There’s an old Simpsons episode in which the family is watching Garrison Keillor on television reading aloud from Prairie Home Companion. The Simpsons are bored but the TV audience breaks out in laughter at everything he says.
“Maybe it’s the TV,” Bart says. “Stupid TV,” Homer says, pounding the top of the television. “Be more funny!”
That was my response to the first two episodes of WandaVision, the new Marvel Studios show on Disney Plus. The show didn’t even have to be more funny, necessarily, just more something — and whatever that something might be, it should really pick up the pace.
It’s lavish, it’s ambitious, it’s full of top-shelf talent — so why is WandaVision a bit of a drag so far? It keeps hinting it’s headed into an American-suburban surrealism — a proud TV tradition of the 1960s —with a dark Truman Show hint of existential terror, which is also promising. But so far, just hints. Maybe the third episode will be the charm?
WandaVision starts off as a black-and-white TV show modeled on the old early 1960s classics like Bewitched and The Dick Van Dyke Show complete with an intrusive laugh track for all the guffaws. As a corny song burbles about a “newlywed couple just moved into town, a regular husband and wife,” we watch the robot-headed, tux-wearing Vision (Paul Bettany) carry Wanda, in full bridal regalia (Elizabeth Olsen), over the threshold and narrowly avoid tripping over the ottoman in their mid-century modern home, a nod to Dick Van Dyke.
From there, Vision and Wanda try to fit into suburban life and while unraveling the mystery of their own backstory. While they grapple with the pressures of hosting Vision’s bullying boss Mr Hart (Fred Melamed) and cheerful wife Mrs Hart (Debra Jo Rupp), the two try to remember what’s actually going on. What are two superhero types doing there, trapped in a postwar sitcom? When were they married, and why did they move here? How did they wind up living in what might be some giant media simulation?
Writer Jac Schaeffer (Captain Marvel) and director-producer Matt Shakman (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Good Wife, House) offer up such a shiny, expensively made show that it’s a total mystery why it’s so gorgeously inert. You can leave the room for ten minutes and miss nothing that matters. The only part you don’t want to miss occurs late in both of the first two episodes currently available. About three-quarters of the way into some absolutely mundane sitcom scenario, reality begins to shudder and break up, Vision and Wanda stare in alarm, and some David Lynchian possibility finally manifests itself for a few promising moments.
In the first episode, it involves Vision’s boss Mr Hart falling to the floor choking on a piece of steak, apparently dying right next to the formally laid out dining room table. It’s reminiscent of the suburban householder at the beginning of Blue Velvet, who’s out watering his idyllic suburban lawn when he collapses from a sudden heart attack or stroke, the hose continuing to whip around spraying in heart-stopping slow motion and, in close-up, the little pet terrier snapping viciously at the spray.
These breakdowns are great, but only last a few minutes, and then the old TV–style reality reasserts itself and everything carries on as before. There’s not a lot of payoff, and all you can hope is that the breakdown of this overfamiliar sitcom reality accelerates in subsequent episodes.
It does seem to be headed that way. In the second episode, a Pleasantville phenomenon begins to occur, with only Wanda noticing that small aspects of their black-and-white reality are turning to color. First, it’s a red helicopter toy found in a neatly trimmed hedge, then an accidental cut that bleeds bright red. Strangely enough, only Wanda seems able to see the spots of color, and you find yourself wondering why to no purpose, as it’s never explained. Even at the very end, when a flood of color takes over the whole Vision-and-Wanda home — evoking the mid-1960s leap from black-and-white to color in shows like Bewitched — you still have no idea what’s going on.
It’s enjoyable up to a point, trying to figure out the rules of the world you’re looking at, but WandaVision passes that point regularly. Why in the first episode is there a whole scene devoted to Wanda’s disastrous attempt to cook a fancy dinner for the boss and his wife, right after she’s just twitched into existence a perfect hostess dress for herself? Why can’t she also conjure up a perfect dinner in two seconds? She does in the end anyway, which makes the disaster-dinner sequence even more mystifying.
At least in Bewitched, disasters occurred for obvious reasons. Samantha had always just promised Darrin to give up witchcraft, or she’d contracted some witch illness that wrecked her powers, or been hexed by another, more powerful witch, in order to explain why she couldn’t fix problems immediately. Come on, people, if you’re going to draw on classic TV material, at least live up to it!
Though according to Sam Barsanti of AV Club, what really makes this show work is knowing the Marvel Comics Universe really well, and delighting in the fresh way the characters are deployed. But since I refuse to get roped into any besotted relationship with “the MCU,” I guess I’m denied such secret delights.