Why ‘WandaVision’ Is the Love Letter to TV We Need

This story contains full spoilers for the first season of WandaVision so far.

As a comic book character, Wanda Maximoff has an origin story too convoluted to get into here. As a member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she has an origin that can be boiled down to a simple idea: She is a child of television.

Last week’s penultimate episode of Disney+’s WandaVision flashed back to our heroine’s younger years. While their native country of Sokovia is ravaged by war, the Maximoffs are a happy and tight-knit unit, gathering at night to watch classic American sitcoms via the DVDs that Wanda’s father Oleg sells to pay the bills. On this night, Wanda picks her favorite episode of all: “It May Look Like a Walnut” from The Dick Van Dyke Show, where Rob and Laura Petrie each have nightmares inspired by their viewing of a Twilight Zone-esque sci-fi series. Just as young Wanda beams at the image of Mary Tyler Moore tumbling on a river of walnuts into the familiar living-room set, an explosion caves in the walls of the Maximoffs’ apartment, killing Oleg and his wife Irina, and leaving Wanda and her brother Pietro trapped, staring at an unexploded Stark Industries bomb for what feels like an eternity. (As the adult Wanda would describe in Avengers: Age of Ultron, “We wait for two days for Tony Stark to kill us.”)

It doesn’t take a psychology degree to recognize this as a formative, defining incident in the life of the future Scarlet Witch. Ditto for drawing a line between what was happening the night her parents died and the way Wanda coped with the death of Vision by creating a fantasy world inspired by Rob, Laura, and all the other sitcom husbands, wives, and kids who brought her so much joy as a child. If her pen-and-ink roots hadn’t already guaranteed that she’ll soon wear a familiar title, maybe she could go by… Sitcom Witch? The Remote Controller? Spider-Man wraps his opponents up in webs. Thor hits his with a hammer. Wanda… transforms hers into wacky neighbors?

WandaVision wasn’t meant to be the first series to air now that Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige has taken over production of Marvel’s TV shows(*). Captain America spinoff series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was scheduled to debut in late 2020, but the pandemic delayed its production, and WandaVision jumped ahead in the queue. As accidents go, it’s a fortuitous one. After all, what better way to kick off this new era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on television than with a show that is a love letter to the medium itself?

(*) RIP, Inhumans. You were terrible, but you gave us a really big dog.

First, nearly every episode so far has been modeled on one of the sitcoms that were such an important part of Wanda’s youth. A Dick Van Dyke Show pastiche was followed by tributes to Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, Family Ties, Malcolm in the Middle, and Modern Family. The two exceptions: an early episode showing the same events from the perspective of Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and other characters not originally trapped inside Wanda’s “Hex”; and last week’s journey through Wanda’s past. To assure us they were taking place in the real-ish world, series director Matt Shakman shot both episodes in the manner of an MCU film (as opposed to mimicking the styles of all these older comedies, which he did so expertly in the other installments). But both easily could have been presented in the fashion of sitcoms of each period. Family Ties was big on clip shows, for instance (so much so that SNL once did a sketch where the Keatons began flashing back to the events of previous clip shows), which would have worked for the Monica/Jimmy/Darcy expository installment, while Wanda’s trip down memory lane with Kathryn Hahn’s Agnes/Agatha could have fit nicely into the elastic format of dramedies from the past decade, like Better Things or Fleabag.

But even with those two deviations, WandaVision has been very explicitly a show about television, and it’s made for television in a way that so many other streaming shows — including most of the ones overseen by Feige’s predecessor, Jeph Loeb — have no interest in or ability to pull off.

From the moment it launched in late 2019 with The Mandalorian (created by MCU alum Jon Favreau, no less), Disney+ has tacked against recent streaming winds, choosing to release its episodes the old-fashioned way: one week at a time. And in the process, Disney+ has reminded us of the many advantages TV has when it’s scheduled that way. For starters, the pop-culture conversation surrounding The Mandalorian and WandaVision has lasted far longer, and been much better, than your typical Netflix series. Even an allegedly big streaming hit like Stranger Things generates maybe two weeks of online chatter after each season comes out, and rarely with much depth. No one has the time to pause and think about something that they watched in a couple of big chunks over a weekend, because they’re busy moving on to the new season of something else being released that Friday. The Disney+ shows aren’t as thematically rich as, say, Mad Men, but between their ties to larger fictional universes and the various plots and characters specific to each show, audiences have lots to eagerly talk about during the seven days between installments.

As happened back in the day with series like Lost, there’s always the danger of the conversation getting ahead of the show: Many Marvel fans began predicting almost from the start that Agnes would be revealed to be the comic-book witch Agatha Harkness. And fan theories can sometimes overwhelm the story being told, like all the analysis of what it meant for the larger MCU that Wanda’s brother Pietro was played here by Evan Peters from the X-Men movies instead of Aaron Taylor-Johnson from Age of Ultron. But on the whole, it’s created the kind of deeper relationship between audience and show that was once a core part of the TV-watching experience, but that hasn’t always seemed possible in the streaming era.

(L-R): Kathryn Hahn as Agatha Harkness and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in Marvel Studios' WANDAVISION exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Kathryn Hahn as Agatha Harkness.

Marvel Studios

And when a show is released weekly, there’s more incentive to make each episode satisfying on its own(*). WandaVision is telling a big story about grief and love. It’s following up events from past films, and seeding plots for upcoming ones. (Wanda and Monica will segue from here to the sequels for, respectively, Dr. Strange and Captain Marvel.) It has a lot going on. But each episode is also self-contained in the way that even hyperserialized TV should ideally try to be. There’s a focus and structure for each chapter, from both the sitcoms being impersonated to the stories within them. In the very early episodes, before we fully understood what was happening, there were actual sitcom plots: Will Vision and Wanda impress Vision’s new boss over dinner? When Vision seems drunk, how will Wanda save their charity magic-show performance? Who will deliver Wanda’s baby? Later installments began revealing more about what Wanda was doing, but they still had individual conflicts to be dealt with in that half-hour, both inside and outside the Hex: How would the twins handle a new pet? Can Monica get back inside Westview? Why is Pietro in town, and why does he look so different? This seems like really small and simplistic stuff, and in many ways it is. But it’s also fundamental to how episodic television works, whether standalone or serialized. It’s a bit of necessary craft that too many series today — many of them created by film writers who have never worked in television before, and think all they have to do is expand a feature-length screenplay to fill more hours — don’t understand or try to do, which makes them into amorphous bags of plot that inevitably sag in the middle. When the only motivation you need to watch the next episode is to have it right in front of you, the previous one doesn’t feel the need to work nearly as hard to hold and keep your interest. When you have a week to wait and decide if you want to keep going, then each episode becomes everything. It’s the difference between sitting on the couch mindlessly plowing through a family-size bag of Doritos and calling it “dinner,” and rolling your own sushi, lighting some candles, and sitting down at the table to eat.

(*) The weekly release isn’t necessarily a cure-all for 10-hour-movie-itis. Several recent cable and streaming shows that came out weekly were indistinguishable in structure from those that dropped all at once. Amazon’s own superhero franchise The Boys went with the binge model for its first season and a largely weekly schedule for its second, and was paced roughly the same each time.

And in giving itself over to an episodic Problem of the Week style that’s gone out of fashion — note the complaints of “filler episode!” whenever an installment of any major series doesn’t significantly advance a larger story arc, no matter how entertaining it may have been — WandaVision got to bend that format to its themes about the complexities of grief. Wanda’s happiest memories of her childhood involved watching sitcoms, but life is messy in a way that sitcoms (particularly pre-2000 ones) very rarely are. On Family Ties, a problem can be introduced and resolved in the same half-hour, but Wanda’s pain — over her parents, over Pietro, and now over Vision — doesn’t simply go away because the producer credit has popped up on screen. Wanda’s entire pregnancy spans roughly one episode, which is extreme even for very old sitcoms — Lucy on I Love Lucy got to be pregnant for a half-dozen episodes before giving birth, even if she wasn’t allowed to use the word “pregnant” on TV in the Fifties — but only enhances the unreal nature of both the twins and of Westview as a whole. The fake Pietro stirs up a lot of complex and painful emotions for Wanda in the Malcolm homage episode, and then he’s just absent with no real explanation the following week. (He pops up to surprise Monica in a mid-credits scene, though that seems to exist outside the sitcom formula.)

Wanda has created this place to cope with all that she’s lost, but sitcoms are not a useful form of therapy. Her pain is real. Her grief is real. These situations are fundamentally artificial and not helpful to her as anything other than a distraction. Even without the interference of Agatha or S.W.O.R.D. boss Tyler Hayward, things would have gone awry eventually. The whole thing is a flimsy mask for what’s ailing Wanda, and as Hooded Justice — one of the costumed heroes of another recent comic-book show that captivated viewers one week at a time — would tell her, “You can’t heal under a mask, Wanda. Wounds need air.”

WandaVision hasn’t been perfect. Tyler Hayward is an underwhelmingly generic secondary villain. The balance between serving this particular story and the larger demands of the MCU (like perhaps using Evan Peters as the first step toward incorporating other X-Men alums) sometimes tilts too far away from the individual needs of WandaVision. And by tackling the sitcoms in chronological order — which in hindsight wasn’t necessary, since it seems the Maximoffs bounced around among Oleg’s DVDs, depending on what people were in the mood for that night — the series devoted the most time to the shows it was least equipped to recreate as actual, you know, comedies. Elizabeth Olsen can convincingly imitate Samantha from Bewitched or Carol Brady, but it wasn’t until she got to embody Julie Bowen in the Modern Family episode that she could really unleash her comic talents. And she could only do it briefly by then, because the story demanded much more time than it had when she was wearing capri pants.

But on the whole, its ambition hasn’t been that far ahead of its execution. And individual moments have provided remarkable joy (the catchy Kathryn Hahn showcase that was the fake Agatha All Along opening credits) or catharsis (Vision asking Wanda, “What is grief, if not love persevering?”). And WandaVision has used its TV focus not only to loudly announce this new phase of the Marvel television experiment, but as a crucial part of the tragic story it’s telling about its title characters. Regardless of what happens in tomorrow’s finale, it’s been a triumph of form serving function.

And hopefully, it’s a triumph that Marvel will take note of as it develops future projects. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier arrives in a couple of weeks, already completed, and how did co-star Anthony Mackie describe it? “Like a six-hour movie.”

Cue canned studio audience groans, and roll credits.