“You know how hard it is to leave a small town.” The miniseries WandaVision on DisneyPlus features two of Earth’s mightiest heroes, the Avengers, trapped in a series of situation comedies, all set in a white-picket fence town called Westview. A neighbor makes that unintentionally menacing observation about small towns. Here, time passes unfeasibly fast. The styles change before our eyes, from the first episode’s emulation of The Donna Reed Show, to the third’s hipper, hairier era of the late 1960s.
Introduced in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) The Vision is an omniscient magenta-colored synthetic creature, able to disguise himself as a human. He can phase through walls and fly; his wife Wanda Maximoff, known elsewhere as the Scarlet Witch, is a wielder of telekinesis and hypnotic persuasion.
The question in WandaVision is what Wanda and Vision are doing in this sit-com bardo with its own laugh track, “sweetened” by mechanical chuckles. (If laugh tracks ever make you feel uneasy, consider that some of the recordings are decades old: the voices of long-dead people laughing away.) Wanda and Vision are perplexed when they ask themselves how long they’ve been a couple, why they moved to Westview, and why exactly it always seems that their secret identities are about to be discovered.
There’s some resemblance between WandaVision and the Twilight Zone episode “Stopover in a Quiet Town.” There’s even more parallels to Gary Ross’ Pleasantville (1998), about a pair of teens who wish themselves into their favorite 1950s black and white sitcom with the help of a magic television set. WandaVision repeats Pleasantville’s then-thrilling visual effect of spots of color breaking out of the black and white — like the full-color toy helicopter Wanda finds buried in her hedges, and a slash of blood when a neighbor cuts her hand on a broken glass. It seems to be Wanda’s own magic trick when a heavily saturated primitive TV color takes over in the third episode. The color almost vibrates, particularly the radioactive blue eyeshadow Teyonah Parris’ Geraldine wears: here at last is a neighbor who understands Wanda and Vision’s plight.
The first episode travelled the well-worn rut of an old sitcom — the primordial “the boss is coming to dinner” episode. The plot is lampooned — the previous employee who had the blustery boss Mr. Hart (Fred Melamed) over at his house is hauling his possessions home in a cardboard box. He got fired because Hart was so unimpressed with the string quartet the employee hired as dinner music. Wanda is from Eastern Europe, despite her perfect Eva Marie Saint accent; Mr. Hart recoils upon learning that she’s from behind the Iron Curtain: ”We don’t break bread with Bolsheviks!”
This buttery-voiced Melamed — likely cast here for his resemblance to The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Richard Deacon — has been a favorite ever since his stint as Maria Bamford’s cringing, duplicitous manager on Netflix’s Lady Dynamite… not to mention his exemplarily sinister work as the homewrecker Sy Abelman in the Coen Brothers’ 2009 A Serious Man.
As on all mid-century sitcoms, Vision and Wanda have a wacky neighbor (Kathryn Hahn, giving the show some pepper). Hahn, a top comic actress who played the hormone-struck divorcee Mrs. Fletcher, expertly hits the banal sitcom beats. She comes to the rescue when the Harts make their unannounced dinner visit by bringing over large boxes of food: “What kind of housewife would I be if I didn’t have a gourmet meal for four laying around the place?”
I was watching WandaVision with my wife, who has zero interest in the MCU. Her eyes glaze over when I try to describe what happened to whom during the course of that 50-hour long mosaic-movie. (Even the news that one of the main characters in WandaVision is supposed to be dead didn’t faze her.) She’s hooked because parts of WandaVision emulate Bewitched; it’s likely that Jac Schaeffer, WandaVision’s female creator, was a big fan.
For all of its fantasy, Bewitched (1964-72) was an adult show. It dealt in its own allegorical way with the then-touchy subjects of feminism and interracial marriage, masked as a comedy about a mortal-witch mixed marriage.
A regular on Bewitched was an acid-tongued mother (Agnes Moorehead, a vet of Orson Wells’ Mercury Theater, and devastating in both Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons). She took an august pleasure in hassling her muggle son-in-law Darren (played first by Dick York, then Dick Sargent — the age was the proverbial big bag of dicks). Darren was outclassed by his witch wife Samantha (the appealing Elizabeth Montgomery). He forbade her to use magic, even just to speed up housework. The link is established in an animated prologue to the second episode of WandaVision, which mimicks Bewitched’s titles. In episode three, Wanda deals with the kind of thing Samantha always dealt with — an errant bit of magic, in this case, one that materializes a nicely animated stork. It’s not all about the looks, but Elizabeth Olsen is almost as pretty and charismatic as Bewitched’s Elizabeth Montgomery — especially when dressed up in a magician’s assistant’s corset and top hat.
The Plato’s Cave of sitcoms Wanda and Vision are trapped in isn’t perfect. Like the transporterhouse steak that went through the teleporter in in The Fly, there’s something indefinably wrong with it. Like the backlot set that is Westview, many things don’t stand up to scrutiny. Unanswerable questions keep popping up, such as what Mr. Hart’s company does, or why the people of Westview laugh in perfect unison like a Greek chorus. A first reveal of the flaw in this video-prison comes when Mr. Hart chokes on a sausage. That ’70s Show’s Debra Jo Rupp, as Mrs. Hart, repeats the phrase “Help him” like a broken robot.
The jokes are too bawdy, the cleavage too deep; a commercial in episode three — featuring a dog wetting a wall — would have been yanked by the FCC back then. That’s the point and not a glitch: The imperfection of the mimicry is essential. The critiques that WandaVision is far-fetched, unfunny, and pointless aren’t considering that the network TV model was so often grim and patronizing dreck, hacked out on a schedule that would kill today’s TV writers (26 episodes per season in the case of Bewitched). But they were redeemed by occasional bursts of intelligence and vivid acting, much like the color spots in the black and white here.
Episode three has Wanda pronounced pregnant, swelling into her third trimester within a matter of days, and delivering a pair of twins on the spot. Wanda was a twin once herself, and giving birth suddenly shakes a memory loose: “I had a brother….” He was Pietro, known as Quicksilver, killed by Ultron’s robot army. A door is opening in this illusion. The off-screen voice that calls Wanda’s name, the hallucinations, and a large military camp surrounding Westview on the far side of some dimensional (or whatever) wall gives us the clues.
We know the “what” … just not the “why” and “who.” The Avengers have many enemies. Some tips are in the artificial commercials folded into this show. One is an ad for a Stark Industry toaster with the tag-line “Forget the past, this is your future.” Barely hidden on a suave commercial for a wristwatch, and in the patterns decorating a box of bubble bath, are the Jim Steranko-designed tentacled-skull insignia of HYDRA, Marvel’s answer to SPECTRE from the Bond movies.
This mysterious show is well played by both Olsen and Bettany, capturing the lightweight, cheerfully tedious side of the sources and the menace under the surface. WandaVision unites the static realm of sitcoms with typical Marvel flamboyance; it’s a bridge between MCU and MeTV.
Episode 4 of WandaVision debuts Friday, Jan. 29 on Disney+.