WandaVision spoilers follow.
The mystery behind WandaVision has been hiding in plain sight all along, with the third episode all but confirming what viewers have suspected–this warped sitcom world appears to be an elaborate fantasy created by Wanda. But this episode’s dramatic ending also suggests that the rest of the series is likely to abandon this central conceit, following Monica’s (Teyonah Parris) return to the real world after being thrown out of Wanda’s own personal Truman Show.
Instead of being placed in the center of a fantasy cracking before our own eyes, there is much to suggest we may spend the best part of what’s left on the outside looking in, watching as Wanda struggles to ignore the memories of recent tragedies that still seep through.
With the fourth episode described as a “turning point” by Olsen, the sitcom parodies may take a back seat from here, instead tying in more closely with the wider Marvel universe at large. After all, Scarlet Witch is the most powerful Avenger in the comics, able to destroy and warp entire universes to her will—with the MCU yet to fully explore these powers, it only makes sense that we’d take a step outside her newly created reality to more deeply examine the chaos that she has caused. But this still leaves one burning question: why did Wanda choose a mid-century sitcom as her template for an ideal world?
There is nothing new about surreal sitcom parodies, which rely on our familiarity with the basics of the genre in order to subvert expectations in disturbing ways. Think back to Natural Born Killers in 1994, where director Oliver Stone introduces the abusive childhood home of Mallory (Juliette Lewis) in the uncomfortable guise of a classic sitcom, complete with a haunting laugh track that punctuates the most harrowing moments.
Or more recently, consider the number of Adult Swim parodies that rely on our awareness of the most obvious tropes to turn what we consider comfort viewing into something altogether more unsettling.
And now the cracks in WandaVision‘s meticulously created sitcom facade slowly tease out why Wanda has found herself in this fantasy of domestic bliss, with a partner who died two films before. Marvel’s latest is part of a recent trend of shows that use the warmth and comfort of the family sitcom as a way to explore grief, and give characters a recognizable template in which they can come to terms with more complicated emotions.
Although the shows parodied by WandaVision are largely from the 1960s onwards, to understand why sitcoms provide this emotional template for TV characters you have to go back a little bit further. The initial format of the sitcom, the template of which was set by I Love Lucy in 1951, spotlighted the idealized upper-middle class suburban life, reinforcing conservative views of what the modern family unit should be.
In a seemingly throwaway conversation with his neighbors in episode three, Vision comes closer to unravelling the reality of this universe when Agnes shares her suspicions of Geraldine, pointing out that she doesn’t have a family, and lives alone.
These remarks highlight the deeply conservative foundations the genre was initially built on. Anything that deviates from the aspirational family life is to be treated with suspicion, and as Wanda is still reeling from the loss of both her brother and her partner, it makes complete sense that she’d place herself in a reality forged around a very old-fashioned idea of the family unit.
As the decades passed, this template for sitcoms quickly fell out of favor, and the most popular shows on TV became subversions of the idealistic genre. The laughs mined from the impulsive behavior of characters on Friends and Seinfeld are far closer to reality for many viewers, even if those shows were still rooted in a sitcom fantasy where New York apartments could be affordable.
But the nineties were also the last decade in which the classic domestic sitcom registered as one of the highest-rated shows on TV, thanks to the unprecedented success of ABC’s TGIF lineup. The brainchild of ABC President (and now Disney CEO) Bob Iger, the time slot focused on the kind of traditional family sitcoms that had been big successes since the 1950s – and the runaway success story was Full House, which starred Elizabeth Olsen’s sisters Mary Kate and Ashley.
It was through the TGIF lineup that a new generation of TV writers were exposed to classic sitcom formulas for the first time, and it’s the influence of those ’90s family comedies that’s apparent in the most recent shows to subvert the genre’s traditions to explore grief and trauma.
This was done to brilliant effect in the second season of Mr Robot, via the 15-minute cold open of episode ‘eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes’, which reimagines the show as a traditional family sitcom within a fictitious programming block called ‘Word Up Wednesday’. It’s the most memorable way the show managed to depict Elliott’s disassociation, by transforming the horror of his reality into an uncanny family comedy, complete with a laugh track and a cameo by Alf (Remember Alf? He’s back! Although not in pog form).
And it wasn’t just gritty dramas where the characters would find themselves escaping to a sitcom safe space.
BoJack Horseman‘s own personal life couldn’t be further removed from Horsin’ Around, the ’90s sitcom where he made his name. But throughout the Netflix comedy’s entire run, he still begrudgingly returns to it as a template for a happy, content family life that now eludes him.
WandaVision may reach back further than the 1950s, but it still closely follows this recent trend. Rather than being a surreal way for Marvel to try their hands at a completely different genre, the sense of normality and easy resolutions provided by family sitcoms not only provides a safe space for Wanda to shield herself from recent tragedies, but a way to properly examine her trauma.
Despite her imposing figure in the comics, the screen iteration of Scarlet Witch has often left her feeling like a secondary Avenger, in spite of those tragedies–and somewhat paradoxically, it’s by placing her into a perfect, conflict-free world that the MCU can finally explore her deeper trauma, while also examining her powers that haven’t yet been depicted on screen.
Stream WandaVision on Disney+
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