For someone who has rapidly grown unaccustomed to laugh tracks, sitting through the first two episodes of Marvel’s first and newest series, WandaVision, might be a bit of a task. The format, the humour, the pace, the tone — all of it is so outdated, and not to mention so ridiculously unlike Marvel, that one really struggles to pay attention. The promise of this archaic format being only temporary, an intentional presage to good ol’ Marvel drama is what keeps you going.
So while there will be plenty of reviews and reactions to the plot of the show, the scope of this article is to analyse its structure and format. Regardless, spoilers ahead!
With WandaVision being the first canon Marvel series, the onus was on the creators to set an exemplary predecessor to the line up of shows and films post the Endgame era. And indeed director Matt Shakman takes full liberty, constantly tweaking the structure of the show, his playfield now comprising almost double the duration of a Marvel film.
The narrative of the show is non-linear. There is continual back and forth between times and spaces. We often see, in instalments, flashbacks from Wanda’s (Elizabeth Olsen) past, especially in Episode 8. There’s her immediate past right after the Vision’s (Paul Bettany) death, her life as a child in Sokovia with her family, her time with HYDRA, and the time she spent with Vision during Ultron’s carnage. Moreover, the show’s tendency to time hop reflects the fragmented realities (created by Wanda) that the characters experience. For instance, in Wanda’s figment of imagined reality that is Westview, she is a dutiful suburban housewife and mother. However, right outside the glowing, crimson boundaries of this world, she is a powerful witch dealing with abject grief over the loss of her partner.
This trend of subverting traditional forms of narration, among other features, makes WandaVision a truly postmodern text.
While most of us understand postmodernism as a literary movement that emerged post World War II, it is not limited to literature alone. It is essentially a condition where we reject a singular truth and instead embrace subjectivity. In addition to positing that many truths exist, postmodernism also asserts and celebrates the fact that there is nothing original left in the world; that all texts emerge from what has already been written and therefore, are given a new and unique life through reimagination. Many literary tropes have emerged during this period, such as metanarratives, fragmented timelines, and pastiche – all of which are manifested in WandaVision.
The first three episodes of the series are all based on American sitcoms from different eras: ranging from the ’50s and ’70s (Episodes 1 and 2) to present times (Episode 7: ‘Breaking the Fourth Wall’). In the show, as the plot evolves, so does the genre of sitcom.
The first couple of episodes use all the features of retro sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, where slapstick comedy is complemented by canned laughter. Later, the humour becomes less gestural, more subtle with slight camera movements that add to the comic effect. As pioneered in the US by The Office and now adopted by most sitcoms like Parks and Recreation and Modern Family, WandaVision’s seventh and final ‘sitcom episode’ eponymously breaks the fourth wall, addresses an audience in the guise of a mockumentary while the camera abruptly zooms in on the interviewee’s face when the punchline is delivered.
In deriving from pre-existing sitcoms, Marvel’s series forerunner embodies the postmodern trope of pastiche. The show not only alludes to older sitcoms and imitates the many forms of the genre, but in doing so, in true postmodern style, it also pays homage to an entire body of work that it stems from.
The ‘sitcoms’ of WandaVision are a creation of its female protagonist which characters in show, outside Westview can access just like us, the audience. For the first couple of episodes, the show-within-a-show aspect is withheld from the audience and we are only watching what Wanda wants us to see. Only from episode 3 do we also become Marvel’s audience. Thus, as is the nature of any metanarrative, the show, as a sitcom, continuously refers to the art of making sitcoms, laying bare the structural traits of the genre.
The most interesting part about the show is that it chooses to begin a tale of loss, grief, and suffering through this particular genre. Indeed, the significance of this is later revealed to us by Wanda’s heartbreaking journey back to her childhood. Yet for me, as the audience, the juxtaposition of the comedy genre for this Marvel story seems quite jarring and ironical. This too is indicative of WandaVision’s postmodernism where, the structure of the narration belies the narrative itself. For instance, in the pilot episode when Wanda and Vision have guests over for dinner, and even as one of them chokes on his food and is close to death, the laugh track continues. The eerie presence of such a bleak scene in a ‘sitcom’ along with ‘the live studio audience laughter’ only accentuates our discomfort and confirms our suspicions that something is amiss in the characters’ world.
WandaVision’s generous references to US sitcoms work at two levels. First, it is a direct consequence of Wanda’s own childhood memories. Second, it is the show’s method of paying homage to the evolution of the genre that is integral to American television (including consumerism – which is brilliantly alluded to via the abrupt, intermittent commercials in each episode).
Where postmodern authors were creating art in the aftermath of WWII, our resident reality-creator Wanda concocts a quaint suburban life for herself and her family in the wake of the Infinity War. The writer, producer, and director of the transcendent, era-defying sitcom(s), WandaVision is none other than Wanda (or so we believe until the penultimate episode *insert the Agatha wink*). Post the trauma that she experiences, she manages to create an alternate universe where her reality, her subjective truth reigns supreme. Interestingly, while the life of a superhero inevitably comprises living dual lives, in Marvel’s WandaVision, the superhero in question imposes dual realities on anyone who enters Westview.
Having watched the whole series, the tax of having to sit through the first couple of archaic episodes of the show seems but a paltry inconvenience. In subverting conventional forms of storytelling while also referring to classic sitcoms, WandaVision makes for an exciting watch in postmodern times: not just because of the signature MCU Easter eggs in the plot, but also for its genre-shattering structure.
Dipshikha Sinha is a postgraduate student of English at EFLU, Hyderabad.