If it seems WandaVision has caught on among viewers who couldn’t care less about the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe, maybe it’s because saving the universe from existential galactic threats is not nearly as universally relatable as coping with the fact that our beloved old sitcoms lied to us. Yes, the show is about chaos magic, “love preserving,” and super-powered beings interfacing with shadowy extra-governmental organizations and all of that—but at its heart, it’s really just about one woman dealing with the fact that, well, “no one told you life was gonna be this way.”
Avengers trappings and heightened tragedy aside, Wanda simply is another Millennial raised on charming old family sitcoms coming to terms with the fact that the comfy, low-stakes world presented in those shows no longer exists—if it ever really did. That’s a crushing realization, especially if you watched sitcoms growing up as a guide for what to expect from adulthood.
“Old sitcoms are repurposed culture through which kids learn about the world they’re going into. Or, more simply, old sitcoms are used by children as a primer on sophistication,” writes Guy Branum in his memoir My Life As A Goddess, which also serves as something of a meditation on being raised by media.
“Sitcoms make knowing human nature a fun game, but they also provide an important window into other lives, with an emphasis on what makes those lives like yours,” he continues. “The set of multi-cam sitcoms so frequently place the center of the perspective in the center of the living room, in front of the couch, where the sitcom family’s (or young gal in the city’s) television would be. It is, then, a type of fun-house mirror for your parents’ living room.”
In other words, the types of sitcoms WandaVision riffs on represented some sort of ideal American averageness—a baseline for the American dream with a middle-class sensibility that was invasive, if not cartoonish. The houses were comfortable and well-appointed, but not ostentatious. If there were money problems they were usually temporary and only used to set up a plot (Mom has to get a wacky job outside of the house), and could be completely forgotten by the time Dad receives the raise or bonus that sets up the family for the Hawaiian vacation two-part episode. Any threats to personal safety were just goofy misunderstandings (like the tree branch that scares Wanda and Vision in an early episode). Death was something that only happened before the series began (like the late Pam Tanner from Full House) or to a pet or elderly neighbor who only appeared for an episode. Depending on the situation you grew up in, the way these characters lived either represented something aspirational but ultimately obtainable or, for those more privileged, at least the bare minimum of what life in America could provide. Those “very special episodes” presented the darker sides of life as something that, yes, happened, but only occasionally and not in ways that couldn’t be overcome within 23 minutes. The biggest hassles in life weren’t keeping your health insurance, putting food on the table, or dealing with mental health struggles, but rather that wacky neighbor, the demanding bore of a boss, or the mouthy mother-in-law.
For as many sitcoms as WandaVision has alluded to in its relatively short run, it's almost as illustrative to consider which classic family shows the series hasn’t touched. Wanda and Vision never sat behind a piano and sang some MCU riff on “Those Were The Days” like All In The Family. Though he’s a master of the sitcom form, there’s not much of any of producer Norman Lear’s work interpolated in the show. Likely because his shows were pioneering in acknowledging race, class, and politics. Picket fences weren’t to be found. Even if the namesake star hadn’t proven to be radioactive in recent years, it's unlikely the show would ever nod to Roseanne either, even if it was one of the definitive family sitcoms of the ‘90s. The Conners had more real problems, than say, Boy Meets World’s Matthews family. Episode six borrowed some of Malcolm in the Middle’s aesthetics but remained completely uninterested in the show’s lower-middle-class themes (which, frankly, might not have stood out quite as much to younger viewers anyway).
Wanda’s status as an immigrant who was introduced to American sitcoms as a way to learn English adds another wrinkle. In research conducted for her book America as Seen on TV: How Television Shapes Immigrant Expectations around the Globe, sociology professor Clara Rodríguez found that immigrants' expectations of life in America were even more shaped by television than native-born citizens. She found that immigrants were often shocked to find America was much more racially and economically diverse than they assumed from watching television. In other words, it wasn’t all two nice, white, upper-middle-class parents with 2.5 children in the suburbs. (Wanda’s fluctuating accent and status as white seems to leave room for viewers to interpret her relationship to sitcoms in both the all-American sense and from the point of view of those who have been othered).
Of course, not only was reality far more complicated than sitcoms led us to believe, but modern times and widening income disparity have only rendered the lifestyles presented in them even more out of reach. Never mind the Brady Bunch’s comfy mid-century home, nowadays even Jerry Seinfeld’s relatively modest Manhattan sitcom apartment seems like a dream. Even family sitcoms themselves have largely given up on presenting that specific vision as something attainable. The CBS sitcom Mom gave up on being a family sitcom altogether in season 3, after the children were simply written out. Now, it’s just about a middle-aged lady and her friends trying to remain sober. The Conners and The Goldbergs trade in various degrees of knowing nostalgia. Shows like Schitt's Creek and American Housewife don't buttress ideals of class, but rather gently subvert them as sources of their comedy. The characters of Modern Family were rich enough where they certainly would not be getting that Joe Biden stimulus check; they barely pretended otherwise. The only examples that still endure, like The Simpsons and Family Guy, are animated. Very few shows try to represent the American baseline anymore. And is there even one to represent?
It’s no mistake that Wanda’s breakdown can be traced back to the moment she realized Vision had left her a plot of quaint suburban land on which to build the kind of home one could grow old in. She came so, so close to getting the kind of life she once dreamed of and saw represented on TV as a child, only to realize it was never meant to be. Sure, her story involves a half-robot husband, an ancient witch, a brother who may or may not be dead, but we’ve all come to grips with the fact we’re never going to be living some "as seen on TV" lifestyle, whether it be Leave it to Beaver domestic serenity, Sex and the City young urban fantasy, or even, frankly, The Office-style employment security.
Never mind Ultron and Thanos, the lies television taught us have proven to be a far more engaging villain.