Given the phrase “Marvel Cinematic Universe TV show,” your mind probably doesn’t conjure up anything that looks like “WandaVision,” the first episodic series from Marvel Studios. (“Marvel Television,” which produced series like “Jessica Jones” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” is effectively no more.) After two dozen movies teeming with chiseled heroes, bombastic violence and swelling orchestras signaling some catastrophic twist, “WandaVision” throws Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), two of the MCU’s most powerful and tragic characters, into the jarringly low-stakes world of a picture-perfect sitcom neighborhood circa 1950-something. Gone are the sprawling military bases, high tech galactic speedsters and far flung corners of the Earth that acted as backdrops for the Avengers’ latest battles. Instead, Wanda and Vision have to bumble their way through a series of classic sitcom storylines without their nosy neighbors realizing that they’re living next to a witch and the walking, talking personification of the galaxy’s most powerful AI. There’s no explanation for why Wanda and Vision are seemingly living out an archetypical suburban fantasy, but as eventually becomes clear, it may not entirely be their choice.
In the three episodes screened for critics out of the season’s eventual 10, Jac Schaeffer’s “WandaVision” proves itself to be, if nothing else, an impressive replication of bygone sitcoms. The first two episodes are in black and white, paying homage to shows like “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Bewitched” so meticulously that they often feel like 1-to-1 recreations. Their screwball plots feature Wanda trying to entertain Vision’s cranky boss (Fred Melamed) and wife (Debra Jo Rupp) with the help of her chirpy neighbor (Kathryn Hahn), or winning over a skeptical mom (Emma Caulfield) who rules the neighborhood with an iron fist and poison smile. The third episode, rendered in splashy Technicolor, swaps the set for one more obviously mimicking “The Brady Bunch,” with the time period adjusting to match.
If you’re a casual Marvel viewer rather than an obsessive, coming across this series may just be confusing. (As if anticipating exactly that, Disney Plus has released two short “Legends” summaries of Wanda and Vision’s overall arcs within the MCU to date — and they are, I’ll admit, pretty helpful.) And if you’re at all a fan of the classic shows that inspired it…well, maybe you’ll just leave “WandaVision” wanting to watch the classic shows that inspired it. Despite their comedy frameworks, none of the episodes are particularly funny. The “jokes” are really just recreating the rhythm of classic sitcom dialogue and adjusting them to fit the fact that Marvel characters are saying them with the vague sense that they don’t belong here. In fact, the series’ best moments are the ones that underline that uneasy combination as Wanda and Vision struggle to understand what exactly is going on in this picket fence snow globe of a world they’re suddenly living in.
In this early going, “WandaVision” is more interesting for its place within the Marvel behemoth than an immediately great show in and of itself. A pre-pandemic world might have seen something more straightforwardly of a piece with the MCU, like “Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” premiere first. But whether accidentally or on purpose, “WandaVision” is an admirably weird introduction to the new age of Marvel TV. Yes, this show and every one of the roughly ten thousand other ones on the way will inevitably have to connect back to the blockbuster movies. After all, the first priority for Marvel will still be getting every possible fan invested in everything the studio has to offer. At the very least, though, Marvel and Disney’s aggressive campaign to flood the market with #content might be a bit less annoying if some of its shows can get strange without worrying too hard about losing its biggest possible audience.
From a pure aesthetic standpoint, it’s surprising and undeniably effective to see “WandaVision” twist the established Marvel brand to fit a very specific, entirely different mode. Bettany’s clearly having fun letting looser in “WandaVision” than he ever could in something like “Avengers: Infinity War,” though direct comparisons of this “aw, shucks” iteration of Vision to the elastic Dick Van Dyke performance that obviously inspired it don’t do Bettany any favors. Olsen, by contrast, does a remarkable job balancing her understanding of Wanda with the depictions of Good Sitcom Wife that suddenly shape her (especially Mary Tyler Moore and Elizabeth Montgomery’s gently plucky characterizations in “Dick Van Dyke” and “Bewitched,” respectively). There are enough precarious moments in each “WandaVision” episode that make it clear the show might not work at all, in fact, without a nuanced actor like Olsen tethering it to some kind of reality.
As far as the supporting cast, it’s hard to imagine better fits for this high concept than Hahn and Caulfield, both deft comedic actresses capable of turning on a dime from cheery enthusiasm to something far more ominous. And as “Geraldine,” Teyonah Parris delivers one of the show’s smartest performances as her character vacillates — or more accurately, code switches — between “sassy Black friend” and quietly bemused participant in a world she doesn’t quite understand.
Because no, of course things in “WandaVision” are not quite as they seem. While there are no concrete answers to be found in the first few episodes, there are clues and eerie moments that make plain that the stakes of their supposedly blissful domestic life aren’t nearly as low as advertised. Despite its character and dialogue beats, “WandaVision” isn’t a sitcom; it’s a sinister thriller wearing respectable clothes and an unnervingly bright grin. It’s “Pleasantville,” if “Pleasantville” opened with the characters stuck inside the black and white television. When “WandaVision” leans into this uncanny-valley side of itself, it works much better than it does when it’s just going through the sitcom motions others have done better before.
The first two episodes of “WandaVision” premiere Friday, January 15, with new episodes then premiering weekly on Disney Plus.