Review: WandaVision : Pop Culture Happy Hour Disney Plus has big plans for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the first show to arrive from its slate of Phase Four projects is WandaVision. Wanda's got magic powers, Vision's a synthetic android and together, they're trapped in a series of simulations of comedies from decades past. However, slowly but surely, the superhero world you know and love begins to creep back in.
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'WandaVision' Traps Its Stars In An Ever-Changing Sitcom

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'WandaVision' Traps Its Stars In An Ever-Changing Sitcom

'WandaVision' Traps Its Stars In An Ever-Changing Sitcom

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

Disney+ has big plans for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They've already announced shows about characters like Loki, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk and more. But the first to arrive is "WandaVision," which, as you might anticipate, is about Wanda and Vision, who fell in love in the "Avengers" movies.

GLEN WELDON, HOST:

She's got magic powers. He's a synthetic android thingy, and together, they're trapped in a series of simulations of comedies from decades past. Slowly but surely, however, the superhero world you know and love begins to creep back in. I'm Glen Weldon.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about "WandaVision" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Here with me and Glen is Stephen Thompson of NPR Music. Hi, Stephen.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Hello, Linda.

HOLMES: And also with us from her home in Brooklyn is Daisy Rosario. She's an executive producer at Stitcher with the show "Celebrity Book Club" with Chelsea Devantez. It's in its first season right now. Hey, Daisy.

DAISY ROSARIO: Hey, Linda.

HOLMES: It's always such an absolute pleasure to have you with us. If you've seen any of the promo stuff about "WandaVision," you've seen that Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, who you know from the movies, are back as Wanda and Vision, respectively, and they look like they are starring in something like "Leave It To Beaver," complete with the black-and-white photography and the jaunty music. I want to play you a little clip of the theme in the first episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WANDAVISION")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) She's a magical gal in the small-town locale. He's a hubby who's part machine. How will this duo fit in and fulfill all? By sharing a love like you've never seen - "WandaVision."

HOLMES: So you get the idea. That, by the way, is written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez of "Frozen" and other wonderful things. In other episodes, they find themselves in something more like "The Dick Van Dyke Show," where Wanda kind of has graduated to the daring capri pants - also "The Brady Bunch." They're pretty sparing with explanations of exactly why Wanda and her beloved synthezoid - that is a word I learned today from Glen...

WELDON: Yeah. You did.

HOLMES: ...Synthezoid - are in this particular format, but in the meantime, they work through some kind of wacky sitcom plots - the neighborhood talent show, Vision's boss coming over to dinner, the two of them have to impress him - that kind of stuff. The supporting cast includes Teyonah Parris as a character whose exact role here is still working itself out, I would say, and Kathryn Hahn, who plays nosy neighbor Agnes in ways that obviously vary in tone and style a little depending on what TV decade Wanda and Vision are in. Glen, you wrote about this show for NPR. I want to go to you first. How did this strike you as a TV adaptation for these characters?

WELDON: I mean, the first thing that struck me is it makes a lot of sense, right? This is the first MCU property of this next phase for television, so it ends up being an homage to television - makes sense.

HOLMES: Yeah.

WELDON: And also, Wanda and Vision are a classic Marvel couple, but they didn't get a lot of screen time in the mainstream MCU on the movie screen. So, yes, let's put them on TV, and let's trap them into a domestic sitcom. The challenge for the show, though, is that that premise - we're trapped in the TV, oh, no, we're trapped in a vintage domestic sitcom - that's been done a lot in and out of the comics, in and out of superhero fiction.

But the gamble, it strikes me, that the show is taking is that, yes, we can let the audience be way ahead of the characters. We can take our time doling out what's actually going on if we totally commit to the execution of this sitcom world, if we pay painstaking attention to not just the production design and not just the costumes and sets and wigs, although very that - we can talk about the score, too. Stephen, I'm curious what you think of this incredibly period-appropriate score - but to the sensibility of the era of the sitcom in question. So that's about the affects of the characters, how they hold themselves in a room, how they cross the screen, the way that Agnes kind of lets her arms float at her side and extends her pinkies all the time in the pilot episode, which was filmed before a studio audience, giving it even more verisimilitude - or the opposite of verisimilitude because, of course, these sitcoms were not about America as it was. They were about the stories that America was telling itself about itself.

But the thing about this is what they're doing is very hard to do. It's not a parody. They're not making fun of these things. The first episode is basically a "Dick Van Dyke Show" spec script. The second episode is basically a "Bewitched" spec script. So the corniness of the jokes are not being made fun of so much as they're trying to be reproduced. And the thing that struck me about that is how will that jibe with what's going on with Wanda's character? OK, there's evidence in the first two episodes that she's complicit in whatever's going on, so is she processing her grief? Is she being used by some malevolent force?

If those questions turn out to have nothing to do with all this sitcom stuff going on, if it's just another little, you know, thing that they have to overcome or she has to overcome, then it's going to feel like so much window dressing, right? I want it to have something really intrinsic to do with Wanda. I'm not convinced we're going to get that because we don't know too much about Wanda. We didn't get much of her on the screen and the big screen.

HOLMES: Yeah.

WELDON: And we're not getting much of her now because there's so many wacky high jinks she's dealing with. So I am wait and see, but I like what I'm seeing.

HOLMES: Yeah. I do want to say we've already contradicted ourselves a little bit in that Glen read the first episode as "Dick Van Dyke." I read the second episode as "Dick Van Dyke" and the first episode as "Leave It To Beaver"/"Donna Reed." The second one is where you kind of get a drier humor from Wanda, a little more modern, a little more of what they considered modern at the time of "The Dick Van Dyke Show." But there's also - I absolutely agree - there's "Bewitched." So they don't necessarily always map one-to-one.

WELDON: Right.

HOLMES: I think you get different things, but they feel, at the same time, very true. Daisy, where did you come out on this one?

ROSARIO: Well, it definitely gave me those Nick at Nite vibes that everyone was talking about, not that - you know, those shows didn't exist before that, but at my age group and all, that was certainly what I thought of.

HOLMES: I hear you.

ROSARIO: And, I mean, I would say I enjoyed it. I also was like, what is happening? And I don't know that it overall works for me. But what did work for me, I think, was that these are two actors, both Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, who obviously have been in the bigger movies, but, as Glen points out, like, we haven't learned as much about their characters. These are two actors that I like a lot that I have felt are underused within the MCU movies, and I think that the fun that they seem to be having and how committed they were to playing these tropes as these characters is what made it enjoyable for me.

I also want to point out that we were able to see three episodes, and I don't know that I would have felt as good about it overall if I hadn't seen the third episode. I found some of the stuff that comes up in the third episode helpful in terms of giving me a sense of confidence that there is something bigger that they will be playing to and that they're not going to just kind of be doing this nonparody parody thing.

HOLMES: Right.

ROSARIO: But it was really the performances that I think really won it out for me. I mean, Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen is just so fun in this. They seem like they're having fun in this, so that aspect of this, I think, is what carried me through. I don't know that that will carry me through nine episodes, but it was enough to get me interested to start.

HOLMES: Right. And we should mention that third episode is essentially "Brady Bunch" down to the - not just the fashion but also the kind of the architecture of the house, the style of the property where they live. Stephen Thompson, what did you think of "WandaVision"?

THOMPSON: Yeah, I agree strongly with Daisy that the third episode started to give me a little more confidence that they were going somewhere with this. I spent the entire first episode like, man, this is really spot on, but what am I watching? And why do I care? Knowing that they're going somewhere with this does help it along.

You know how when you forget to water a hanging plant and then you dump a bunch of water in the top and the water just floods through and, like, smashes against the floor with absolutely no resistance? That is me and my ability to retain the plot points of Marvel movies.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: I have seen, like, 70 hours of Marvel movies, and I can barely tell you who these people are.

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: That kind of put me at a disadvantage here. I felt a little left out at times. There are nods to the inner workings of some of that, like, macroplot of the Marvel movies. So for me, I kind of spent these first - especially the first couple episodes admiring the way they were doing the show more than I enjoyed the show. You know, Glen kind of touched - you mentioned the scoring. The score is absolutely impeccable. The set design is impeccable. The nods to different shows are really, really spot on, and kind of the more you know about classic television, the more you can kind of appreciate it.

I still am not hooked into it emotionally in any way, shape or form, in part because I feel like these people got about four minutes of screen time in the, like, 7,000 hours of Marvel movies.

HOLMES: Yeah. You know, it's funny. I enjoyed these a lot, and I think part of the reason I enjoyed them was that I was not terribly concerned about what was the overarching superhero plot going to be. I saw these really as a character piece, particularly the first two of them, because they're not just in sitcoms, right? They're in domestic sitcoms that represented a specific idea of normalcy - right? - exaggerated normalcy, and you hear them talk a lot between the two of them about trying to fit in, trying to be normal.

So to me, it was really a lovely idea to place them in these kind of exaggerated, you know, can you fit into this very rigid idea of normalcy? And the answer is sort of sometimes yes, sometimes no, right? But to see these characters who have these very specific reasons why they are unusual - right? - or not, quote-unquote, "normal," placed in the position of trying to, you know, adjust to this I found really fun.

I also think just the pleasures of the cast that they have assembled - Debra Jo Rupp and Fred Melamed play Vision's boss and his wife, who are sort of very, very typical kind of '50s and '60s boss and wife, but at the same time, they're both wonderful actors who bring this kind of underlying weirdness to those performances that I think is really terrific. And of course, Teyonah Parris, who I always love in everything - I don't know yet exactly what that character's doing here. By the end of the third episode, you have a better idea of some of what's going on with her, maybe. But especially, I think, Kathryn Hahn - seeing Kathryn Hahn kind of massage and play with this idea of the nosy neighbor - I have a little clip of Kathryn Hahn. This is the first time that you see her when she comes and meets Wanda, who's just moved into the neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WANDAVISION")

KATHRYN HAHN: (As Agnes) Oh, hello, dear. I'm Agnes, your neighbor to the right - my right, not yours. Forgive me for not stopping by sooner to welcome you to the block. My mother-in-law was in town, so I wasn't.

(LAUGHTER)

HAHN: (As Agnes) So what's your name? Where are you from? And most importantly, how's your bridge game, hon?

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: When you've seen Kathryn Hahn in a bunch of other roles, including a lot of dramatic roles, you know that this is coming from a very knowing and skilled place as an actor. And I think for her - I noticed this about her and also Elizabeth Olsen, that Agnes in all these episodes is still the nosy neighbor, but you can see in both Olsen and Hahn specifically the way that sitcom acting is kind of bending in style a little bit within - even though it still is this very kind of hunched domestic ideal. If you watch Elizabeth Olsen in episode one versus episode two, that Mary Tyler Moore gets a little more the Mary Tyler Moore of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and a little less the (laughter) Mary Tyler Moore of "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: I loved watching this. And I found the pleasures of its kind of oddity plenty to make this really, really fun for me, whether or not I ever come to understand what in the heck they're doing with the superhero plot.

WELDON: Yeah, it is really an American studies seminar on the sitcom as cultural barometer. And it's really smart about the subtle shifts between the late '50s, early '60s and the much less subtle shifts between the late '60s and early '70s. But something down to the special effects. In that first episode, there's recipe cards floating around her kitchen and it's clearly on fishing wire. The fishing wire has been painstakingly modern marvel CGI-ed out, but that stiffness of it all remains because that's what it's going after. It's really smart...

HOLMES: Right.

WELDON: ...And admirable. But again, I'm not sure if it's going to connect.

ROSARIO: I mean, there's so much detail. And I want to agree with, you know, so much of what Linda said. I think what you're saying about the characters and Kathryn Hahn - I love Kathryn Hahn so much. Like, I crush on her professionally, and she's beautiful. I love Kathryn Hahn. And it's also that thing where, you know, it feels like the Chekhov gun thing. It's like, you pulled out Kathryn Hahn. Like, where are you taking this?

(LAUGHTER)

ROSARIO: 'Cause Kathryn Hahn is a big gun to be pulling out to be, like, the friend neighbor in this.

HOLMES: Yes.

ROSARIO: So, you know, in that sense, I'm excited about those things. And, you know, to Glen's point, as well, the detail, I mean, it's just - that was - things were really, really fun. I don't know that I'm going to enjoy those for nine episodes - is the thing.

HOLMES: Yeah, yeah.

ROSARIO: But boy, do I like all the performers in this and everything that they're doing.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I echo everything everybody's saying about Kathryn Hahn, who I always love in everything. I do think this is a show - and I'm sure there are many reasons to dole this show out. You know, they dropped two episodes the first week, and then it's it's rolling out weekly. To me, I don't feel the momentum to follow this show from week to week the way I might feel momentum to follow this show from episode to episode in a bingeing situation. I don't know if I'm feeling the pull back to come back and have this show doled out to me quite like that.

HOLMES: See - I do because I want to know what they're going to do. I want to know if it's going to be like, is it "Family Ties?"

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Is it going to eventually be "Everybody Loves Raymond?" Like, I really, really want to know what they're doing. And that part does keep pulling me back. So the first three episodes, by the time you hear this, are available on Disney+. Let us know what you think. Find us at facebook.com/pchh. Or tweet us at @pchh. When we come back, it's going to be time for our favorite segment, What's Making Us Happy This Week. So don't go away.

Welcome back to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. It's time for our favorite segment of this week and - let's face it - every week, What's Making Us Happy This Week. Glen Weldon, what is making you happy this week?

WELDON: "Come To Daddy" is a comedy/thriller/horror movie. It is also, be forewarned, a nasty piece of work. Elijah Wood is this kind of insufferable LA poser who goes out to visit his estranged father at his very remote and very gorgeous cabin on the Oregon coast. And their first conversations start out in a very standard issue, daddy issue, indie fare. But it's very cutting and very smart and weirdly tense at the same time. And then everything all just goes to hell. And the film keeps throwing things at you and at its main characters. And it ends up in this really bloody but really funny place, and a beloved character actor shows up randomly. So I think you can tell from this description this movie is not for everyone, but you might be able to tell from that description if it's for you. It's called "Come To Daddy." And it is streaming on Prime.

HOLMES: Oh, thank you very much, Glen Weldon. I think it is not for me...

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: ...But I think it will be for many of the people listening to this show (laughter). I know nothing about it except what you just said because that - you are an economical describer of things. All right. Daisy Rosario, what is making you happy this week?

ROSARIO: Well, I was very happy with the new season of "Ru Paul's Drag Race UK."

(LAUGHTER)

ROSARIO: Let me emphasize that I mean the U.K. version. So the second series of "Ru Paul's Drag Race UK" is available for streaming on the World of Wonder app. It is otherwise not something that is easily found. If you are a regular "Ru Paul's Drag Race" fan, as I am, and have been since the beginning, you may have noticed that the regular U.S. version season is back. And it has not been easy. I'm not enjoying it. And goodness gracious, do we all need joy during the pandemic. So I've been like, hey, show that I've loved forever, why are you letting me down? But luckily, "Ru Paul's Drag Race UK" has shown up to be all of the things that I love about the show and really likeable characters so far. Just really fun. It's just a really, really strong start. I highly recommend if you are like me, and like many that I've seen online, already a little disappointed with the way that the most recent season, season 13 of "Ru Paul's Drag Race" has started, get on over to the U.K. version, which is, so far, just really, really stellar and really, really fun.

THOMPSON: Daisy, is there a RuPaul surrogate in "RuPaul's Drag Race UK," or does RuPaul come over?

ROSARIO: RuPaul is there themself. I think, you know - I think at this point, it's like, "Canada's Drag Race" didn't have Ru, and so it was called "Canada's Drag Race."

THOMPSON: Got you.

ROSARIO: I guess it seems like they use Ru's name when Ru will actually appear, and so Ru has apparently flown to London or did at the time. So yes, Ru is there with Michelle Visage in tow, so it's all the elements you miss.

HOLMES: Awesome. Daisy Rosario recommending "RuPaul's Drag Race UK."

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Thank you very much, Daisy. Stephen Thompson, what is making you happy this week?

THOMPSON: A couple of weeks ago, during a particularly trying time in American history, a Twitter user named Anna Tang (ph) tweeted me a recommendation for an album called "Still Life" by a Japanese pianist, composer and producer named Haruka Nakamura. It is solo piano. It is so warm and soft and muted and twinkly. I cannot tell you how much this album has calmed my nerves at a time when a nerve-calming agent is maybe the most important thing that you can find, at least culturally speaking. It is so beautiful. Let's actually hear a little bit of a track called "17:00."

(SOUNDBITE OF HARUKA NAKAMURA'S "17:00")

HOLMES: I think my shoulders dropped an inch just listening to that.

THOMPSON: That is exactly the reaction that I've had to this record. You can stream this album in its entirety on Bandcamp. I actually streamed it on Bandcamp so many times that Bandcamp sent me an alert that was basically like, you've streamed this a lot. Perhaps you'd like to try buying it...

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: ...Which I will say I dutifully did. It is a little pricey but worth every penny. He is at harukanakamuraofficial.bandcamp.com. We can throw a link into the PCHH Newsletter. Boy, I recommend this album so, so highly, and it already has a sequel. There is a "Still Life II" that you can also stream on Bandcamp. He's wonderful.

HOLMES: Fantastic. Thank you very much, Stephen Thompson. From the completely opposite end of the spectrum, in terms of what you find soothing and relaxing, I want to recommend the 1974 thriller "The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three," directed by Joseph Sargent, who is not, like, the world's most famous director, just a very, very busy, kind of journeyman director, I think - did a ton of television, a ton of movies. This one stars Robert Shaw as the head of a gang of criminals, takes over a New York City subway train, holds everybody hostage, wants money. Walter Matthau plays the lieutenant from the transit police who is stationed at the control center, communicating with the criminals on the radio. The rest of the gang includes a bunch of great actors. Hector Elizondo is sort of the most dangerous and scary one, which for me is a shift based on what I knew of Hector Elizondo.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Martin Balsam is the one who kind of used to be a subway motorman, so he knows the system. And Earl Hindman, who played the neighbor Wilson on "Home Improvement," is also one of the criminals here. It's a very simple idea in the same way almost that "Speed" is. This was remade once as a TV movie. It was also remade as a theatrical movie in 2009, where Denzel Washington played the Walter Matthau character, and John Travolta played the head of the criminals. But they complicated the plot a lot in that remake. I really greatly prefer the stripped-down plot of the original. It's not too grim and gruesome. Obviously, there is some violence due to the nature of the story, but it's not kind of gratuitously bloody all over the place. I also think the presence of Walter Matthau is so important. He kind of leavens this a little bit in the same way as almost like Peter Falk in "Colombo," this kind of very slightly dry humor about dealing with criminal, bad people.

So you can rent "The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three." Make sure you're getting the 1974. You can rent it in your - a lot of your favorite streaming rental locations. I do recommend it as a thriller that is very tense and exciting, not too terribly heavy or grim. Makes a good Friday night picture, as our friend Bob Mondello would say. And that is what is making me happy this week.

That brings us to the end of our show. If you want links for what we recommended, plus some more recommendations that are exclusive to the newsletter that I write every week - it is my baby - subscribe to that over at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. That brings us to the end of our show. You can find all of us on Twitter. You can find me at @lindaholmes. You can find Glen at @ghweldon. Stephen is at @idislikestephen. Stephen and Daisy is at @RunDMR. You can find our editor Jessica Reedy at @jessica_reedy and our producer Candice Lim at @thecandicelim. You can find our producer Mike Katzif at @mikekatzif - K-A-T-Z-I-F. As always, Mike's band HELLO COME IN provides the music that you are bobbing your head to right now. So thanks to all of you for being here.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

ROSARIO: Thank you.

WELDON: Thank you.

HOLMES: And thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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