Marvel’s first Phase Four series gives us an homage to the history of televised love.
Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is married to the android Vision (Paul Bettany), who is somehow back from the dead after having Thanos rip his head open. They now live in the town of Westview, New Jersey, which just so happens to mirror the setting of classic sitcoms, aging from the 1950s to the 2010s as the couple moves forward in their relationship. They regularly interact with their nosy neighbor Agnes (Kathryn Hahn) and eventually have two children named Billy and Tommy (Julian Hilliard and Jett Kline). At the same time, in the “real” world, S.W.O.R.D. Agent Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), and astrophysicist Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) attempt to find Wanda and end the strange things happening to Westview, while avoiding SWORD director Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg).
When Marvel announced they were shifting to television for their fourth phase, I admit that I wasn’t quite sure how to feel. I liked Agents of SHIELD, but it was fairly inconsistent in terms of storytelling. Some arcs were amazing, others felt like they just ran out of ideas and were pulling from broad genre tropes that they forced in. Agent Carter felt more coherent, but it also got cancelled pretty quickly. The announcement of WandaVision initially excited me, but then I got worried that maybe the show would just be an excuse to do some hackneyed jokes based around the idea of the two characters living in a sitcom. Fortunately, this show focused just as much on the mystery as it did on the sitcom elements, which kept the series from overusing the premise.
Part of what makes it work is that the show plays the corny sitcom tropes completely straight for most of the first episode. That season is the 1950s and most of the jokes are, appropriately, pratfalls or bland and non offensive observations. If you rewatch most of the shows from that period that aren’t the Dick Van Dyke Show or I Love Lucy, a lot of shows largely relied on the novelty of just performing on television to make the spectacle enjoyable. Both Bettany and Olsen do a great job of duplicating the speaking and reaction style that were hallmarks of most of the shows during that period. As the show gets closer to the present, through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the jokes from the “sitcoms” get more modern and better crafted, for the most part, but they also become more rare because the “fourth wall” gets progressively destroyed, starting with a moment that is deeply out of character at the end of the first episode. However, for at least the first two episodes, there are only a few minutes that appear to be anything outside of the sitcom, which really helps keep the balance between the show and the show within the show.
The supporting cast ranges from classic sitcom guests like Fred Melamed, Debra Jo Rupp, and Emma Caulfield to the recurring “real world” cast of FBI and SWORD agents. It’s interesting in that we see both the “sitcom” version of the characters as well as their “real” versions and they are deeply different, in a way that reflects how dour reality is compared to the curated image of life that used to permeate television. It is compounded by the fact that, when their true selves show, they are dealing with having been essentially imprisoned by having their wills supressed. Some of the scenes of this are played darkly straight and make the entire situation seem even more disturbing. As far as the “real world” cast goes, Parris, Park, and Dennings are a near perfect balance of comic relief and competent supporting character. None of them are stupid, they’re just believably quirky people who have their own motivations and flaws. I will say I look forward to Parris becoming a superhero in future installments.
I will admit that I regret not reviewing this show earlier, but I felt like I could not appropriately give praise to the best parts of the show without spoilers, and I wanted to give a week for that period to pass. So, SPOILER WARNING:
Kathryn Hahn is a god-given treasure to this show (and, let’s face it, any show she’s on). She not only plays the neighbor Agnes for most of the series, which was one of the more amusing and consistent parts of the “television show” illusion, but is revealed to be the witch Agatha Harkness, who essentially manipulated Wanda so that she could steal her powers. Hahn is not only clever, but her snarky delivery makes her likable even when she is acting as the villain. I’m hopeful that Marvel continues to use her. Another notable casting decision was Evan Peters as “Ralph Bohner,” an actor who is cast by Agatha as Quicksilver, Wanda’s brother. Peters played the character in the X-men Universe and, while it was kind of a let down that this wasn’t actually the alternate universe version of the character, it was still a great nod to the X-Men series by the creators.
Overall, just a great series. If you haven’t watched it, or you quit after the first episode, give it another shot.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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