‘WandaVision’ Is the Quintessential Quarantine Show

Marvel’s latest hit is relentlessly overhyped, but it’s perfect for our Covid reality

Photo: Marvel Studios/Disney+

Just before the one-year anniversary of Covid-19, I started watching It’s a Sin. The widely acclaimed miniseries, by Queer as Folk creator and former Doctor Who showrunner Russell T. Davies, is about young men living through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. I only ever had a child’s-eye view of those years: I volunteered at the local AIDS hospice in middle school and sat through school PSAs about how one mistake could kill you, but I never shared the terror or grief of adult gay men, who were losing boyfriends and friends and mentors in massive numbers. It turns out that immersing yourself in that perspective as an adult, during a different pandemic, is overwhelming.

With It’s a Sin, Davies brilliantly weaponizes the tropes of the twentysomething coming-of-age comedy, putting us at our ease with this ragtag family of kooky kids just before sucker-punching us with their horrible deaths: “What no one will remember is how fun it was,” says one man on his deathbed. It’s hard to calm down after an episode in which the shyest and sweetest character, who we thought was a virgin, dies in hideous suffering as the result of his one and only sexual experience. So, in an effort to settle, I tend to follow each episode with something lighter. I watch It’s a Sin, and then I watch WandaVision.

The story follows Wanda, an all-powerful witch who has retreated into her own personal happy place — old sitcoms — after the deaths of her brother and husband. Using her powers to create an alternate reality, Wanda is able to bring both men back to life. Each episode, up to a point, is a recreation of the sitcom style of a certain decade: A black-and-white 1950s domestic farce, an ’00s mockumentary, etc. It all makes for maybe the quintessential quarantine watch.

The series would be clever in any year. The evolving TV representation of sitcom wives — the women getting increasingly more independent, their marriages becoming increasingly less idealized — is mirrored, in each episode, by Wanda’s growing acknowledgment of her own power and the corresponding disintegration of her fantasy marriage. Kathryn Hahn turns in an endlessly meme-worthy performance that reminds you she’s the most watchable actor of her generation. Yet it seems clear that WandaVision’s success mostly comes down to how well it reflects the cultural moment. For better or worse, it’s a show about a woman retreating into a fantasy of safety and security to avoid the real world’s onslaught of death and trauma, and it premiered at a moment when that’s all most of us are doing.

WandaVision’s “old TV” aesthetic is likely the reason it pierced so many people’s bubbles. Speaking for myself, most of the television I’ve watched in the past year is, in fact, years or decades old — Hannibal, Deadwood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and most of it is stuff I’ve watched many times over, just as I seem to have stopped listening to music that came out after I left high school. I’m not the only one drawing heavily from the nostalgia well: Casts of sitcoms and old movies are regularly meeting on Zoom to rehash their greatest hits, and the frictionless, soothing beige future of Star Trek: The Next Generation has enjoyed a major revival. A Nielsen survey found that 54% of people started rewatching old television shows since the coronavirus hit. Our brains are collectively too stressed out to absorb new information, and it’s easier to retreat into a memory of a simpler and less frightening time.

People who loveWandaVision’ aren’t making an aesthetic statement so much as expressing gratitude that these shows can meet them where they are.

If we do take on new stories, we like them to be as low stakes and unchallenging as possible. Vox critic Emily VanDerWerff has written about the rise of “comfort TV,” low-stakes, conflict-free sitcoms like Ted Lasso or Schitt’s Creek, which have gotten huge viewing boosts in the past year. These shows, she writes, “feel at once familiar and new, like you’ve already seen this story and are simultaneously discovering its delights for the first time.”

Perhaps nothing fits that description better than a meticulous recreation of sitcoms many of us first caught on daytime TV when we were children. WandaVision combines the ease of a rerun with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s built-in predictability: These are some of the most well-known characters of the past decade, just slotted into different settings. There’s no element of surprise, just a set of familiar components rearranged in a different order from week to week.

The pre-Covid me would have mocked all this. They would have told you that art is supposed to challenge you; they would have bemoaned the dearth of original genre fiction and the proliferation of mega-franchises. I like Schitt’s Creek, but “comfort TV” is usually a wash for me — I turned off Ted Lasso after the first episode because I found Ted’s relentless niceness annoying — and the cynic in me can’t help but feel WandaVision is overhyped. It’s clotted with unnecessary Marvel references, it over-explains every last thing (did we really need multiple scenes in which Wanda explains that she likes sitcoms because no one dies or gets hurt?), and its much-hyped exploration of grief is not much deeper than a Hallmark card. Every screenwriter in the world did not, in fact, whisper a jealous “fuck” at this line about “grief [being] the perseverance of love,” because it is, in fact, an extremely common platitude offered to bereaved people.

It’s a platitude bereaved people need to hear, though, and all of us are in a state of collective grief right now. The impact of Covid-19 on our collective mental health is so large that it’s hard to see: Most of the time, I think I’m fine, but on several recent grocery store trips, I’ve started to hyperventilate and get dizzy because the store is too crowded. My three-year-old started the pandemic as a remarkably even-tempered child. Now she throws huge tantrums at bedtime, yelling that we’re going to disappear overnight and that we won’t be there when she wakes up. We’ve all been afraid — for our lives, for our jobs, for our families — for a year now, and the strain is showing. Regression makes for bad art, but it’s a completely understandable response to trauma, and people who love WandaVision or too-nice TV aren’t making an aesthetic statement so much as expressing gratitude that these shows can meet them where they are.

Which is all to say: If you really want to watch a show about grief — or fear, or trauma, or mismanaged pandemics — you should be watching It’s a Sin. It’s a better piece of art. It will probably make you a better person, or at least a more educated one. Yet when I switch over to WandaVision after It’s a Sin, I don’t feel bad for going easy on myself. I need a way to feel safe and somewhat distracted from the horrors around me. I built a little cocoon of known, predictable pleasures, because in a pandemic, unpredictability lives next door to death, and any new information is potentially world-ending. I’m doing what people do: staying warm and secure, building a fake world I can survive in until it’s safe to engage with the real one once again.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Columns published far and wide across the Internet.

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