After saving the world from annihilation twice over, super-powered Avengers couple Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) find themselves contemplating an entirely new set of problems in new Disney+ Hotstar Premium series WandaVision — how to host the perfect dinner party, adjust to a 9-to-5 job and prepare for the birth of their twins. Now living in American suburbia, surrounded by neighbours who have no idea who they really are, the two strive hard to maintain the illusion of normalcy. And what could convey wholesomeness more effectively than the classic American sitcoms they decide to model their behaviour on?
Described as “a love letter to the golden age of television”, each of WandaVision’s nine episodes takes place in a different decade, beginning with the 50s. Changing title credits reference classic sitcoms such as Bewitched, a laugh track becomes a staple in some episodes and fake advertisements (“ToastMate 2000: the go-to for clever housewives”) pop up to reflect the spirit of that era.
“The show is this amazing blend of so many different genres, tones and styles. It’s romance, it’s a puzzle-box mystery, it’s obviously big Marvel, there’s large-scale action, there’s comedy. And it beats with a really strong heart,” says director Matt Shakman, whose previous projects include Game of Thrones and Fargo. He spoke about what it took to nail the sitcom’s decade-hopping aesthetics:
The research that went into it
“We did all the research you could possibly imagine, from watching tonnes of old television — which, I have to say, is the best and easiest kind of homework because I love those shows — to reading behind-the-scenes books about the making of those shows, watching all the documentaries we could find. If you go to Amazon and look up ‘books on the history of sitcoms’, I own them all. I have books on the greatest episodes of all time, the sitcoms of every era, even handbooks of certain shows. We watched a lot of The Brady Bunch, especially the episode where they renovate the house. We even tracked down the special effects people who worked on shows like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, just to get any wisdom from them. We talked to (actor) Dick Van Dyke. We looked at DVD versions of old shows but didn’t know how faithful they were so we searched for old film prints of those episodes to find out what TV looked like back then. We wanted to make sure we were as dialled in to those eras as possible.
Shooting each episode in the style of the era it’s set in
The first episode was shot in front of a live studio audience because that’s how I Love Lucy was filmed and how Dick Van Dyke would film his shows. There’s really no substitute for the adrenaline that you get from putting on a show in front of a live audience. The comedies of that era were infused with that live energy. Then later, when you get Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, there’s a laugh track that’s added in because they shot those shows the way we shoot films now — on set, with single-camera setup, no audience. You couldn’t really do all the special effects and the magic that those shows required with an audience there. Then in the 80s, they got back into the style of having an audience there with shows like Family Ties, Full House. So we adjusted our shooting styles to be as authentic to those cultural touchstones as possible.
Organizing a ‘sitcom bootcamp’ for the actors
With the actors, we did this wonderful sitcom bootcamp, where we all got together for a couple of weeks. It was meant to be rehearsal time but it was also a chance to just watch episodes and talk about comedy and its different styles and tones. We looked at not only how comedy changes but also how performances of comedy change and how what people think is funny changes over time. We were all trying to get to the same thing — a grounded, truthful comedy, comedy that feels like it’s talking about our everyday lives, which is what’s so wonderful about family sitcoms. They talk about our own experiences.”