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WandaVision's retro sitcom homages work, even if modern comedy has 'more anarchy'
It wasn't supposed to start this way. The Marvel Cinematic Universe's first true foray into TV was originally going to kick off on Disney+ with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but production delays due to the ongoing pandemic forced a change in the plan. Instead, WandaVision — a much weirder, much less traditional sort of superhero tale — is leading the charge. WandaVision brings back its titular characters (the latter seemingly from the dead), but it also brings back decades of television history as the premise puts the heroes in various sitcom styles from the '50s through today.
"It's not exactly the way that we're supposed to launch, but it's great. Everything seems to work out for a reason," director Matt Shakman told SYFY WIRE during a virtual press junket ahead of the show's premiere on Jan. 15. "Here's this show that is a giant love letter to television and it seems like absolutely the right way for the maker of the biggest blockbusters out there to come to television — to honor what has come before."
WandaVision begins with the pair in black and white, living a domestic life that's right out of I Love Lucy, and later episodes are homages to The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Brady Bunch, to name a few. There's a larger story at play — it's not revealed why they're living in this strange sitcom-esque reality; there are hints that somebody (other than us) is watching what's happening, and at times the charming comedy genre gives way to The Twilight Zone-style horror — but for the most part, the first couple of episodes are basically faithful, straightforward sitcom episodes.
"When we were making it, I felt like I was doing a sitcom. It was so bananas," Kathryn Hahn, who plays Wanda's equally helpful and nosey neighbor Agnes, tells SYFY WIRE. "I couldn't have imagined a more trippy or surreal entrance to the MCU world than walking [through] a door into a '50s sitcom. There's no way I could have anticipated that in my wildest dreams."
"The '70s, with The Brady Bunch — it's all so ridiculous and so big and so sincere," Wanda actress Elizabeth Olsen says, highlighting the third episode as one of her favorite decades to recreate. "There was something that was really fun about that. And there's something that was equally as fun being cynical in a [WandaVision episode inspired by a] Modern Family episode. It was fun to get to play the different tones of sitcoms."
In recreating these old sitcom styles, the WandaVision team went to "sitcom boot camp," as Shakman calls it. They attempted to use the same sorts of camera lenses, lighting techniques, color palettes, and costume design using vintage fabrics. ("Definitely, with the fashions, it brought me back to my days on Mad Men," says Teyonah Parris, who plays Monica Rambeau in the new series.) The first episode, the I Love Lucy one, was filmed before a live studio audience, just like sitcoms of old.
TV — and comedy — have changed a bit in the nearly 70 years since I Love Lucy began. That presents a bit of a potential stumbling block for viewers who might be expecting a modern superhero story, let alone modern comedy pacing and stylings. That was a bit of a concern, initially, for the actors too. Hahn, a mainstay in modern comedy, admits that the old sitcoms were "so different from today," especially because she likes to improv and have "a little bit more anarchy in my comedy."
"The '50s [episode], especially, was written without a lot of winks to today," Hahn recalls. "Joke-wise, the jokes are, like, not modern! It was hard for me to keep the integrity of the period in place, because it's ripe for parody and it's ripe for satire and it was very difficult to keep on that line."
"I will say, though, because we shot it in front of a live studio audience — which was so fun — we were surprised by the amount of laughs that just happened naturally with those jokes," Hahn continues. "I think a lot of it naturally just goes back to rhythm and timing. We are so used to that kind of sitcom rhythm and flow that we just know when a laugh happens. So the audience was able to carry us on that ride, too."
"We tried to pick the shows that still work today and still resonate with an audience," Shakman explains. "We are modern filmmakers, we will maybe have more pacing or more music than they might have had, that's just our sensibilities. But our general approach was to try to be as authentic as possible."
The goal was really to recreate these old sitcoms — it's an homage, not a parody.
"We didn't want to spoof. We are not spoofing at all. We wanted to pick shows that we genuinely loved and recreate them authentically," Shakman says. "And all of that will make sense when you get to the end of the series."
Because, of course, there is a superhero story lurking underneath the admirable accuracy of the retro sitcoms and the mystery of Wanda and Vision's circumstances. Multiple people SYFY WIRE spoke to stressed that the era-hopping sitcom homages are actually a core part of WandaVision's plot and significance within the MCU, rather than just stylistic larks.
"When you look at the components individually, you're like 'How do these things fit together?'" Parris says. "But the way they blend it and incorporate everything is so cool and I think it's going to be a lot of fun for the audience to go on this journey as the layers are revealed."
"Our show is truly a conversation between American sitcoms throughout the decades and the MCU," Olsen explains. "Playing with the tension of how those two relate and combine and affect one another is what was really fun about this job. To try to figure out at what moment which one wins in our storytelling. It's a constant tension that we play with throughout the series."
The first two episodes of WandaVision premiere on Disney+ on Jan. 15.