[Interview] How ‘WANDAVISION’ spoofs and subverts its sitcom and sci-fi inspirations

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Through the AVENGERS films, we’ve traveled through the years and bore witness to the trials and tribulations faced by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany). However, now comes an entirely new, unique spin on their journey in the DisneyPlus series WANDAVISION.

In this iteration, Wanda and Vision are married, working through things a betrothed couple would: dinner with Vision’s boss (Fred Melamed), spontaneous visits by a nosy neighbor (played brilliantly by Kathryn Hahn), and an unexpected pregnancy.The first episode casts Wanda and her beloved as newlyweds in the fictitious suburban town of Westview. And the episode’s premise is straight out of an episode of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.

Olsen, at the series’ virtual press conference, says she pulled inspiration from a few TV icons when forming her sitcom-idealized identity.

“I think it was like an amalgamation of Mary Tyler Moore and Elizabeth Montgomery, and I think I accidentally threw in some Lucy in the 70’s just because there was so much physical comedy.”

Bettany took cues for this version of Vision from other legendary actors.

“…a little bit of Dick Van Dyke and a little bit of Hugh Laurie.”

In order to better prepare the team for the impending project, the show’s creatives put their performers and craftsmen through a sitcom bootcamp. Director Matt Shakman, who co-starred on 80’s sitcom JUST THE TEN OF US, mentions,

“We wanted to be as authentic as possible. That was one of the biggest goals. So production design, cinematography, costuming, everything was about going on this deep dive. With the actors we all wanted to do the same thing. We watched a ton of old television episodes, talked about how comedy changes, because it really does. The approach to comedy in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s is really different.”

One of the approaches they took was to tape the first episode in front of a live studio audience. Olsen was nervous about this experience.

“It was the first thing we shot. It was so nerve wracking and there was a lot of adrenaline. There were a lot of quick changes. It really messed with my brain – the idea of not playing to an audience, but feeding off an audience and having a camera. I was really grateful when we added the forth wall for our second episode.”

Shakman is pleased with the results of this experiment.

“Doing it in front of a live studio audience, which is this weird, quasi theater thing, really adds to it. You can feel the energy of that sort of theatrical performance working with the audience. And then when you get into 60’s shows like BEWITCHED or I DREAM OF JEANNIE it is a forth wall and all of a sudden it’s much more like doing a movie these days – and that laugh track is all canned and brought in. It changes the energy, the approach, the style, everything.”

Each episode pays homage to monumental half-hour comedy series’ in the pop culture zeitgeist in different decades, starting in the 50’s. In order to nail those very specific and nuanced tonal qualities both in the writing and performance, they worked with a dialect coach. Showrunner and creator Jac Schaeffer equates it to doing a period piece, or an accent.

“We would sort of compile these lists of sort of sayings of the era and then we had to have kind of a subsection for Paul. Paul had adjustments and improvements for all those sort of like little textural things. So in the early ones, it genuinely was sort of a research thing that we were kind of plug-in, playing the expressions to make it really fun in that way. And then as we moved forward, the sitcoms of the 80’s and that’s just-that’s just burned into my actual DNA. That was not so much of a challenge.”

Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen in Marvel Studios’ WANDAVISION exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved.

For the actors, the decades changing each episode provided the opportunity for their physicality to match each era. Bettany responds,

“I think there is a lot more slapstick and physical comedy early on. Luckily by the time we get to the 90’s, they’ve all made me look so ridiculous that I didn’t really have to work that hard for the laughs.”

Olsen acutely observes,

“The way women move throughout the decades changes so much when it comes to what society wants from them. Jac did write in quite a few nods to how those were evolving through the decades. In the 60’s, she gets to wear some pants and that would adjust how someone moves through space. Manners were a big part of, when we talk about vocal work and speech and cadence, manners were a huge part of every decade and so we would get this book, um, of manners for the time as well. But we also have to remember that we’re not depicting an honest reality of the 60’s or the 70’s. We are depicting the un-reality, which is its own set of rules.”

Hahn elucidates further.

“I feel like what the sitcom is always represented is this kind of like aspirational view and this comfortable ideal. The trick was not only were we trying to [show] life within each decade, but kind of like present this kind of comfortable ideal. The structure of a sitcom, which is that like the set-up, the misunderstanding and the resolution is like, is such a comfortable, comforting structure that is something that we have just like baked in us. The trick was to not to satirize it, but to kind of like get inside of each one and that’s what I think was such tonally, such a trick to pull off, which I’m still so blown away by Matt and by Jac by being able to do that ‘cause that’s difficult tonally.”

Even in the initial three episodes, we can observe the underpinnings of a serious mystery laced with undercurrents of grief and denial, taking place – one Wanda may be more in control of than she’s wanting to realize. Those darker tones manifest in a few fleeting TWILIGHT ZONE styled moments. Kevin Feige says they first thought to pay homage aesthetically.

“We often talked about, when we were in our period sitcoms, that when something shifted from say a DICK VAN DYKE, or an I LOVE LUCY style, into something that was outside of that, that it was going into kind of a TWILIGHT ZONE. We were thinking about what were the period shows that addressed the odd and the strange, and how could we embrace that?  That’s a little bit about how we approached the shooting and the look of it.”

Schaeffer adds,

“TWILIGHT ZONE is an enormous influence on me. That’s actually kind of how I learned to tell stories. You think you’re in one sort of thing and the suddenly it’s slipped on its head. We were all incredibly enamored of that. There are a lot of prestige series that are doing this very exciting thing where you watch a couple episodes and you think the show is one thing and then by episode four or five, it flips the script. That’s really where the more contemporary references come in in terms of boundary pushing in genre.”

WANDAVISION begins streaming on January 15 on Disney+.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.