In fact, it took me a long time to realise that the sitcom was considered a separate format of TV show in the US. So watching a sitcom parody should feel about as alien to me as watching a parody of Beijing opera or Kabuki theatre. It may be the best parody ever of Beijing opera or Kabuki theatre, but I can’t tell, because I’m simply not familiar enough with what’s being parodied.

In many ways, Disney+ rolling out a parody of US sitcoms through the decades as one of its major shows to a global audience was a huge risk, simply because the kind of suburban couple and family sitcoms WandaVision is parodying are a very uniquely American form of entertainment. Yes, other countries do have comedy TV programs, some of them focus on middle class couples and families and sometimes they’re very funny. But the claustrophobic setting of the typically American suburb (which many Europeans associate mainly with horror movies), the limited sets, the laugh track, the type of humour, all that’s uniquely American.

Occasionally, such shows can successfully cross the Atlantic. I Dream of Jeannie was a big hit in West Germany and I remember adoring reruns as a kid, while All in the Family/Till Death Do Us Part/Ein Herz und eine Seele was a big hit in the UK, the US and West Germany, even though it was never even remotely funny in any country. Though All in the Family/Till Death Do Us Part/Ein Herz und eine Seele did adapt its basic situation – creepy old racist with a very stupid wife, non-entity daughter and a progressive son-in-law as well as neighbours who are other – to every country differently. And so the neighbours are black in the US version and Socialdemocrats in the German version. And a lot of the jokes in the German version are based on West German politics of the 1970s, while the US version took the occasional detour into drama. So yes, the basic premise of a random sitcom can be adapted across cultures.

One early review, which I can’t find right now, declared that WandaVision was perfect even for people not familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, because it’s primarily a sitcom that doesn’t require any knowledge of comics or the Marvel Universe. Which made me wonder, “What about some like me who’s familiar with the comics that WandaVision is based upon – mainly the two Vision and the Scarlet Witch limited series from the 1980s and Tom King’s The Vision limited series from 2015/16 – but knows next to nothing about sitcoms? Will WandaVision work for me?”

The answer is, “I’m not sure yet.” I have to admit that the first few minutes of episode 1 – after a title sequence featuring newlyweds Wanda and Vision moving into their new suburban home – were actively painful with a noisy laugh track almost drowning out dialogue which simply wasn’t funny enough to justify such raucous laughter. However, then the episode got better and in the end I was actually laughing along with the canned laughter.

Warning: Spoilers below the cut!

The plot is simple enough. Wanda and Vision have just moved into a typically American house in the typically American suburb of Westview, hoping to fit in and lead typically American lives. They seem to be newlyweds, even though they neither have rings nor can they remember any anniversary. The setting is the 1950s or early 1960s, the models are the vintage sitcoms I Love Lucy (which I’m familiar with by reputation, even though I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen an episode) and The Dick Van Dyke Show (which I didn’t even know existed or rather assumed was a variety show hosted by Dick Van Dyke, because that what “The [insert name of celebrity here] Shows” were on German TV).

The late 1950s/early 1960s setting is recreated absolutely perfectly. Not only are episodes 1 and 2 shot in black and white and in the old 4:3 TV ratio, apparently the production team also used old cameras and practical effects to recreate the somewhat static look of early TV shows. Hairstyles, clothing, interior designs, etc… are also pitch perfect for the period. Guardian reviewer Lucy Mangan also praises the retro trappings of thw show. There even are fake commercials, for Stark Industries‘ latest toaster in episode one and the Strucker wristwatch (complete with Hydra logo) in episode two. This is not just a neat Easter egg, it may also be significant down the line, considering that Vision was created from Tony Stark’s computer butler Jarvis and Wanda got her mutant powers in the movie from Baron von Strucker.

No sooner have Wanda and Vision moved in that their nosy neighbour (to the right) Agnes (played by Kathryn Hahn whom I remember from Crossing Jordan almost twenty years ago, though she also was in a lot of sitcoms) drops by to deliver a potted plant and ask questions Wanda can’t answer. And then there’s also the mysterious heart on the kitchen calendar, which suggests that the day is some kind of romantic anniversary, but of what?

At any rate, Wanda enlists Agnes’ help (well, she won’t leave anyway, so you might as well put her to good use) in preparing a romantic evening for herself and Vision. Meanwhile, Vision is at his job, punching computer punchcards for a mysterious purpose that no one at the company knows. Oh yes, and his boss Mr. Hart announces that he will be coming to dinner at the Visions that night with his wife. And the Harts are very demanding guests, so Vision and Wanda will have to impress them, if Vision wants a promotion. So that’s what the heart on the calendar stood for. So I wonder why Vision is so eager for a promotion in a dead end office job, when he’s an Avenger and could probably run Stark Industries besides.

The comedy grows from there.  Wanda is expecting a romantic evening by candlelight and wanders around the house in a negligé, while Vision shows up with the Harts in tow. Vision initially explains away Wanda’s behaviour with “Well, she’s an immigrant from Sarkovia.”

This was actually one of the more interesting bits of the episode, because after WWII and later the Korean War a lot of American GIs brought back brides from overseas, brides who quite often fitted just as well into a typically American suburb as Wanda and Vision. If they got to live in a typically American suburb, that is. Cause if their new husband was black, they often ended up in rundown inner city neighbourhoods or shacks in the rural south. This is a subject, which though widespread, is rarely addressed in US pop culture. An episode of Quantum Leap tackled the racism faced by an American GI and his Japanese bride more than twenty years ago, while Lovecraft Country did so more recently in the episode “Meet Me in Daegu”, which I loved, though no one else did. Unlike Quantum Leap and Lovecraft Country, WandaVision doesn’t really do much with its crosscultural marriage plot, but then it’s early yet.

Even though Vision has managed to explain away Wanda’s odd behaviour, they still have a problem, because there is no dinner, at least not for four. So Wanda enlists the help of nosy neighbour Agnes, who may be a variation of Agatha Harkness from the comics, and decides to magic up a five course dinner, including such midcentury specialties as Lobster Thermidor, Chicken a la King and Steak Diane. But of course, things don’t go smoothly, when Wanda first has problems getting rid of Agnes, then overcooks the chicken and magically turns it back into a bunch of eggs and magically throws the lobsters out of the windows. Meanwhile, Vision is having increasing problems to keep Mrs. Hart, who’s bored to death, not to mention just as nosy as Agnes, from investigating the strange noises coming from the kitchen.

It’s during the dinner party scene that I actually starting laughing along with the canned laughter. This is probably, because by this point WandaVision had morphed into a form I recognised, namely that of the boulevard theatre comedy, which was very common in Germany from the early 20th century well into the 1990s (there still are boulevard theatres, but they’re less common than they used to be). Boulevard theatre comedies were also a staple of German TV in the 1970s and 1980s and influenced a lot of postwar West German cinema comedies. And these boulevard comedies got a lot of laughs out of misunderstandings and people trying to frantically keep other people on stage from seeing something or someone, while the audience of course sees everything. I’m not sure in how far the European boulevard comedy influenced the US sitcom and or if resemblance was just the effect of the staginess of the first episode (which was actually shot with a live studio audience), but Vision’s desperate antics to keep the Harts from seeing Wanda’s magical cooking reminded me of Ohnsorg Theatre plays and Peter Alexander movies from the 1960s.

Eventually, dinner is magically on the table, but things come to a head when Mr. Hart first interrogates Wanda and Vision about how they met, how long they’ve been together and what their story is, questions which Wanda and Vision can’t answer, and then nearly chokes on a strawberry. The episode shifts away from the sitcom format at this point into a kind of strange, almost hypnotic moment of Mrs. Hart saying “Stop it” over and over again, until Wanda orders Vision to help Mr. Hart, using his phase powers to remove the offending strawberry. Mr. Hart is now so grateful that he promotes Vision, while Wanda and Vision decide to simply set an anniversary for themselves, come up with a song that will be theirs from now on, and also magic up wedding rings.

Cue beautifully retro end credits in black and white, until the camera zooms out, revealing someone watching the end credits on TV, while taking notes in a notebook embossed with the logo of S.W.O.R.D., S.H.I.E.L.D.’s sister organisation from the comics.

The second episode sees Wanda and Vision somewhat settled in Westview, though they’re still struggling to fit in. There seems to have been a time jump, because while the episode is still mostly in black and white, complete with a delightful animated title sequence, the setting now seems to be the mid 1960s, judging by hairstyles and clothing. The models for this episode are mid 1960s supernatural sitcoms like Bewitched (of which I’ve seen a few episodes) and I Dream of Jeannie (which I loved as a kid, when it was rerun on German TV), where the female half of an otherwise typical suburban couple is some kind of supernatural being and desperately tries to hide her abilities and fit in. There was always something faintly sinister about those shows, because why did the woman have to hide her awesome abilities? And why was there always a vague hint of dire disaster, if someone were to find out.

I’ve read somewhere (again I can’t find it now) that the supernatural sitcoms of the 1960s were a coded treatment of interracial marriages with one partner trying to pass as white, because the subject was too sensitive to be adressed otherwise. This would also fit in with the allusions to intercultural war marriages in episode 1.

Wanda and Vision are completely absorbed by a neighbourhood talent show, which is supposed to benefit the local elementary school (“For the children”, characters repeat almost mantra-like). Wanda and Vision have prepared a magical act as Glamour and Illusion (which interestingly were two characters in the Vision and Scarlet Witch miniseries of the 1980s). Of course, both can perform acts that look like magic with their little finger – the challenge is making it look fake. As the glamorous assistant, Wanda also gets to wear a sequin studded bathing suit that is about as close to Jack Kirby’s traditional Scarlet Witch costume that the character has come in the movies. Vision, meanwhile, wears the traditional magician’s ensemble of tailcoat and top hat.

We also get to meet more characters from Westview, as Wanda joins the organisation committee for the show, which is lorded over by Dottie (played by Emma Caulfield, best remembered as Anya from Buffy). At the committee meeting, Wanda also meets a young black woman who introduces herself as Geraldine and played by Teyonah Parris, who played Don Draper’s secretary Dawn in Mad Men and looks uncannily like a young Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek. What makes this even more interesting is that Teyonah Parris has been cast as Monica Rambeau a.k.a. the second Captain Marvel, so Geraldine is obviously not her real name.

Meanwhile, Vision goes to a meeting of the local neighbourhood watch, because he and Wanda have been woken up at night by noises outside their suburban dream home. Here he accepts a piece of chewing gum (and makes a masturbation joke, which somehow slipped through, even though WandaVision runs on the ultra-family-friendly Disney+), which he accidentally swallows – with unexpected results. The chewing gum messes up Vision’s mechanical innards and causes him to act like drunk.

And so he shows up at the talent show drunk out of his mind and promptly forgets that he’s supposed to hide his abilities. Luckily, Wanda uses her magic to make all the very real feat of super-abilities look fake. So far, I’d mainly seen Paul Bettany in dramatic roles, but he has excellent comic timing and is clearly having a lot of fun. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda mainly plays the straightman or rather straightwoman to Vision’s antics.

In the end, all is well, because the audience actually thinks that Wanda and Vision’s disastrous magical act is hilarious (well, it is) and so they promptly win the best comedy performance award. Even the hard to impress Dottie is impressed.

But once again, there are cracks in the idyllic facade and those cracks are widening. Cause what is that mysterious banging outside the window really? Why does a radio suddenly stop playing the Beach Boys and a male voice that may or may not be Captain America’s asks, “Who is doing this to you, Wanda?” Who is the mysterious figure in a beekeeper’s outfit who emerges from the sewers? And why does colour – always red as in Scarlet Witch – suddenly invade Wanda and Vision’s black and white world, first as a blinking light on a Stark Industries toaster, then as a toy helicopter with a S.W.O.R.D. logo, then as blood on Dottie’s hands, after she breaks a glass, until finally, the entire world becomes colourful. The invasion of colour is of course borrowed from the 1998 movie Pleasantville, while the voices from the radio are reminiscent of the wonderful and sadly almost completely forgotten British time travel/afterlife drama Life on Mars and its sequel Ashes to Ashes.

US suburbs have always been associated with horror movies as much as with sitcoms and so the merging of horror moments with comedy are certainly appropriate. And the end of the second episode – while certainly a reason to rejoice for Wanda and Vision, for Wanda suddenly turns out to be pregnant – will fill those familiar with the comics with apprehension, because we know that the arrival of Wanda and Vision’s twins did not turn out well there.

By the end of episode 2, there still are only hints at the bigger picture, though we can be pretty certain that Wanda and Vision are not really living in a vintage sitcom. The occasional cracks in the sitcom world are a strong hint, as is the fact that the fictional suburb of Westview is a lot more diverse than either a real 1950s/1960s American suburb or a US TV sitcom of the period. After all, US sitcoms were extremely racially segregated until very recently, either all white (pretty much every other US sitcom) or all black (The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air), which is another thing that always irritated me about them.

Instead, the world of Westview is likely some kind of artificial reality, though it’s uncertain whether that reality was created by Wanda herself – maybe as a way of dealing with her grief and trauma after losing Vision, who died in Avengers: Infinity War and never came back, unlike most other characters – or by someone else, quite possible someone sinister. Though if Wanda created this fake reality herself, I wonder why she chose a sitcom universe, because – as the show actually points out – Wanda is not American and therefore shouldn’t have the same attachment to sitcoms that Americans have. Of course, it’s possible that Sarkovian TV cheaply bought a bunch of old US sitcoms and reran them ad infinitum in the afternoons, where a young Wanda watched them and developed her image of America based on the image presented in those sitcoms. Or maybe Wanda developed a sitcom habit while in the US?

In his review, Camestros Felapton notes that WandaVision has a Philip K. Dick like quality of unreality. It’s certainly appropriate, especially since the Cyberpunk trappings we know associate with Philip K. Dick originate with the movies. Dick’s actual fiction was often set in what Joanna Russ called Galactic Suburbia.

So what’s my verdict on WandaVision? Well, it’s still too early for anything definitive, but in the end I enjoyed the first two episodes more than I expected. For while I don’t really connect to sitcoms, I’m a sucker for beautifully realised retro settings and WandaVision offers that in spades. Also, it’s nice to see Wanda and Vision, two characters who were somewhat shortchanged by the movies and whose entire relationship happened mostly offscreen, finally given their due.

I’m not sure if I’ll be doing episode by episode reviews, but I’ll definitely keep watching

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8 Responses to Marvel Does Pleasantville: Episodes 1 and 2 of WandaVision

  1. Juan Sanmiguel says:

    I hope this does not show up in spam. 🙂

    The need for laugh track may have come I Love Lucy. When they were putting they show together, Desi Arnaz realized that Lucy worked better with a live audience (IIRC the show based on a radio show Lucy did with a live audience). As a producer, Arnaz set up the modern sitcom with a three camera setup and a live audience. Since the show was super popular, I guess all the other sitcoms thought they needed either a live audience or the illusion of one. I think the British would show a recording of a sitcom to an audience, record the laughter, and mix it with the show for live boradcast (please correct me if I am wrong about this).

    I like the show too, but I wonder how long will the audience be strung along until we find out what is really happening.

    • Cora says:

      Your comment did end up in spam, but I rescued it. So did Steve J. Wright’s on the Star Trek Discovery post. I suspect that an update broke the spam settings, since having at least one comment approved should make sure that future comments post automatically.

      That’s interesting about the laugh tracks originating with I Love Lucy and the live studio audience (and episode 1 of Wanda Vision was apparently shot with a live studio audience). Interestingly, German sitcoms and comedy programs don’t have laugh tracks, unless you can hear a live studio audience. Though when I check YouTube for examples, I found that a lot more of 1970s and 1980s West German sitcoms had live studio audiences than I realised. For example, the West German All in the Family copycat had a live studio audience, as did Klimbim, Sketch-up and Sechs Richtige, though Loriot didn’t have one. I completely forgot about this, probably because I never liked any of those programs (except for Loriot, cause he was brilliant) and so completely erased them from my memory.

      The filmed theatre comedy plays, which were surprisingly common on West German TV from the 1960s well into the 1990s, of course also had a live audience and you could hear laughter and applause in the background. Most of these were regional, complete with accents and dialects. The Hamburg based Ohnsorg Theater was the only one we watched. There also was Willy Millowitch’s theatre from Cologne and Peter Steiner’s Theaterstadl from Bavaria, though we never watched those. I suspect they were cheap TV programming, because they basically just had to film a play that would have been performed anyway.

      Actually, this got me thinking of the German language tradition of comedy theatre and how it used to be really ubiquitous well into my lifetime. Most of these were regional and performing in local dialect. My Grandma had a subscription to the local comedy theatre (which performed partly in Low German). That theatre died off about twenty years ago, though there are still smaller theatres upholding the tradition. And now I wonder how much that tradition influenced the US sitcom, probably via emigrants and refugees who ended up in Hollywood.

  2. FontFolly says:

    Oh! I hadn’t know the term boulevard theatre comedy. Now that you explain it, I feel obligated to tell you that almost every single episode of “I Love Lucy” was a boulevard theatre comedy. The other show the first two episodes riffed on (and the opening credits for episode two were a parody of) was “Bewitched” but I don’t know how widely that show was syndicated outside the U.S.

    A funny thing about your comment about the “Dick Van Dyke Show” — it was a sitcom in which Van Dyke played Rob Petrie, who within the show was the head writer of the fictional “Alan Brady Show” show, which was exactly the kind of comedy/variety show you initially supposed the “Dick Van Dyke Show” was. The Dick Van Dyke show was both a home/family sitcom and a workplace/back stage comedy.

    I really need to finish my review of the first three episodes…

    • Cora says:

      Regarding boulevard comedies, there doesn’t seem to be a good English language version of the term, even though this type of play was very common well into the late 20th century. Every city had at least one boulevard theatre playing such fare, big cities had several. Several of these theatres still exist and I could probably go and see a boulevard comedy on stage tonight, if the theatres were open. And early TV, at least in Germany, often consisted of boulevard comedies either filmed or transmitted live, audience and all. That sort of thing was still regularly on TV, when I was a kid. I wouldn’t be at all surprised, if “I Love Lucy” and other sitcoms grew out of filmed comedy plays, since I suspect the US had the form, even if not the name (and this type of play has different names in Germany, too). In fact, “Ohnsorg Theater, but with superheroes” would be a great way to sell WandaVision to German audiences.

      Bewitched was shown here as afternoon programming during the early days of private TV in the 1980s, but I don’t know if it had a German run before that. I certainly don’t recall ever seeing it before that. Two 1960s sitcoms which had successful runs on West German TV are I Dream of Jeannie and Family Affair (and Tammy, which only ran for one season in the US, but was a huge success in West Germany). I watched all of them in reruns as a kid, though I never really thought of them as a separate form, but viewed them just as an American TV series like The A-Team or Magnum P.I. or whatever.

      In Germany, programs called “The [insert name of celebrity here] Show” are inevitably variety shows, even though quite a lot of them had stars/hosts who were fine comedic actors, so I assumed that things like The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, etc… were the same. Interesting that The Dick Van Dyke Show was a family sitcom combined with a workplace comedy about a variety show.

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