INT. SHOT – LATE AFTERNOON – A SUBURBAN HOME
The door is flung open, a handsome man in his mid-30s, a quiff of waxed blond hair beneath his hat, a smart tweed suit, prescription spectacles, stands in the doorway. Cue audience applause. In his hand he carries a briefcase, assuring us of his employment status, and his handsome looks suggest a similarity to James Stewart, if we have the budget for such casting. He removes his hat, hanging it on the hat stand, and places his briefcase down, seemingly looking around. Let’s call him HANK, for such is a suitable name for such a man.
HANK: Oh, honey, I’m home!
From the adjoined kitchen, we hear noise, something like the rattle of pots and pans. HANK looks confused, a frown forming on his handsome face.
HANK: Honey? Are you home?
Cue audience laughter. The kitchen door is suddenly thrown wide open to reveal a tall woman with a somewhat horsey face and a somewhat fretful manner, several years older than HANK, dressed in a tea dress decorated in a highly unseasonal Christmas tree pattern, her blonde hair partially tied up in a paisley scarf. This is COURTNEY, for whom our show is named. Audience applauds. Hastily, she crosses the room and throws herself into HANK’s arms, who looks somewhat taken aback.
COURTNEY: Oh, Hank!
HANK (confused): Honey? What’s the matter? (pause) Did something happen with the neighbour’s dog again?
COURTNEY looks up, and her expression is momentarily flat.
COURTNEY: No, of course not, he’s still buried at the bottom of our yard.
Audience laughs. COURTNEY returns to being fretful.
COURTNEY: Oh, Hank, you wouldn’t believe it!
HANK looks worried.
HANK: Well, ah, try me, honey.
COURTNEY looks away from him.
COURTNEY: Well… well, you see, darling, I meant to have the dinner ready for you the moment you came home, only… only…
HANK begins to look annoyed, as if perhaps he has heard this before.
COURTNEY turns to look at the camera.
COURTNEY: Only I spent the entire day crying about cats and writing about pop culture.
I am not really what you could call a connoisseur of the Marvel universe. I feel as if a lot of this is because of the scarcity of American comics whilst I was growing up, leaving me entirely dependent on occasional issues in local shops—comic books were often used as ballast for shipping goods when I was a kid, as they were cheap enough to be absorbent if something broke, and if not, they could be sold on by whatever shops had received the order—and also on re-prints and black and white material told in the various Marvel UK comics. These stories were my first impressions of Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four, and lots of other famous characters, as well as a whole host of original ones developed by all the names that would soon find work in American comics as I grew up; Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, et al. Marvel’s cinematic universe—debuting in 2008 with Iron Man, which I quite enjoyed—has thus far had no place for characters such as Death’s Head, Captain Britain, Motormouth, and Evelyn Necker, so, when coupled with the fact that are just so many of these films, it’s hard for me to feel any real connexion with this big movies. Sitcoms, however, now sitcoms, I get.
Being an unemployed teenager gave me a lot of time to learn the twin dialects of daytime and late night television. Television was an easy distraction, you didn’t have to move, you didn’t have to do anything, you could just sit there, or, if it was a particularly bad day, you could just stay in bed, as long as the ashtray was in easy reach. My first television set was a little black and white Ferguson model with four distinct buttons on it, BBC 1, BBC 2, ITV, and *; this little asterisk should tell you all you need to know about the set, its manufacture being before 1982, when Channel 4 first debuted. In the corner of my flat, where my little cat is now sleeping on a cushion, there is an old set of the same model that I picked up somewhere along the way over the years and I have never successfully been able to make work. I digress. I spent a lot of time watching this little television set, and, as a result of daytime and late night programming, I spent a lot of time watching sitcoms; contemporaneous sitcoms—Zoe, Duncan, Jack, and Jane—sitcoms from childhood—Out of this World—and sitcoms from before I was born, sitcoms such as I Love Lucy, and Bewitched, and, to a lesser degree, the less good I Dream of Jeannie. Don’t @ me, Jeannie stans.
The language of sitcoms, especially the faux domesticity and the charm of suburbia were incredibly poignant in the ’90s. During my youth, the entertainment industry was experiencing a wistful nostalgia for the 1950s, resulting in films as varied as Grease, the ur-text for such feelings, and then later, movies such as Back to the Future and Peggy Sue Got Married; the 1950s in pop culture informed our understanding of what we should be desiring, and it also informed us of what we could not have, resulting in a backlash against such values that produced such bitterly chiding works as Grant Morrison’s Kill Your Boyfriend and Brian Yuzna’s Society; if the 1950s were the decade in which suburbia was codified, then the 1990s were the decade when it was calcified.
When I was very young, my parents moved out of crowded East London, and into suburbia, and, for the most part, I didn’t care, as every weekend we were back in London anyhow, so it wasn’t as if the landscape of such ever became unfamiliar. Yet growing up, I soon began to understand that my definition of London—being the curve of housing estates and red brick from Enfield and Tottenham, through Turnpike Lane, and onto Walthamstow and Chingford—was not the London of popular conception glimpsed on television; it was not the London of Big Ben, of vermin-faced elder stateswomen in navy suits, of surging crowds in which the mothers of soon-to-be-ex-girlfriends would be struck in the face by the truncheon swing of policemen pushing back against Poll Tax protestors, and, as such, it was easier to ignore the discomfort of certain echoing portrayals in which I might glimpse myself, such as Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, and focus instead of the invented charms of sitcoms. Therefore, when I tell you that I care about sitcoms, what I really want you to know is that I care about the language and the charms of all of the opiate fume nostalgia that such themes represented in my youth; I care about the way in which the tropes used innocently in one decade would come back to inform the language I employed when looking at the world around me whilst growing up and deciding it was at fault.
That’s enough preamble, I think.
This week, distracted and desolate, eager for something to help me not think, I sat down and watched the first three and a bit episodes of Marvel’s WandaVision. In 2016, I was faintly aware of Tom King’s comic book, Vision, and I thought that the premise—using sitcom narratives and tropes as a coping mechanism to explore grief—was something that very much might appeal to me, dealing at that time with my own kind of very raw, very real grief, and yet I never actually got around to reading it because I know so very little about Marvel beyond the aforementioned outlined details above. Earlier this year, during the also very real winter of our discontent, I began to notice a lot of empty buses passing back and forth outside my window as I stood there boiling the kettle, each one decorated with the likeness of Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, and I remembered that earlier comic, thinking the latter to erroneously be an adaptation of the former. It isn’t, of course, but this—along with my inability to concentrate due to the worry I was feeling about my little cat’s future operation—meant that, as in adolescence, I momentarily became the captive audience.
WandaVision takes a unique approach to modern television, its opening episodes adapting the tropes and flavouring of many earlier sitcoms in a way that is both touching and nostalgic, even for those of us whose nostalgia is literally solely for the association of how the forlornness of an older generation populated the pop culture of their own youth. The opening three episodes take many cues from Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, The Brady Bunch, Happy Days, and countless other shows, and the result of these episodes is around 120 minutes of knowing winks, and patient homages, all of which warmed my heart, despite my unfamiliarity with the characters. Yet WandaVision is not intended as a straight adaptation of the sitcom genre, and baked into its premise is the underlying flavour of discontent, the suggestion that something is not quite right with the picture, that the signal you are receiving is somehow being interfered with. There are a number of hints throughout the first two episodes, but it becomes explicitly clear during the finale of the third episode in which one of the characters, Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) is forcibly ejected from the narrative, and the viewer discovers that the setting is a dreamlike state presumably fashioned by the magic of its main character, Wanda Maximoff. Episode #4 begins by explaining what has been happening outside of the core narrative, inviting the viewer behind the curtain of the illusion, and, friends, I have to confess that this is where I turned my television off and went away to do something else.
It is arguable that a show like WandaVision could not have been realised without the weight of the previous success of Marvel’s many, many, manycinematic releases, and yet for me, the joy of a show like this was in its homages and its commentary, a mechanism that reminded me of the use of the fictional sitcom, Life with Honey in Cecil Castellucci’s masterful Shade, the Changing Girl; where the show fails for me—and assumedly it is just me, given the amount of excitement it seems to have generated online—is that it is not honest in its discussion of this genre. Instead, WandaVision is a knowing smile, a wink, a nudge, the suggestion of the creators to the audience that they know sitcoms are cheesy, low-brow, trash entertainment, but, like, isn’t it wild and funny and cool to take such entertainment and pretend to play it straight whilst all the while laughing behind our hands? Sadly, my feeling is that it is not.
Typically associated with housewives and the unemployed, sitcoms are something of a maligned genre, the kind of television that has no value, and that we are told that, like fast food, should only be enjoyed sparingly, and that we should never truly admit to the enjoyment of for fear that we reveal ourselves to be uneducated, to be basic, to be suburbanites; sitcoms are the realm of those with no ability for critical thinking, for those with no taste, and WandaVision‘s continual knowing winks at the audience do little more than hammer this point home. It would be silly of me to argue that a show like this could have been made without some fondness for the material it references, that much is certainly apparent in its opening episodes, yet watching the show, I can’t help but feel upset that such affection is not quite genuine, it does not feel honest; watching WandaVision is like being the girl in a teen movie invited to a party, only to discover that your invitation was as the subject of amusement, not as an equal with those around you.
I know many people are enjoying this show, and far be it from me to tell others what to like, but as an outsider, as someone not familiar with the Marvel universe, someone who hasn’t spent the past ten years watching movies about unfamiliar comic books, all I can see here is the smug knowingness of people who have set themselves up as the arbiters of taste now patting themselves on the back, and I find it intensely disappointing. It’s 2021, and rather than laughing down our noses at the way in which entertainment has tried to appeal to those not dictating the conversation in society, wouldn’t it be fun to revisit such shows with more care and respect?
Whatever I say, I realise it will make little difference, and I find no joy in failing to get something everyone else seems to be enjoying, but at the same time, I also think we can do better than this, and that shows like I Love Lucy and Bewitched certainly deserve better than this.
Uncertain exactly of how to end this, I am, instead, going to leave any and all closing comments on the nature of sitcoms and sadness to Jenny Lewis, again from 2015. Enjoy!
Image by Google & Blusterhouse Illustration