This is a review of Disney’s new WandaVision show and it contains some spoilers.
WandaVision surprised me as to how clever it was. It accomplished something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen done before: it succeeded at 3 layers of storytelling simultaneously, with each level enhancing the other levels.
Level 1: As a spoof of a 50s sitcom
The show immediately reminds you of I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched and there are many intentional nods to shows from this era. There is marvelous (pardon the pun) humor gently poking fun at the old shows we grew up on. The second episode even has a Bewitched inspired opening animation.
Yet the humor of spoofing such sitcoms is subtle. The married characters sleep in separate beds, but they don’t stop and say ‘why are we in separate beds?’ They just accept it.
Right up until they don’t.
But the logic for why they combined their beds makes perfect sense within the logic of a 50s sitcom — they are afraid of a noise outside. They never just jump out of the logic of such 50s sitcoms. The fact that they keep acting like 50s sitcom characters, even when doing things 50s sitcom characters would never do, is part of the humor.
Level 2: As an actual 50s sitcom
Let’s face it, most spoofs of sitcoms just aren’t funny. The humor comes only in spoofing the tropes of those shows. The characters tell less than funny jokes but we’re in on the joke that the laugh track is artificial.
Not so here. The show itself is actually hilarious. If this show (minus the level 3 elements below) was on the air in the 50s, people would actually find it funny.
Interestingly, the writers show an awareness of this sub-trope. The first couple of jokes in the show aren’t funny at all but have an out of place laugh track. But then the real humor starts and the show is genuinely funny for the rest of the first two episodes. It’s as if the writers were spoofing spoofs of sitcoms by saying, ‘look we can do this while actually being funny.’
Level 3: As a Marvel Superhero Show
Despite being an actual sitcom (level 2) while spoofing sitcoms (level 1) the show never lets you forget that it’s actually a modern Marvel Superhero show.
We all know Vision is dead. So why is he alive again?
Instead of playing straight the standard 50s sitcom trope of ‘forgotten anniversary’ they play it not quite straight. We start with a seemingly standard 50s sitcom situation where both Wanda and Vision can’t remember why August 23 is marked on the calendar, but neither wants to admit to the other that they can’t remember. Vision even points out that it’s impossible for him to forget, yet he can’t remember either and is too embarrassed to admit it. All standard sitcom fare so far.
But it turns out that this wasn’t a throwaway joke like we think at first. The fact that Vision doesn’t remember really is impossible unless something sinister is going on.
We soon learn this isn’t the only hole in Wanda’s and Vision’s memory. When the stock ‘sitcom boss’ comes over for dinner, he asks them why they chose to move to Westview and they don’t know how to answer because they can’t remember anything from their past. This is the first big disturbing moment in the show despite being a call back to what was first played as a simple sitcom joke.
A moment later the boss starts to choke on his food. But this is a sitcom, right? No way will the boss choke to death right in front of us, right?
The boss’ wife, being a stock sitcom character, has no idea how to handle such a situation. She inappropriately keeps telling her husband to ‘stop it’ over and over as if he’s just pretending. She clearly has no idea what an appropriate response to such a situation is. It’s as if she just knows that people don’t choke to death in sitcoms so she can’t even conceive the possibility.
But the boss keeps choking anyhow and it’s starting to get scary. As an audience, we are growing uncomfortable because we’re not sure what the boundaries are anymore. Is this sitcom where the boss can’t die? Or is this a Marvel movie where he can?
As if to emphasize this blurring of genres, this whole scene suddenly drops the directorial style of a 50s sitcom and instead is filmed as if it’s a modern drama. The sudden stark change in style works to emphasize the head-on collision of the two genres.
The audience’s growing fears are reflected in Wanda’s face, with Elizabeth Olsen nailing the scene. She suddenly realizes something is very wrong and tells Vision to save him. Up to that moment, Vision was just a standard buffoon-of-a-sitcom-husband. Only when Wanda commands him to be a superhero does he realize he is capable of saving the day. The boss is saved, but only because there happen to be two superheroes in the room that know how to deal with situations that fall outside the boundaries of the sitcom genre.
And then the scene is over and the show becomes a sitcom again. The moment of fear passes, but we’re left with an unsettling feeling something is very wrong.
This mixing of humor and fear continues throughout the show. When Vision and Wanda are humorously afraid of a noise outside during the night, it’s played entirely for humor. But the next day we find out what actually caused the noise and it’s more than a bit disturbing. The audience is forced to rethink the previously hilarious scene in a new disturbing light.
Even while my family was laughing out loud at the sitcom elements, our feeling of dread was building. Then the dread exploded with a very simple question over the radio:
“Who’s doing this to you, Wanda?”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it before. I was literally laughing out loud and experiencing dread at the same time. To succeed at all 3 levels at the same time shows the ingenuity of the show’s creative team. If they can keep this up, they’ll have a massive hit on their hands.