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What ‘WandaVision’ Gets, and Doesn’t, About the Power of Television

WandaVision’s” first episodes introduced a few new things to the Marvel universe: Both an aggressive willingness to play with style, and the power of metaphor. The show nestled in close to Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) as she dreamed herself and her family into universes that looked a great deal like hit sitcoms of the past. This hopscotching through the medium made it look, for a time, prescient that “WandaVision” was the first of Marvel’s shows to launch on Disney Plus, even if that was simply by accident (COVID had previously delayed the launch of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”). This entry into television was about television — with Wanda’s adventures in the tube starting with “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and culminating, in a recent episode, with “Modern Family.” That a young woman who spent her girlhood in a war-torn Eastern European nation has broad and deep knowledge of the contours of television history speaks, perhaps, to the dominance of American culture, and its ability to shape our dreams.

As its season comes to an end Friday, it’s hard to imagine “WandaVision” having a second life on par with the shows Wanda envisions. There’s a lot to commend about this series: Its shows-within-a-show device, depicting the varying ways Wanda has used imagination to create, by force of will, a perfect universe where her love Vision (Paul Bettany) is still alive, demonstrates real ingenuity. And the pitch-perfect execution of tones not native to the Marvel universe is evidence that, when they want to, Marvel really can stretch. But when we’re experiencing Wanda’s own reality and not the one she invents, “WandaVision” is overcome with a flatness that suggests why the borrowing was such an appealing idea in the first place.

There’s nothing wrong with knowing one’s audience,

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