Warning: Spoilers for the first half of WandaVision follow.
I remember the weekend Stranger Things season one was released by Netflix. Having heard nothing about this new show, Netflix’s recommendation algorithm slapped it onto my screen and I (liking the 80’s movie poster artwork) clicked Play. I watched the whole eight episode first season in a weekend.
Over the following weeks and months I saw more and more people began to discover Stranger Things, and the series became a cultural hit. But it was difficult to talk to people about the show, because everyone was somewhere different in the series. Some people were just starting it, some people were in the middle, some people were finishing it. And you had no idea where anyone else was in relationship to your own viewing. You were just as likely to spoil something as be spoiled if you discussed the show with anyone.
As Netflix continued releasing new seasons of shows like Stranger Things, Daredevil, and Bojack Horseman at midnight, this risk of being spoiled by a stray tweet or overheard breakroom chat become more likely — unless you finished the season first. Many TV bloggers and die-hard fans stayed up into the early morning hours watching every episode of a new season in a massive, eye-straining binge session.
This Netflix binge model was the best way to watch TV for some viewers — the classic cliffhanger lasted not a week, but however long it took Netflix to auto-play the next episode. I remember watching shows on broadcast TV like Gilmore Girls and Lost, and having to wait an entire week to find out what happens next — and sometimes an entire summer to find out Who Shot Mr. Burns! But those breaks between episodes — days or weeks or months — allowed for discussion and speculation with friends and co-workers on what we’d seen and what we were anticipating. I don’t think I realized then just how much Netflix robbed us of those shared social moments.
Of course, as Netflix continued to release entire seasons in a single night, traditional television continued broadcasting on a weekly basis. As a cord-cutter I missed the weekly releases of shows like Game of Thrones until HBO Now began streaming them simultaneously with the cable broadcast. Before streaming became the norm, I had to wait for the season to release on a disc.
But it wasn’t long before the other, non-Netflix streaming services had exclusive series of their own. One of the first streamers to break the Netflix all-at-once release model was Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Hulu premiered the first three episodes on the same day, but at the end credits of episode three it felt like hitting a wall. Viewers would now be forced to wait a week to see the next episode. That was a tough sell on Hulu’s part: After years of Netflix giving us the beginning, middle, and end all at once, now we were being told to wait.
For companies like Hulu and Apple TV+, releasing weekly episodes gives their paying customers a reason to resubscribe for another month. Each year I pay for about two or three months of CBS All Access to watch Star Trek and then cancel the subscription when the season ends, but if they released all episodes on the same day, I’d pay for just a month, watch everything in a week, and cancel the subscription. CBS makes a couple of extra bucks off me each year by using the weekly release schedule, and that’s fine. I actually prefer weekly episodes.
I find it easier to remember the show or previous seasons if I haven’t binged them over a weekend. (I also like not being held a prisoner of my own addiction, but that’s admittedly a me problem.) It helps to have something to look forward to at the end of the week, too — a decade ago, this might have been Friday Night Magic; during a pandemic it’s a pizza and a good TV show (or movie!). And I simply like getting to live in these worlds a little longer than if I’d streamed the whole series in a few days. This post wouldn’t exist if everyone had followed Netflix’s example.
Which brings me to WandaVision: the epitome of the weekly release. We’re only five episodes — just over the halfway point — into WandaVision, but I can’t stop thinking about last week’s episode and craving next week’s episode. It’s been like this for the last four weeks, and the show just keeps getting better. Of course, Disney+ has been releasing weekly episodes of their original series since day one: They started with The Mandalorian and the wonderful theme park documentary series, The Imagineering Story by Leslie Iwerks.
WandaVision has taken us through four decades of television sitcoms, from The Dick Van Dyke Show to Bewitched to Family Ties to Malcolm in the Middle, with commercial breaks and catchy theme song opening credits. Each episode is a new decade (with an episodic interlude from the present day as the all-star B-list humans try to solve the mystery of Westview) that includes laugh tracks and meta-references to the MCU itself. WandaVision shouldn’t work as a weekly episodic television show, except a solid decade of MCU films has earned it the trust and patence of the audience. We know we’re halfway through the season, and we also know the really unbelievable thing still hasn’t happened yet.
Although ninety percent of WandaVision is filmed like a sitcom, the show is carried by movie star talent Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany. Both reprise their roles from the MCU films (with Bettany staring in the MCU since the very beginning as Jarvis in Iron Man), moving seamlessly from cheesy punchline to creepy apprehension to subtly threatening. Wanda is dealing with anger and grief from the events of Infinity War and Endgame and even Age of Ultron, building off half a decade of character building to create a show unlike anything else in the MCU.
WandaVision works because everyone — the cast, the producers, the fans — is heavily invested. I am a huge MCU nerd (see: A Brief History of Spider-Man in Cinema) and I’ve read many of the comics involving Wanda and The Vision. Watching the series, I feel like WandaVision was made for the kind of nerd I am, who enjoys seeing how all the moving parts fit together between the massive Endgame cinematic experiences and the more intimate story of Wanda and The Vision. I know that series director Matt Shakman has a deep appreciation of classic television sitcoms and comic books. And Olsen said during a 2015 interview while promoting Age of Ultron that her favorite Scarlet Witch storyline from the comics was “House of M,” and when asked what she would like to see next for Wanda, she predicts WandaVision: “If she could have two fake babies and everyone tell her that they don’t really exist and then just go nuts — that would be unbelievable but I don’t think they’re going to do that, it might be a little too dark for the Marvel Universe. When she loses her mind, it’s my favorite thing in the comics.” Olsen not only knows her character’s comics history but was also spoiling WandaVision half a decade before it was filmed. And now Olsen is playing out her favorite character moments from the comics.
WandaVision is an unusual type of TV show, and it’s also an extremely good TV show. But the real triumph of WandaVision is we’re still talking about the show weeks after it premiered — and we’re going to continue to talk about it for the next several weeks as Disney+ continues to release new episodes. WandaVision didn’t invent or re-invent the idea of weekly TV episodes, but the show has embraced the concept wholeheartedly and I hope weekly becomes the norm in TV again. We get to share this journey together as Wanda “loses her mind” in just 40-minute increments each Friday, then spend the entire week writing, tweeting, TikToking, and sharing wild theories about the meaning of an X-ray or an X-Man. We get to live in this strange and uncanny world of sitcoms and superheroes for eight weeks — together. When was the last time we got to do anything together, Marvel fans? This is the best way to watch TV, and I hope we never go back to weekend binging.