*****REALITY-WARPING SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
Nick At Nite meets David Lynch.
When we last saw them at the end of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame” the living artificial intelligence mandroid “Vision” (Paul Bettany) and Sokovian ‘Scarlet Witch’ Wanda Maximoff were very much in love, but Vision had to sacrifice the “Infinity Stone” embedded in his head to help save half of the universe’s total population—hence, he ‘died’ (whatever that means to a sentient AI). Now the two characters find themselves both alive within a bizarre reality apparently based on old American sitcoms of the 1950s and early 1960s. Wanda is able to manipulate this strange new reality to some extent (reality-bending is her superpower), though we infer that an all-reaching oversight group known as “SWORD”, and perhaps others, are monitoring her artificial domestic bliss as well. Despite Wanda’s efforts, occasional glitches in the program allow disturbing reality to intrude from time to time. Wanda seems aware of this real-world menace, and summons just enough of her powers to keep it at bay… for the moment.
Note: Please don’t look for Sokovia on a map.
If I had to describe a simple pitch for DisneyPlus’ bizarre new Marvel series “Wandavision,” my short answer would be Nick at Nite meets David Lynch. Bizarre, surreal, charming but with an undercurrent of menace and foreboding as well. The first two episodes of this meta sci-fi sitcom were written by Jac Schaeffer and Gretchen Enders, with credits given to “Wanda” creator (and Marvel legend) Stan Lee, as well as “Vision” creator Roy Thomas. Meticulous direction by Matt Shakman perfectly mimics the feel, tone and look of “I Love Lucy” and pre-color episodes of “Bewitched” and “I Dream Of Jeannie.”
Season 1 Episode 1.
The first episode begins in black and white, with the image framed to the old TV standard of 4:3, which is jarring itself these days; it’s been so long since I’ve seen a ‘new’ show shot in this ratio that it’s almost like seeing a rotary telephone.
Speaking of antique cars, we cut to inexplicable, quasi-amnesiac newlyweds Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), merrily driving to their new home in a Hollywood vision of late 1950s/early 1960s idyllic WASP-y suburban bliss…a place that only ever really existed in television shows, not reality. The arrive at their new home, and Wanda instantly changes the realty lawn sign to read as “SOLD,” which informs us that the Scarlet Witch’s reality-bending powers seen in the Marvel Avengers movies is very much intact. It’s also curious that Vision doesn’t yet attempt to change his robotic appearance during his drive, as Wanda does for him later on. This middle finger given to reality further reinforces the dreamlike state of their inexplicable reunion, after his apparent death in the movies.
Note: Showbiz connections; Elizabeth Olsen is, of course, the younger sister of the Olsen twins, Mary Kate and Ashley, who gained fame in the late 1980s sitcom “Full House” (the very same sort of series that this show promises to skewer later in the season). Paul Bettany, whose “Vision” evolved from Tony Stark’s sentient home operating system “Jarvis”, is married to Jennifer Connelly, who first rose to prominence in 1985’s “Labyrinth” and “The Rocketeer”(1991).
Arriving at their new home in this mysterious black and white suburb, it’s clear that the two are not quite the versions of themselves we saw in the movies; both Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen expertly adopt the over-the-top sitcom style of acting common in the era emulated in the show (they’re so good, in fact, that I would love to see these two go attempt another reboot of “Bewitched”). Realizing that Vision has to go to work, Wanda immediately gives her android hubby an instant human makeover (no rings yet). Looking at the calendar, the date of August 23rd is conspicuously marked with a heart, but neither of them can remember exactly why (courtesy of their vague selective amnesia). Wanda, of course, assumes it’s their anniversary. After Vision leaves for ‘work’ for a vaguely appointed ‘computing company’, Wanda receives a visit from her generic “wacky neighbor” Agnes (Kathryn Hahn) who is the typically meddlesome neighborhood busybody.
Note: At mid-point in the show there is an advertisement for a “Stark Industries” toaster, featuring the toaster of the future. More about the show’s faux ads (and their ‘messages’) after the two synopses.
At work, we meet some of Vision’s office pals (some of the few nonwhite faces in this deliberately WASPish fictional universe) as well as Vision’s boss, Mr. Hart (Fred Melamed), whom Vision invited over for dinner that very night…August 23rd (hence, the heart). What follows is that time-honored sitcom trope of the mixed signals phone conversation as Vision calls ‘the wife’ to tell her “about tonight.” She assumes he’s talking about their anniversary; he assumes she remembered the boss dinner. The sitcom farce vibe is further punctuated by live studio audience reactions, and occasional use of laugh tracks. As Vision arrives home with his guests, Mr. Hart is mistakenly greeted in the dark by Wanda, who is dressed for an evening of romance. Vision was expecting Wanda to have dinner ready for the boss (yikes! Trying not to cringe too hard at the antiquated gender-role assumptions of the 1950s). An embarrassed Wanda rushes off to the kitchen, where she instantly ‘changes’ into domestic evening attire (complete with necklace and dress). We also meet Hart’s unnamed wife (Debra Jo Rupp). Hart is wary of Wanda’s Sokovian eccentricities (this reality is at the height of the Cold War, after all) but his wife tries to be more accepting of Wanda and Vision’s ‘foreign’ ways.
Note: Several things: “Mr. Hart” was also the name of Dabney Coleman’s evil boss in the movie “Nine to Five” (1980); his first name was Franklin, or as costar Lily Tomlin’s character says, “He’ll always be F-Hart to me.” The ‘boss’s wife’ Debra Jo Rupp also gained fame on another sitcom which capitalized on a period setting, costarring in “That ’70s Show” (1998-2006), which also launched the careers of Topher Grace, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, among others. The notion of Mr. Hart being dismissive of Wanda’s “Sokovian” customs (Sokovia being the fictional Eastern European country of Wanda Maximoff’s birth) is very similar to the softball racism often hurled at Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz) in “I Love Lucy” (1951-1957). “Lucy” was a groundbreaking show for its day, in that it openly depicted a marriage between a Cuban bandleader and his crazy redheaded wife at a time when prudish America was far less tolerant of so-called “mixed marriages.” In “WandaVision”, the new definition of mixed marriage is between a human woman and a sentient android. Now that’s progressive…
Of course, Wanda’s in a bind as she struggles to put together a dinner out of nothing. Wacky neighbor Agnes comes by to give Wanda a handy three-course dinner she just happened to have lying around her kitchen, including a turkey and a pair of lobsters (of course, right?). Meanwhile, Mrs. Hart keeps offering to “help in the kitchen” as Vision does everything he can to prevent her from seeing his magical wife prepare a meal with her powers. Cue Samantha Stephens in “Bewitched”…
Note: “WandaVision” gets so many 1950s sitcom period tropes so uncannily right that I could lose myself in this world just as easily as Wanda and Vision. The ‘dinner party gone horribly wrong’ plot is as old as the medium of television (and film) itself, and so help me, it’s still used today. The actors, the multi-camera format, and the live studio audience-generated laughs all help to sell these creaky, dated anachronisms.
Using her reality-bending powers, Wanda tries to cook a chicken (accidentally burning it before reverting the bird into a pile of eggs), and trying to boil a pair of lobsters by levitating them into a pot of water. As both Mrs. Hart and Agnes compete to meddle in Wanda’s culinary business, Vision tries desperately to stop them from seeing his supernatural wife’s sorcery. How does he do this? By spontaneously breaking into a wildly inappropriate rendition of “Yakety Yak” (a song he heard earlier at the office).
Note: “Yakety Yak,” a song made famous in 1958 by The Coasters, was also popularized by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s own bizarre take on it in the 1988 Ivan Reitman comedy flick “Twins,” costarring Danny DeVito. DeVito would play the DC comic book supervillain “The Penguin” in 1992’s “Batman Returns.”
Vision later breaks out the ukulele and nervously serenades the “starving” Harts while his wife magically perfects dinner, just in time, complete with all the trimmings. Over dinner, the reality of this bizarre late 1950s sitcom matrix begins to fray a bit, as Mr. Hart begins to choke on an errant bite of food. The show’s format immediately switches from multi camera ‘live’ format to single camera mode, with bizarre and unnerving closeups on the gasping Mr. Hart, as his wife repeatedly (and robotically) orders him to “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!” Mr. Hart then falls to the floor, as Vision uses his own AI powers to reach through the mass of Mr. Hart’s chest and windpipe to remove the blockage. The show reverts back to ‘live’ sitcom mode, and this bizarre “comedy” is restored, with no one being the wiser to how Hart was saved.
The dinner party is a success, and the domestic bliss of the android husband and his reality-warping wife is ‘restored.’ Wanda even wishes them a pair of wedding rings to top it all off! The camera then pulls back from the black and white 4:3 dimensions into modern, color widescreen, as we see the ending of Episode 1 playing on a small monitor within a row of monitors… the controls labelled with the insignia of SWORD (a Marvel universe organization that deals with extraterrestrial or other bizarre threats, similar to SHIELD). Is Wanda controlling this reality, or is she only a participant in an experiment run by SWORD and other forces? Are they keeping her safe, or are they controlling her for some nefarious reasons?
Note: To be honest, I’m much less interested in the “Lost”-style sci-fi mystery behind “WandaVision”, because it’s much more fun to see Marvel characters losing themselves in old TV shows. I could see a few of these every year done with other Marvel characters. Maybe have Loki and Thor star in a one-off spoof of the 1980s sitcom “Perfect Strangers”? Maybe the entire Avengers ensemble could star in a redux of nighttime soap operas such as “Dallas” or “Dynasty”? The possibilities are endless…
With its reality matrix established in the previous episode, “WandaVision” opens with animated credits which expertly mimic the style of the pre-color early seasons of “Bewitched.” Wanda and Vision fly together over their neighborhood, much as an animated Samantha Stephens (Elizabeth Montgomery) flew her broomstick over her own slice of suburbia. “I Dream of Jeannie” also featured animated credits as well; both are direct inspirations for these first two episodes of “WandaVision,” with later episodes promising to skewer sitcoms of the 1970s and 1980s.
Note: Animated credits were very popular in 1960s television and movies, particularly in comedies (“Ocean’s 11”) but also for dramas and even an occasional foray in horror (“Psycho”). Producer Saul Bass was a legend in this field (he would also co-produce stop-motion children’s specials). Bass’ trademark style would later be mimicked for the 1960s-set dramatic series “Mad Men” (2007-2015; one of the best shows on television, in my humble opinion). Few things scream vintage television and movies quite like animated credits.
The opening sees Vision and Wanda’s bedroom, with twin beds spaced far apart, as was the custom of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball in “I Love Lucy”. Wanda is awakened by the booming sounds of a storm and trees (or an outside force once again intruding upon their faux reality matrix…). She uses her magic to turn on the lamp on Vision’s nightstand. They realize it’s just ‘trees’ and go back to bed. Wanda then defies 1950s TV conventions as she telekinetically pushes their beds together, merging the twin bedding into king-size. In your faces, Lucy and Ricky…
Note: Truly hard to believe it was ever risqué to show a married couple on TV sleeping in the same bed (!). Probably for the same reasons that the Brady Buch, a family of eight with a live-in maid, had only one bathroom with no visible toilet anywhere. I suppose no one wanted ‘crude’ bodily functions such as sex, urination or defecation to interfere with the sterile, homogenous, non-reality of 1950s-1960s sitcoms.
This episode marks the day of the big ‘community talent show’, which is already sold out. Wanda and Vision are doing a magic act, with Vision playing the magician “Illusion” and Wanda playing his fetching assistant. The real trick for Wanda is to make their ‘magic’ look as though it’s fabricated by muggles and not by real-life supernaturals. As hubby Vision heads off to a “meeting” with the boys from work, Wanda walks into her front yard and sees another sign of reality intruding upon her faux existence; this time it’s a red and yellow toy helicopter laying in the bushes (a hint of color, in her otherwise monochrome world). The toy is marked with the symbol of the SWORD group. Tossing it away, she’s met by Wacky NeighborTM Agnes, who escorts Wanda (arm-in-arm) to a meeting with the town queen bee, Dottie (Emma Caulfield Ford) to finalize plans for the ‘big talent show.’ The meeting takes place place in Dottie’s poolside cabana, where Wanda befriends Geraldine (Teyonah Parris), one of the few woman of color at this overwhelmingly WASP-ish gathering. This budding friendship garners the disapproval of the haughty Dottie. After the meeting, Wanda tries to get into Dottie’s good graces by helping her clean up…since this artificial reality is all about conformity and fitting in.
Meanwhile, at the town library, Vision runs into some of his office mates having a private meeting. He attempts to break the ice with them by loosening up a bit (once again, Bettany’s native British accent really sells him as the ‘outsider’ in this bizarre, hyper-Americanized fantasyland). Unable to drink or even ingest food, Vision is in danger from alienating himself from his peers until he partakes in that old ‘delinquent’ habit of chewing gum (yes, kids…once upon a time, gum-chewing at the library was a clear sign of criminal depravity). We then see an animated diagram of Vision’s inner android workings (represented in cogs and gears) as the swallowed gum begins to slow his mechanisms (literally ‘gumming up the works’). His impaired gear network simulates inebriation, and the intoxicated robot is in a pickle (or just pickled).
Arriving late at the talent show, a disheveled Vision does his best to carry on, accidentally letting some of his true superpowers slip through, which are quickly covered as ‘gags’ by Wanda’s quick-thinking. As Wanda realizes what’s wrong with her android hubby, she magically forces the gum out of his system, and he’s restored just in time to see what a mess he’s made of the show. However, Vision’s gum-drunkenness was assumed to be a gag, and the audience ate it up. The sheepishly departing couple are met with a hearty round of applause, even from the snobbish Dottie. The day is saved once again, thanks to Wanda’s magic, just as Samantha would end up fixing things with her witchcraft, despite her husband Darrin’s inexplicable disapproval. Unlike Darrin however, Vision is wise enough to appreciate his wife’s talent.
Note: The trope of a drunken or otherwise physically impaired lead character in a sitcom is about as big a cliche as the “annual talent show” trope. Talent shows were often used in sitcoms (“I Love Lucy,” “The Brady Bunch,” “Roseanne”, etc) as a means to showcase a sitcom star’s other talents (singing, standup comedy, dancing, etc) thus creating a nice release valve to placate an otherwise bored sitcom actor. For this reason, you often saw talent shows at a midpoint in a series’ run, just about the time when actors might be getting an itch to move on. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003) had perhaps the most inventive way around the talent show trope by turning an entire episode (“Once More With Feeling”) into a musical; with the characters being forced to express their emotions in spontaneous song by an unseen demon. There’s a reason why that episode was a singalong staple every summer at San Diego Comic Con. Emma Caulfield-Ford, who plays Dottie in “WandaVision”, also costarred on “Buffy” as reformed demon ‘Anya.’
Arriving home, the two have their trophy (because there was always a coveted trophy to be had in sitcom talent shows). The romantic duo dance around the house until they hear something outside. Once again, the camera goes from studio-audience mode to single camera mode, as reality threatens to intrude upon their fantasy matrix. We see a man covered in what looks like a hazmat suit emerging from a manhole cover in the street. The mystery man is surrounded by flies (or bees? Not sure). Despite her quasi-amnesia, Wanda recognizes the man as a dangerous interloper into her fantasy world and wishes him away, using a handy temporal rewind.
Note: Once again, the inference of a meta-reality beyond Wanda’s artificial sitcom bliss is reinforced by the appearance of the mysterious sewer-man. Between the storm, the toy helicopter and sewer-man, it seems that perhaps rival forces are desperate to break in and reach these two–for good or bad isn’t yet clear. The fact that Wanda can bend reality to her will makes one wonder if she alone is the author to all of this, and perhaps the outside interlopers are merely trying to enlist her help for some greater crisis?
Rewinding time to the point where she and her husband were standing around their couch earlier, Wanda finds herself spontaneously pregnant, as she and her android husband embrace. Their blissful world changes from monochrome into full ‘living color.’
Note: The notion of modern characters desperately trying their best to fit into a black and white sitcom world reminded me very much of the 1998 fantasy-dramedy “Pleasantville”, which featured a high schooler (Tobey McGuire) who accidentally wills himself and his sister (Reese Witherspoon) into his favorite 1950s TV sitcom world of “Pleasantville.” Once inside, the teen realizes life in his once-idolized show wasn’t so great after all, as he finally sees that world for its suppression, conformity and other social injustices. The teen soon leads a rebellion within the fictional town, causing people to awaken from their preprogrammed stupors, with color emerging into their lives as they do so. Sound familiar?
To Be Continued…
Glitches in the Matrix.
A tell for when the ‘real’ world of SWORD intrudes into the matrix is when the format of the show switches from multi-camera sitcom format to single camera coverage, sans laugh track. There are also splashes of color (blood, the helicopter toy, etc) or other unpleasantness that threatens her artificially homogenous world. There is also a fleeting visual reference to Marvel big bad organization “Hydra” (Marvel’s answer to James Bond’s SPECTRE). This switch from family-friendly sitcom to reality-bending sci-fi mystery may not be for everyone’s tastes, but it’s certainly different, to say the least. Once again, Nick at Nite meets Twin Peaks.
Fake advertisements between segments simulate ads of the period, when actors from the show would break the fourth wall to pimp their sponsor’s products (much like YouTubers today). They also offer clues to the reality beyond, such as a toaster built by “Stark Industries” (Iron Man Tony Stark’s company, founded by his weapons-building dad, Howard). The ads also carry verbal messages that seem aimed at the characters within the meta-show, with the toaster ad (almost literally) telling Wanda and Vision to “Forget the past, this is your future!” Between the helicopter toy, the sewer man, the SWORD-TV control station and the faux ads, it seems that the outside world is desperately trying to break into this faux universe that is somehow being perpetuated by Wanda and other (as-yet-unknown) powers. The mythology of the outside world seems to build steadily, much like JJ Abrams’ “Lost,” before that show went to hell at the end.
While WandaVision’s artificial reality may be filled with glitches, the performances by leads Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany are very solid. Olsen is so perfect as a 1950s/early 1960s sitcom lead that I would actually like to see her do a future one-off reboot movie of “Bewitched” someday, though memories of the disastrous 2005 reboot movie quickly snip that thought. Bettany’s “Vision” is less the omnipotent, godlike AI we saw in the movies and more of a lovable goofball; a cross between Darren Stevens and Mork from Ork, capped with his perpetually befuddled-sounding British accent (in the midst of so much Americana). The stylized, era-appropriate sitcom performances from these two are so good in fact, that I wish there wasn’t a greater, universe-warping mystery surrounding it all. I’d prefer to simply enjoy a Marvel sitcom starring these two actors, period. However, the show is clearly setting the table for something much bigger, and that’s the part I’m least interested in, to be honest. Personally, I’m much more interested to see the show and its talented lead actors tackle later stylings of American television.
Summing It Up.
As for whether I like the show? It’s very difficult to say at this very early stage of what is a very clear arc through sitcom evolution itself. The trailer promises that “WandaVision” will showcase a steady stream of ’60s, ’70s and ’80s sitcom tropes, as Wanda’s reality matrix continually shifts to keep ahead of the darker reality trying to peer through. If I have a complaint, it’s that the dense Marvel universe underpinnings within this frothy TV fantasy world are so deeply seated that a more casual Marvel fan like myself could easily miss important references. Thank the maker I had my wife (and Marvel-mythology whisperer) with me to keep me up to speed as Marvel Easter eggs flew over my head. To be honest, if she weren’t watching with me, I’d have missed a lot.
With a bizarre mystery as well as terrific comedic performances by Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, the first two episodes of “WandaVision” have succeeded in the most important way—keeping the audience glued to their chairs.
Deciding on whether one actually likes it or not can come later…
Marvel’s “WandaVision” is available for streaming on DisneyPlus, as are many of the Marvel Comics movies and other TV series. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 396,000 people as of this writing. Meanwhile, there is no widely available cure for COVID-19 as of yet. New vaccines are now being distributed, but it will take months for the majority of the population to be immunized, with frontline workers and other high-risk groups getting priority, of course. Yes, some businesses are reopening but many others are closing, so the overall situation is far from safe. For the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.
Be safe, and take care.