Reviews

January 15, 2021

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “WandaVision”

 

WANDAVISION:  Episodes 1 & 2 available now on Disney+, remaining episodes drop 12:01AM each Friday

 

WANDAVISION mixes the old and the new in ways both self-conscious and not.  COVID delays on other projects led to it becoming the first genuine piece of MCU content created for the small screen.  (Earlier series like Agents of SHIELD and Daredevil were produced by a separate Marvel division that had a less than great relationship with the movie side, but Kevin Feige is now the MCU Lord and Master in all media.)  Although it’s a crown jewel of the Disney+ streaming service, it’s being released–as is the platform’s The Mandalorian–in a way similar to the traditional broadcast model, with 2 episodes at launch and the rest arriving once per week.

The more deliberate melding of meta new and retro old is the show’s format.  WandaVision is styled as a replica of the traditional broadcast sitcom, with Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and the sentient robot Vision (Paul Bettany) as the happily married leads, newly arrived in suburban Westview.  They are, of course, more readily recognizable as members (not quite top-tier) of The Avengers, each with super-powers.  The opening two episodes (written respectively by series creator Jac Schaeffer and Supervising Producer Gretchen Enders, and both directed by Matt Shakman) are presented in black-and-white, a pre-HD squarish aspect ratio, and a live studio audience for the interior scenes (and a laugh-track for the exteriors).  While various aspects call to mind I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, the main model is Bewitched, as our heroes try to hide their abilities from a supporting cast that includes the inevitable chirpy next-door neighbor (Kathryn Hahn) and Vision’s grumpy boss and his wife (Fred Melamid and Debra Jo Rupp).  Despite the deception, Wanda and Vision call on their powers in times of crisis, which in this context means a last-minute dinner party for boss and wife, or pulling off a charity magic show when Vision’s internal workings have been literally gummed up after he accidentally eats a stick of gum.

However, All Is Not As It Seems.  It becomes increasingly clear through the course of the first episodes that Wanda and Vision aren’t “really” in that sitcom world.  Despite the black-and-white palette, the color red starts to show itself.  At one point, a radio voice begins asking for Wanda.  Another supporting character is clearly unsure of her identity before identifying herself as Geraldine (Teyonah Parris).  Wanda and Vision can’t remember their wedding anniversary or other basic facts about their lives, and although Vision works at an office, he has no idea what his company does.  When a menacing figure appears, Wanda causes the video itself to be rewound so that the man goes unseen, and by the end of Episode 2, what TV networks used to call “living color” has transformed the visuals.  In other words, we’re in another variation of The Matrix–one that won’t be so shocking to fans of Mr Robot who remember the hour that started out simulating an episode of Alf–an artificial world that’s starting to show cracks as it holds back reality.

The “long con” nature of WandaVision make it hard to evaluate based on its early episodes, because we don’t really know what it’s trying to be.  On a technical level, Shakman’s replication of vintage sitcoms is very impressive, particularly because up-to-the-minute CG effects also had to be integrated into the action (WandaVision has what may be the longest end credits of any “sitcom” in history).  The scripts capture the form of mainstream TV comedy half a century ago.  The actors are expert, particularly Olsen, who has to carry on like a blithe sitcom lead while every so often showing glints of puzzlement and fear as she senses that–repressed trauma?  high-tech interrogation techniques?–there’s some kind of manipulated reality going on.  Bettany is quite droll as a character who has multiple levels of deception, as he’s both not exactly a human and not exactly a person in a sitcom, and one assumes that as the series continues, we’ll see the characters played by Hahn and Parris show more facets.  (It’s already been revealed in the press that Parris is in the role of the adult version of Captain Marvel‘s best friend’s daughter from that movie, which will connect to future MCU installments.)

As a “sitcom,” is WandaVision meant to actually be, you know, funny?  Because if that’s the intent, it doesn’t come off–it’s more of an exercise than a revitalization of the form.  And anyone looking for meaningful commentary on 20th century TV comedy won’t find it here.  Although the show includes the kind of casual sexism that was accepted on those comedies (it appears that only the men have jobs, while the women do charity work), it doesn’t go beyond recreating those tropes.

Once WandaVision gets to where it’s going, it may be a very different series from the one we’ve seen so far.  For now, it’s a very polished, fascinating curiosity, presented in bite-size 30-minute segments and easy enough to digest while we wait for its main course to arrive.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on screened.com and the-burg.com. In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."




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