'WandaVision' Recap: Stuck in the Middle With You - Rolling Stone
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‘WandaVision’ Recap: Stuck in the Middle With You

There are lots of tricks and a few treats in a Halloween-themed episode that riffs on a stalwart of contemporary single-cam comedy, ‘Malcolm in the Middle’

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in Marvel Studios' WANDAVISION exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

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A review of this week’s WandaVision, “All-New Halloween Spooktacular!,” coming up just as soon as I smell crime…

With “All-New Halloween Spooktacular!,” WandaVision basically skips over the Nineties(*) and heads straight to this century for an episode in the mode of Malcolm in the Middle. The show has cheated decades before — Darcy described the premiere episode as something from the Fifties, even though The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered in 1961 — so perhaps the writers are hoping nobody cares about exactly when Malcolm debuted (January 9, 2000, for the record).

(*) The Nineties are better known for sitcoms about single people in the big city, like Seinfeld or Friends, but the decade also had plenty of family comedies that WandaVision could have riffed on. How about Elizabeth Olsen stepping into her older sisters’ shoes on Full House (which began in 1987 but aired the majority of its episodes in the Nineties)? Or an Everybody Loves Raymond pastiche where Wanda and Vision are living across the street from a meddlesome parent? Surely, James Spader could have done some Ultron voice work if needed.

Malcolm, though, is one of the two most important sitcoms of the 2000s, along with the original UK version of The Office. At the moment it debuted, multicam sitcoms — shot on a stage in front of a live, studio audience, whose laughter could be heard by the folks watching at home — had been the great ruling class of the genre from I Love Lucy all the way to Will & Grace. Single-cam comedies — shot on film, with no one watching at the time other than members of the crew — still got made, and sometimes became big hits, but even ones like Get Smart or M*A*S*H added canned laughter, so viewers would know where the jokes were. (The M*A*S*H producers fought to turn off the laugh track in the surgery scenes.) In the Eighties and Nineties, the broadcast networks began experimenting with a format they called “dramedies,” which were single-cam, half-hour shows with no laugh tracks and even more pathos than M*A*S*H offered. A few, like The Wonder Years and Doogie Howser, M.D., were hits, and cable had more luck with straightforward single-cam comedies like The Larry Sanders Show. But by the end of the Nineties, most network executives were convinced viewers wanted multicam and only multicam, and were trying to stamp out single-camera comedy altogether. The thinking was that audiences craved the communal experience of hearing other people laughing along with them, and didn’t want to have to think too hard about where and what the jokes were.

Then Malcolm — a raucous, almost cartoon-like family sitcom about a genius (a young Frankie Muniz), his unruly brothers, his domineering mom (Jane Kaczmarek), and his panicky father (Bryan Cranston, in the role that made him famous before Breaking Bad) — premiered after The Simpsons and became an enormous hit. Imitation is the sincerest form of television, and suddenly the format that everyone wanted killed became the hot, new thing. Over the next few years, single-cam classics like Arrested Development, Scrubs, and The Bernie Mac Show debuted, and once the American Office incorporated the original’s mockumentary style, the business started leaning hard in that direction. Multicams still get made (especially at CBS, or on Disney Channel), but single-cam is now the default mode.

All of which is to say that “All-New Halloween Spooktacular!” is the first episode of WandaVision made in the style of a show that would feel pretty contemporary if it were to debut today. If Malcolm isn’t exactly like the kinds of shows the WandaVision staffers might have written a spec script for, it’s a whole lot closer than Bewitched or Family Ties. And perhaps as a result, this is the first episode where the most sitcom-y scenes don’t quite feel presented in air quotes. It’s not wildly funny, certainly not compared to Malcolm itself, where Kaczmarek and Cranston were doing Hall of Fame work as Lois and Hal(*). But the early scenes — particularly anything involving Tommy, Billy, and Uncle Pietro causing super-powered mischief around Westview — come across as a more convincing recreation rather than an ironic one.

(*) In one episode, Hal takes up competitive speed-walking, and Cranston struts around in a flame-colored body stocking that doesn’t seem that far removed from either Vision or Quicksilver’s costumes. 

So it feels disappointing that there’s so little of Malcolm (or Arrested, My Name Is Earl, or any other slightly surreal single-cams of the period) in the episode after the opening scene. Based on his work in the season’s earlier episodes, Paul Bettany could probably play a very amusing freaked-out dad here, but Vision is out the door within moments of appearing dressed in a homemade spin on his most famous costume from the comics(*). Elizabeth Olsen doesn’t really get to do much in the way of extremely stern motherhood, though she and Evan Peters are involved in the episode’s best and most self-aware gag: a cutaway flashback to Wanda and Pietro’s pathetic childhood trick-or-treating in war-torn Sokovia, which Wanda claims isn’t how she remembers things — prompting her brother to say, “You probably suppressed a lot of the trauma.”

(*) Wanda’s old-school Scarlet Witch ensemble — which she claims is “a Sokovian fortune teller” — looks most like the genuine article, while Pietro and Tommy’s faux Quicksilver outfits are an effective blend of the comic-book costume and what those guys could scrounge up via super-speed at the last minute. And Billy even gets to wear a costume resembling the one an older version of the character started sporting in Young Avengers

Mostly, the episode leans on the mystery end of things, both inside and outside the Hex. Vision, feigning a night on the neighborhood watch, decides to explore the outskirts of town — in what’s perhaps the most clever use of the single-cam format, since he wouldn’t be able to travel so far in Family Ties mode — where he finds that the people far away from Wanda and her powers are more or less frozen. He briefly wakes up the real version of Agnes, just as he did with Norm last week, and Kathryn Hahn sharply sells the horror of what this experience must be like for the innocents caught up in Wanda’s spell(*). Wanda tries to figure out why this Pietro seems so unlike the one she knew (“previously on” clips for the episode helpfully include Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Age of Ultron, for those who had forgotten, or never knew, what her brother is supposed to look like), and even Pietro begins noting the different ways Wanda is using her powers. (For instance, she had kept all the other kids in town asleep until Halloween, and has mostly tried to keep real-world couples together.) Meanwhile, over in the S.W.O.R.D. tent city, Monica, Jimmy, and Darcy go rogue once Tyler Hayward tries to have them removed before he attacks Wanda again.

(*) So does this mean Agnes really is just another ordinary person from Westview, or is it meant to be a fake-out until we learn her true identity? Keep theorizing, fanboys and fangirls. 

It’s nearly the exact opposite balance of pastiche to plot that the show used in its earlier episodes, and feels like unfortunate timing. WandaVision simply seems better equipped to imitate a show like Malcolm than The Dick Van Dyke Show or Bewitched. But because those homages happened at the start of the season, before the creative team was ready to start explaining what was happening and building towards the big climax, they spent much more time on the tributes than this one can. And where less seemed to be more when it came to the old-time sitcom stuff, the brief glimpses “Spooktacular!” provides of a Malcolm-flavored superhero show only left me wanting more of it than there was room to provide.

The good news is that the episode concludes with Wanda dramatically expanding the size of the Hex in order to save Vision, who begins disintegrating after forcing his way out of its protective bubble. For the moment, Hayward, Monica, and Jimmy all seem to be outrunning the spell (and Monica is on her way to link up with what I’m assuming will be another familiar MCU character), but Darcy and most of the S.W.O.R.D. agents have been sucked into Wanda’s fantasy. (In a clever joke, Darcy seems on the verge of cursing about her fate, but the phrase she meant to say turns into “Oh, fudge!” by the time the Hex grabs her.) So this may force next week’s episode to spend even more time in sitcom mode. Hopefully, the writers take greater advantage of that than they did this week.

 

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