Wandavision, Marvel, & The Changing Face Of Television

Wandavision, © Marvel 2021

For a guy who writes about pop culture fairly frequently, it’s a little strange that I don’t subscribe to Disney+. There’s a simple reason for this, though — I’m poor. Always have been, probably always will be. I don’t mind spending money on entertainment, but subscription fees are where I draw the line — I just have a deep-seated aversion to them. But my job has Disney+, and it provides me with a fair amount of downtime, so last week I was able to watch the first 7 episodes of Wandavision.

I was impressed, of course. After all, Wandavision is a damn triumph. But I was also left vaguely offended on behalf of some of Marvel’s earlier TV shows. Why was Wandavision gathering so many accolades when other MCU shows, many of which were just as good, languished in relative obscurity? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I saw episode 8 of Wandavision a couple days ago. Shortly after I figured it out, Zack Stentz (@MuseZack), a screenwriter who worked on Thor for Marvel and the vastly underappreciated Terminator : The Sarah Connor Chronicles, wrote a Twitter thread that helped sharpen my opinion even further.

First, let’s talk about those other Marvel TV shows. The granddaddy of them all is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. In some ways, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a failure — it was meant to be integrated relatively closely with the MCU, but the realities of production meant that they ended up drifting apart. The writers behind the Marvel movies sometimes weren’t even aware that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a thing. Even if they did, the movies had to be planned out years in advance & couldn’t take their cues from a TV show with a much rapider production cycle, while the show couldn’t hew too closely to the movies without breaking Marvel’s most sacred law — Thou Shalt Not Give Spoilers.

In another sense, though, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was almost a masterpiece. Made by Joss Whedon’s less-problematic family members, it had some of the characteristic Whedon cleverness, style, and quality without being too quippy, smarmy, or over-stylized. It featured an extremely diverse cast, it was never afraid to embrace alternate structures or premises, and it had a strong “found family of adventurers” vibe. Not only was it a great show, it was everything that Firefly had the potential to be. But I bet you never got into it.

Cloak and Dagger is a somewhat different story. While it was fundamentally a YA show, similar to various CW-style offerings, it embraced the same metaphorical/surrealism/magical realism storytelling that made Wandavision so compelling. It was an intelligent, compelling show that lasted two seasons and made approximately zero impact on pop culture.

Like Cloak and Dagger, The Gifted was a show, albeit one that wasn’t in the MCU, that should have been a hit. It was a drama about a seemingly-mundane upper middle class white family that discovered they were mutants and had to go on the run. They were instantly turned into fugitives, scraping by on the fringes of society, hunted by the very militarized police state that they had once worked for. It was a perfect show for the Trump era. Once again, it vanished without a trace.

And then we come to the Marvel Netflix shows — Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders, and Punisher. I’ve already written about some of them, so I won’t go too in-depth, but I will say that they all clearly blazed a trail for Wandavision — they were glossy, high production value shows that combined superhero shenanigans with meditations on deeply personal themes. Wandavision was all about grief, while Jessica Jones was about trauma, and Luke Cage was about the Black experience of racism & oppression. (OK, Iron Fist was mostly about punching stuff & not living up to the expectations set by earlier series, but that’s the exception that proves the rule).

(There’s also Runaways, which was a fun, if slow-paced, YA show that wasn’t particularly deep or exceptional, and therefore isn’t relevant to the current discussion.)

So what sets Wandavision apart? Why did it become a phenomenon while the Netflix shows were popular, but certainly not earth-shatteringly so, and the other shows remained obscure?

Well, I feel there are a few reasons that Wandavision has become vastly more popular than the Netflix shows, and they’re all related to timing. Releasing episodes on a weekly basis has allowed excitement to build. We may not have water coolers these days, but we do have Twitter, and staggering episodes instead of dumping them all at once has allowed for all sorts of discussion & theories to emerge. Similarly, Wandavision has the advantage of being released in a post-Endgame world. Marvel movies were certainly extremely popular back when Daredevil came out, but they weren’t quite the juggernaut they are today. Finally, we’ve spent the last year without any Marvel movies to enjoy — Marvel fans are desperate for new content.

That’s all circumstantial. If I’m right, the Netflix shows could have been just as popular as Wandavision if they were released under different circumstances, while Wandavision could have been significantly less popular if the timing wasn’t quite ripe for it. What I’m really interested in is the structural difference that makes Wandavision so exceptional. What struck me the other day is that Wandavision, in some key ways, isn’t a TV show at all — it’s Marvel movie that’s been stretched out to extreme length.

What do I mean by that? Traditionally, TV shows were episodic — each episode was a self-contained story, and largely reset to the status quo in between episodes. The only real exception were soap operas, which were heavily serialized, but which didn’t have much cross-pollination with other kinds of TV.

In the ’90s, that started changing. Genre shows like Deep Space Nine and Buffy The Vampire Slayer embraced greater degrees of serialization. Generally that meant that most episodes were more or less stand alone, but with character development that carried over, and a season-long story arc that kept going on in the background, occasionally popping up for a scene here and an episode there. Meanwhile, prestige shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Rome developed more continuous, flowing narratives, but still had individual stories and storylines that were largely independent of each other.

Marvel’s Netflix shows were structurally similar to the prestige dramas that helped inspire them, while Marvel’s other shows were more akin to a genre series. Wandavision doesn’t fit into either of those categories. It’s a single narrative all the way through. The individual episodes aren’t even remotely self-contained, although they do represent individual story beats. The three main characters all have their own story threads, but they’re all deeply intertwined and part of the larger whole. In a very real sense, Wandavision is a movie, not a TV show.

Stentz’s Twitter thread was all about the tendency in modern TV to cut out “filler” episodes in serialized drama — essentially, getting rid of “monster of the week” episodes, leaving only the larger story arc. While this can make for much tighter, faster-paced shows (and shorter, cheaper to produce seasons), it also means less room for character development, missing out on all sorts of “slice of life” content that fans just eat up, and having less space for experimental episodes (think Supernatural here — with their lengthy seasons, they were able to play with their format & concepts in all sorts of ways that shorter shows just can’t). Incidentally, shorter seasons also make it a lot harder to TV writers to make a living, and for early-career TV writers to break into the business.

I’m not saying that Wandavision is an example of this trend, per se — if it derives from film rather than TV, as I’ve argued, then it can’t be — but I don’t think it would be able to turn a single story into a season of TV without the precedent set by shorter, more compact shows. Ironically, this trend is the exact opposite of what’s been happening in comics themselves — they used to be all about short, punchy stories, but over the last 20 years they’ve embraced “decompression”, a story-telling method that gives narratives a lot more room to breathe.

What does this mean for the future of TV? Hopefully, not a lot. I’m not saying that Wandavision should be structured differently — I don’t know if it would work as a traditional TV series. However, we do need to acknowledge that the format is extremely limiting. It has strengths, but it also has serious drawbacks. TV as a whole does appear to be drifting towards a Wandavision-like structure, but that structure undermines a lot of TV’s traditional strong points — for the most part, if I want a single compelling narrative, I’ll watch a movie, whereas I’ll turn to TV to get lost in deeply realized characters who get to explore a thoroughly-built world.

There is good news, though. The Mandalorian, another Disney+ series, has taken the exact opposite approach, and adopted a heavily episodic format. I don’t necessarily want most TV shows to reach either extreme. If anything, I think that the success of both Wandavision and The Mandalorian has shown that a variety of formats are still viable in our current media landscape. I certainly hope so. I just wish that Wandavision’s popularity would inspire fans to explore some of the earlier Marvel shows that helped pave the way.

My profile pic is from Tim Kreider, and is used without permission. May god have mercy on my soul.

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