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Thursday, October 14, 2021

October 14, 2021: SitcomStudying: Wandavision

[October 15th marks the 70th anniversary of I Love Lucy’s debut. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Lucyyyyyyyyyyyy and other sitcoms—share your responses and other sitcom analyses for a crowd-sourced post that’ll need no canned laughter!]

On one way the Marvel show embodies the best of sitcoms, and one way it reflects the worst.

I haven’t written much about Marvel movies or the MCU in this space, despite that world occupying a not-insignificant portion of the boys’ lives (and thus of course my own) over the last year or so, and perhaps the reason is that I share at least a bit of the frustration that many others have voiced with how much Marvel & Disney et al have come to dominate our cultural landscape (and how much other franchises like the DC Universe are now seemingly copying that model). But at the same time, I have to say this: each of the three Marvel TV shows released on DisneyPlus so far (Wandavision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki) hasn’t just been an entertaining diversion (although they have all been that for sure); each has also grappled in thoughtful and meaningful ways with some pretty big themes and issues. Which is to say, we can gripe about the MCU’s dominance all we want, but we’d also better be willing to engage specifically with what and how these texts are doing. (I’m sure I’ll get to the other two of those series in future posts, or at the very least Falcon which is as interesting on race in America as any recent pop culture work this side of Watchmen.)

Much of the critical conversation around Wandavision has understandably centered on its depictions of grief (not least because the clip at that last hyperlink features perhaps the best single summation of the emotion ever penned), but of course the show is really first and foremost about sitcoms. Not just that it uses and imitates the sitcom form, that is; Wandavision is very much about what the genre does and doesn’t do, include, engage when it comes to family and community and identity, and so on. That formal and thematic throughline blends with the show’s themes of grief in quite potent ways, especially by the stunning and heartbreaking finale (even more SPOILERS in that clip than in this post overall). But it also makes the entire show a really thoughtful engagement with both the genre’s dangers (the way sitcoms can elide some of the darker and more human sides of life, and thus consuming them distract us in potentially destructive ways) and yet at the same time its potential power and value (the way the best of it can also connect us to those sides, as great art of any type can, and through so doing give us renewed life).

Of course lots of sitcoms aren’t “the best of it,” though, and one I’d put in that category is Bewitched, especially for the Salem-specific reasons I detail in this post. And in its own small but not insignificant way, Wandavision echoes that craptastic classic and makes the same historical mistake (more SPOILERS to follow, natch). The show’s eventual villain, the witch Agatha (played wonderfully by the great Kathryn Hahn), is introduced (not as a character overall, as she had been in the show for many episodes by that point, but as Agatha and the villain specifically) through a long episode-opening scene set in (we’re told in the scene’s opening script) Salem in 1693. Which is to say, this isn’t just another pop culture text which reinforces the destructive myth that there were witches in 17th century Salem—by setting this scene the year after the Witch Trials, Wandavision suggests that the town’s cohort of witches endured after the Trials, which to my mind doubly reinforces the Trials’ goal of rooting out this mythologized community (which of course in practice meant killing mostly disadvantaged and disenfranchised folks). Not the biggest element of Wandavision by a long shot, but a frustrating echo of one of American sitcom history’s most negative influences.

Lucy post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other sitcoms you’d study?

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