I’m still processing the remarkable WandaVision and its re-boot of the role of television on our culture, the metamorphosis of its consumption and digestion–and thankful for some friends to help me get some perspective on this tragedy wrapped in familiar sit-com sets with a laughing audience.
The Fonz, Kunta Kinte and Darth Vader’s paternity claim. My first three thoughts while processing WandaVision. Marvel and Disney+ actually had the nerve/guts to stretch out its nine-episodes over NINE weeks, reminding me of my first television cliff-hanger, many years before JR was shot.
Three moments of delayed gratification jump to mind from my childhood–triggered by the weird time-warp that WandaVision so accurately displays–making one week cover 50 years of jokes, hairstyles, decor and what for Wanda is an eternity of mourning.
September 1975: Happy Days
The Fonz, in an anachronistic nod to Evel Knievel and my neighborhood’s own banana-seat and ramps, jumped over 14 garbage cans–with the credits starting mid-air and I had to wait an entire week to see if he’d survive to bankroll the ABC network for another decade. If you missed the September 30th conclusion, you’d have to wait until early July to catch the rerun.
January 1977: Roots
Eight straight nights and every television set was on ABC. Every kid in my sixth grade class at Baker Elementary was watching and it held the ratings title for years. I still have Quincy Jones’ LP soundtrack. But even though it was the great-grandfather of binge-watching, those 22 hours between telecasts felt like a month–and when the series ended following the Civil War, it really seemed that a 100 years had gone by.
1980-1983: Star Wars
I can still feel my ninth-grade fury as I left Southfield’s gigantic Americana Theatre, after waiting for hours in the parking lot to see the sequel to Star Wars–or better known in my family as, “the movie Kevin saw 17 times.”
First of all, there was no big explosion of the bad guys–they in fact actually WON. But it became clear that this bogus lie that Darth Vader dropped on Luke was going to have to wait until I was a week away from graduation to get cleared up. Quite a bit of debate over lunch on that bit of propaganda that Darth was actually Luke’s dad–yeah, right!
A World of Another Dimension
Somewhere between 1983 and a few weeks ago I became much less patient. Perhaps it’s one more reason to be disgusted with Kevin Spacey after House of Cards when Netflix started the all-you-can eat distribution of a TV show. Like Agatha leading Wanda through doorways of her past, I’ve taken a similar stroll through my own memories of televisions transformations.
Doorway #1-VHS: The transition from parking myself in front of the TV on Tuesday night for M*A*S*H or Saturday nights for the trifecta of The Muppet Show, Love Boat and Fantasy Island gave way in 1980 to cable TV’s amazing expletives and recording it all on VCRs that were under $1,000. I still have some of my VHS tapes with Channel 50s Twilight Zones recorded in the Zapruder-like 6-hour mode–but I can watch those fuzzy creepy stories whenever I wanted!
Doorway #2–Video Rentals: Blockbuster Video cornered the market on easily checking out films right after they left the theaters. And it greedily held the market until Netflix, via the shift to DVDs and their lower shipping costs, allowed my lazy self to have the movies delivered to my door.
Doorway #3–Streaming: My next big epiphany was bumping through my kids’ Wii menu, upgrading the software on it or some wonky thing when I discovered there was the option to connect to my Netflix account. I didn’t really think it would work but I signed in anyway–expecting some hidden fee or Pentagon-triggering alarm. Instead, I was actually able to find a limited number of films that I could still rent on DVD OR watch on the Wii! If you heard a crazed laugh from Royal Oak around that time, that was probably me.
Blockbuster, like Borders Books vs Amazon’s nuclear weapon Kindle, was too fat and happy and while it eventually tried to deliver DVDs and streaming, it was too far behind the curve and now Netflix produces more Oscar-nominated films per year than Louis B. Mayer ever did.
Despite the above rundown of the last forty years in four paragraphs, I am reluctantly contrary and have a hard time hopping on any bandwagon–just thinking of our Odyssey game console compared to everyone else’s Atari is proof of that. I’d loved Avengers Infinity War and Endgame and understood the COVID delay of Black Widow and other blockbusters. But when I saw the trailer for WandaVision, to be honest the thumbnail for it on Disney+, I was ready to rebel. And, as I shamefully admit on the podcast, I did fast-forward through episode 2 for some kind of sign that I wasn’t just stuck in some really terrible idea.
But, as usual, I was wrong and acknowledge readily that it is one of the more refreshing and creative bits of storytelling, comedy and serious drama to come across any screen in a long long time. So much so that I nabbed four of my favorite students, all big fans, to record a podcast about it this past weekend.
Thanks to writer/podcaster Erin Ben-Moche and filmmakers Adam Cooper, Daniel Cooper and Kale Davidoff, all alumni of West Bloomfield High School, for helping me process WandaVision–and really examine some existential questions about television and our viewing habits.
Binging’s Effect on Writers
Monica Rambeau wakes from the “blip,” returns to her day-job at SWORD and is sent to New Jersey to investigate the impregnable town of Westview, New Jersey. She gets sucked into Wanda’s narrative, and altered beyond wardrobe and hairstyle through a few decades of sit-coms–and found herself moving up the Actor’s Equity pay-scale from extra to lead’s-best-friend. Even her Kevlar is altered into swinging pantsuits through Wanda’s daily re-booting of her world.
Breaking Bad was discovered mid-series by a good chunk of America as binging began–with its first seasons released on Netflix while it was still mid-story on AMC. Kale wondered if Vince Gilligan and his writing team, like Wanda, begin to alter the pace of its plot-development–knowing that the audience wouldn’t be waiting and wondering for a week–they’d immediately move past the cliff-hanger. We agreed that waiting was worth it–as seen most recently in Game of Thrones. For example, if we all knew how badly it ended, we would have been miserable that much sooner.
It reminded me of CDs and how the first track on the B-side of an album–often a high-profile location was regulated to #6 on the CD or streaming playlist. Not as bad as an 8-track’s unceremonious ker-chunk in the middle of a song, but still somewhat jarring.
Now, of course, the streaming services tee-up the next episode and will even start it for you before the credits finish.
TV and Time-Warps
COVID 2020 had Kale watching, for the first time, both Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, one episode per weekday–to experience the slower pace and, as our podcast team agreed, allow for processing and savoring the landmark shows. But, the startling thing for me to realize, was that most of Walter White’s story arc occurs in just one year.
Bart Simpson remains in third grade since 1989, but most television moves time along quickly–due either to its children aging faster than a writer’s strike or simply the desire to move Richie Cunningham through the University of Wisconsin.
WandaVision forces its willing audience (and unwilling cast) to struggle through this time-warp, slowly pacing out its reveals in the first three episodes–moving from The Dick Van Dyke Show living room into the birthing room that is the Brady Bunch home. Its cast members roll along with the interior design adjustments as smoothly as they handle the astroturf backyard and suddenly-pregnant Wanda and arrival and growth of her boys.
And, similar to Walter White’s single five-season year, the Wanda’s entire series takes place in just one week–just two weeks after Endgame.
Gimmick Weakens as Plot Thickens?
So, faster than a prima-donna actress is fired after a contract dispute, Monica is jettisoned from the show after uttering the un-safe word “Ultron.” The show finally shifts from Westview into the more familiar Marvel post-blip world with a fan-favorite meet-up of supporting characters Agent Jimmy Woo (Ant-Man and the Wasp) and Darcy Lewis (Thor). Darcy discovers the broadcast signal and the prime-mover behind the sit-com existence for everyone the last three weeks has been Wanda all along.
Which begs the question, does the story veer from its ballsy messing-up-the-audience trajectory into a safe, traditional Marvel, cop-show rut? Our roundtable thought it might if not for a few exceptions.
Agnes/Agatha is revealed as the cross-casting of WandaVision, in a fun Munsters-like song-montage of “Agatha All Along” at the end of Episode 7. Erin points out in our podcast that while it’s easy to paint her as the “Bad Witch,” the comics as well as many moments in the show suggest otherwise. She does, after all, not get obliterated at the end of the series–but is instead sent to the purgatory role of permanent nosy-neighbor–where Wanda knows right where to find her. Erin from our podcast suggests that her role as a mentor/friend from the comics may be coming soon.
Facing Directly One’s Collateral Damage: While many Marvel movies do indeed address the backlash of the greater-good such as the birth of Ultron and demolitions of Wachovia and Lagos few superheroes are forced with the guilt that Wanda first faced as the zombie-like circle of her victims gets closer and she nearly strangles them all then on her slow walk through town as they stared her down in fear and anger.
Tony Stark, the regular hero of many films gets the reunion lakeside funeral of Endgame, really is responsible for much of the Marvel Universe’s collateral damage. While he addresses it pretty heavily in Iron Man 3 and Civil War he still remains relatively insulated in his suit.
Meanwhile, one of his destructive choices led to the including the birth of Wanda and her brother’s indoctrination with Hydra and superpowers via the mind stone.
Deeper Tragedy Amidst Comedy: The catch-phrase that has birthed a thousand memes is no less poignant than when Vision first said it: “What is grief if not love persevering?” And remarkably apropos given the worldwide loss of 2020.
Wanda’s powers were founded in grief and her early days in the Avengers complex brings Vision into her life as she mourns her brother. But losing Vision three times–twice by her own hand and once by Thanos–and shutting the door on her own children’s existence in a heart-ripping good-night bedroom scene locks this series down as singularly remarkable in its tragedy.
Wanda has rebooted her life repeatedly and, in the end, is seen pouring over a magical book searching for her next path and actual role in the universe.
And we, as a quarantine-strained viewing audience, coming slowly out of a year of streaming, binging and instant gratification are forced back into the magic of actually waiting a week to find out what happens next. As Darcy Lewis points out, “What? I’m invested.”