Episode 28: Heavy Meta

Television Man by Aidan Morgan

“Hello TV my old friend/ I’ve come to stare at you again/ Because the real world that is insisting/ Upon its primacy of existing/ Can be defeated with a click of the remote switch/ And that’s the sitch/ For Television Man” —early draft of “The Sound of Silence”

Major spoilers below for the first five episodes of WandaVision

When I was a kid I had a theory about sitcoms: they were fiendish prisons in which innocent people were forced to act out improbable situations and recite awful lines as an unseen audience yowled with laughter at their every movement. Every attempt to leave was thwarted, every moment of growth clawed back by the end credits. I imagined that these people had signed the wrong contract or walked through the wrong door, and for their accidental transgressions they were being punished for eternity on a soundstage somewhere in Burbank.

It’s cool of Disney to literally make that show.

With the exception of episode four, every installment of WandaVision (Disney+) has been a pitch-perfect parody of a period sitcom, complete with cheesy credits and sharply observed details. Episode one felt like a collage of early ’60s sitcoms like The Dick van Dyke Show; episode two riffs on Bewitched and ep three calls on the colour-saturated post-hippie sensibilities of early ’70s television. Throughout, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) plays house with her android partner Vision (Paul Bettany), living in a suburban dream of domestic happiness through a sitcom filter.

But all is not well in Westview, New Jersey. The townsfolk are being held captive and controlled by a malevolent entity forcing them to play supporting roles in the increasingly unhinged fantasy. Twins, born in one episode, age 10 years over the course of the next. Vision himself begins to question the unreality of his surroundings. Meanwhile, the outside world is trying to break in.

Up until episode five I’d enjoyed WandaVision but its sitcom parodies held me at a distance. I found myself searching the frame for period-appropriate details or clues to the mystery of the series (Who’s doing this? Why? Is Vision alive or not?), instead of being fully invested in the emotional stakes of Wanda Maximoff’s trauma and her BoJack Horseman-like attempt to straighten reality’s wrinkles into the smooth simplicity of a sitcom.

Then episode five began with a bang-on parody of the Family Ties opening and the show revealed itself as the Twilight Zone-style horror show it had been winking at all along. Turns out the tale it most closely resembles is “It’s a Good Life”, a 1961 episode in which a pleasant suburban town is held in thrall by a six-year-old boy. WandaVision is a Twilight Zone episode that’s run too long and is devolving into a kind of meta-chaos, in which couples scream over closing credits, laugh tracks falter and smoothly structured jokes are replaced with blank, terrified stares.

It’s no surprise Marvel concocted a stealth horror inside a sitcom. After all, most of its movies smuggle one genre inside another — often a grandly scaled sitcom. The MCU’s first foray into television on Disney+ is a familiar bit of clothing turned inside out.

There’s also something especially queasy about Disney coming out with a show that ransacks the last 60 years of pop culture memory and twists it gleefully for its own purposes. At the end of episode five, Evan Peters appears as Wanda’s long-lost brother Pietro, replacing the MCU version of the character (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) with the version from the X-Men franchise. As with any Marvel product, the drama onscreen lives in the shadow of corporate leviathans but in WandaVision, The House of Mouse says the quiet part out loud, shrugs its shoulders and asks us to laugh along.

Liberty, Equality, Sorority

Speaking of older shows, Queen Latifah stars as ex-CIA agent turned freelance do-gooder Robyn McCall on The Equalizer (CBS/Global). The series made its first appearance in the ’80s with Edward Woodward in the starring role and ran for three seasons. Two movies with Denzel Washington were recently made, but The Equalizer always worked best as a case-of-the-week series. Woodward’s seasoned Cold War veteran shtick was sometimes overwrought and dramatically thin, but it was a heck of a lot of fun and carried a splash of Le Carre-esque intrigue.

The 2021 reboot makes the most of Queen Latifah’s straight-up star presence. She brings an understated swagger to the role and owns every scene she’s in. Somehow, Chris Noth plays a supporting character (he’s The Mysterious Guy Who Can Always Find That File Or Make That Problem Go Away But He Swears This Is The Last Favour He’s Going To Do Until McCall Says Something Like ‘Come On Remember Bogota?’ And He Shrugs And Hands Over The File) instead of the lead role, and that feels like a massive flex. If this is the face of easily digestible CBS procedurals now, I’m on board.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.