Before Wanda and Vision welcomed the world into their routinely remodeled home, there were a lot of questions surrounding the MCU’s first Disney+ original series.
“So it’s a TV show… that’s part of a film series?”
“If it’s about superheroes, why does it look like an old sitcom?”
“This is streaming, right? So what’s the deal with releasing one episode per week?”
“WandaVision,” the nine-episode investigation into how Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) copes with the lasting effects of the “Avengers” movies, practically begs viewers to figure out what it is; at first, it looked like another big, glossy, franchise ushered in by the industry’s collective pivot to streaming, like Amazon Prime Video’s “Jack Ryan,” Netflix’s own Marvel shows, or “The Mandalorian” before it. As studios and distributors looked to own their own shows instead of licensing from others, there was an additional investment in IP-mining, which put Disney and its streaming service, Disney+, in a prime position to dominate.
In a lot of ways, “WandaVision” fits that model. It’s valuable IP, wholly owned by Disney, and serves as an essential part of the MCU’s expanding universe; it could end up being just one more piece of Peak TV’s puzzle. But it’s not a clean fit.
The show’s weekly rollout, half-hour format, and hybridization of classic TV sitcoms and modern mystery-box shows stand in defiance to what we’ve come to expect from streaming TV. How many modern shows can rely on fans tuning in every week? How many are 30-minute action-dramas? How many are built into a universe that previously only debuted in cinemas? Each answer results in a smaller number.
If “WandaVision” is the endgame of the Peak TV Era, a unique amalgamation that’s adapted beyond its predecessors, that means it’s also the start of something new. The pandemic halted scripted TV’s growth streak for the first time in more than a decade. New streamers are succeeding without drowning customers in content, and they’re putting a big-time investment in movies again.
In moving past Peak TV, “WandaVision” and Disney+ are ushering in the Throwback Era, a time of pushing TV forward while simultaneously looking back. Consider these calling cards:
- the weekly release model is on the rise (which used to be the only way TV was released)
- even more intellectual property is being revived (which relies on old movies and shows for new material)
- over the next few years, there could be less content — which, granted, may be the pipe dream of an overworked TV critic, but not all streamers can or should be a one-stop shop for entertainment, and Disney+ has found a model that works
“WandaVision” cleverly incorporated all three, and its perceived success makes it reasonable to expect more shows will follow suit. If enough people believe the “WandaVision” hype, the show could alter streaming TV moving forward, from how it’s made to how much is made.
The IP Explosion
Courtesy of Disney+
Take, for instance, the intellectual property at the show’s core. Disney+ has already invested heavily in more shows based around popular features, series, and characters. After suffering serious financial fallout during the pandemic, the company went IP-insane during its neverending Investor Day in December 2020, greenlighting 10 Marvel series, 10 “Star Wars” series, 10 Disney live-action, animation, and Pixar series, as well as 10 Disney live-action, animation, and Pixar features.
These announcements came before “WandaVision” premiered, and the O.G. Disney+ original, “The Mandalorian,” deserves all the credit in the world for helping launch the service to 90 million subscribers (and counting). Jon Favreau’s “Star Wars” story set the release strategy for its successors, too, debuting half-hour episodes that rolled out weekly.
Its success has already inspired a Throwback Era strategy shift. Paramount+, the new iteration of CBS All Access from parent company ViacomCBS, is betting big on its library of intellectual property. The streamer’s February presentation promised new versions of “Frasier,” “Criminal Minds,” and “Spongebob Squarepants,” plus TV adaptations of movies like “Flashdance,” “Love Story,” “The Parallax View,” and “The Italian Job.” HBO Max, WarnerMedia’s streaming service, is set to roll out an extended version of its 2017 superhero bomb, “Justice League,” in March, while building shows around the active DC universe with “Green Lantern.” Over at Amazon Prime Video, there’s a little show called “The Lord of the Rings.” IP is everywhere you look, and it has been for a long time — but the emphasis on expanding libraries from within is intensifying.
“The Mandalorian” would definitely be part of the Throwback Era, but it’s almost too ingrained in its IP to inspire copycats. Much like many will say “WandaVision” was only a hit because it’s part of the MCU, one could argue “The Mandalorian” only drew subscribers because it’s a “Star Wars” TV show (and, you know, Baby Yoda) — but “WandaVision” has another thing going for it: “WandaVision” is very weird. There are sight gags about superpowers scored to ’50s theme music. There are beekeepers crawling out of suburban sewers, and pregnancies that go full-term in a few days. It’s not an action extravaganza a la the MCU movies, nor is it a complete pivot to traditional TV, prioritizing character over spectacle and people over plot twists.
As in life, weird can be good. When something outside the norm takes off, the entertainment industry tends to take notice. Over the past few decades, our collective cultural obsessions have jumped from sensitive New Jersey mobsters to island-bound smoke monsters to incestuous, perpetually warring medieval families. All of those weird shows were hits, and they all spawned copycats. “The Sopranos” introduced the dark and gritty dramas that would populate prestige TV. “Lost” made the mystery box series mainstream. “Game of Thrones” brought world-building blockbusters to TV.
“The Mandalorian” may be the long sought-after “Game of Thrones” successor, but it’s only weird in the sense that everything in the “Star Wars” universe is a little weird. (Not every show has a little green child eating frogs.) Any creative leeway Disney gives to Justin Simien for “Lando” or Leslye Headland for “The Acolyte” is likely due to Wanda’s success more than Mando’s. Had audiences totally balked at the first few episodes of “WandaVision,” the corporate reins over its precious IP would likely have tightened.
Technically, they still could, since one key question won’t go away: Is “WandaVision” really a hit? Some may say, “Of course! Just look at Twitter!” True enough, the anecdotal evidence points to a huge launch: Various analytics firms have offered data supporting the show’s in-demand status, “Agatha All Along,” a 60-second ditty about Kathryn Hahn’s villainous character, topped iTunes, and the internet is ablaze with news, theories, reviews, interviews, and more, designed to feed a huge audience hungry for more “WandaVision.” But only Disney+ knows how many people are actually watching, how many are sticking with it week to week, and how many will binge the whole show when it’s over. We can’t even trust the old outsiders’ hack for measuring success — renewals — since “WandaVision” was planned as a one-and-done limited series.
It’s also worth noting that “WandaVision” could be the hottest show streaming and still not be landing a weekly audience as big as broadcast’s highest-rated series. Anything with the MCU plays well online, so it makes sense for website traffic and social media metrics to skyrocket, but are 15 million people watching every week? 12 million? 10? Topping those numbers would put “WandaVision” on par with “NCIS” (CBS), “This Is Us” (NBC), or “911” (Fox), respectively, and those are only their averages for live viewers. Previous TV gamechangers, we knew (more or less) how many people were watching. Ratings were provided by third-party sources and touted by the networks.
For “WandaVision” to inspire more weird shows within Disney+, the numbers have to add up. But outside Disney+, what matters is perception. A buzzy new show helps attract new subscribers, and subscriber-growth is the big metric for measuring streaming success. Traditional TV needs high viewership to up the price on commercials. Streaming TV needs demand to lure subscribers — then, it needs hits to keep them.
The Re-emergence of Weekly Premieres
Enter another element of the Throwback Era: the weekly release model. One surefire way to keep subscribers is to give them must-see content every week. Netflix does this by releasing multiple new shows, specials, movies, and more at a dizzying rate. But that’s pricey. Most streamers want to take a more curatorial approach, offering only as much in-demand content as will justify their monthly fees.
Disney+ may be prepping a fleet of original series, but it’s not on the same scale as Netflix. During that epic Investor Day, Disney+ announced 63 titles to be released between 2021 and 2024. More will be added, but not enough to match the 371 original shows and films Netflix put out in 2019. Disney+ is likewise upping its original content budget each year, topping out at $8-to-$9 billion in 2024. But by then, Netflix is on pace to spend three times that amount.
It’s clear Netflix and Disney are trying to win the Streaming Wars in different ways, and if the latter is going to succeed, it will need weekly episodes to work as well as they appear to be working for “The Mandalorian” and “WandaVision.”
That’s not exactly an easy ask. Streaming devalued the individual episode by prioritizing more content. After Netflix set the streaming standard by releasing full seasons all at once, it created a culture obsessed with setting their own viewing schedules. Hulu dabbled with various release patterns — premiering two or three episodes before going weekly or otherwise batching releases — but only a few programs broke through, like “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Cable and broadcast shows like “The Walking Dead” and “This Is Us” mainly kept event TV alive during the streaming takeover, and with “Westworld,” “Big Little Lies,” and “Sharp Objects,” HBO shouldered more than its fair share of the weight. Many eulogized watercooler TV when “Game of Thrones” aired its finale in May 2019. But less than six months later, there was “The Mandalorian,” driving weekly conversations as steadily as it drew in Disney+ subscribers.
So what’s it take for weekly releases to succeed? Won’t fans accustomed to watching when they want, for as long as they want, get irritated? So long as the show is built for a weekly release, that risk is minimized. Take “The Mandalorian.” It’s basically a Saturday morning cartoon, or a film serial, so its weekly releases work fine. Its spectacle, being the top-tier special effects or Baby Yoda’s cute new mannerisms, keep people coming back.
“WandaVision” works in a similar fashion, offering style, easter eggs, and aberrations, though a closer look at its structure reveals flaws that could have been fatal for another weekly show. Over two weeks and three episodes, the show spent 90 percent of its time telling fake sitcom stories, without explaining why it was telling them. MCU fans, by and large, knew what was going on and just wanted more clues to fit their theories for how the series would unfold. Twists (like Agnes’ secret identity) were predicted. Head fakes (like bringing mutants into the MCU) were called out. Audience satisfaction came from confirming heavily researched theories — the weeklong wait was rewarded by a good grade on your homework.
Still, the timing always feels a little off. “WandaVision” treats character development like a mystery, as well, which is as weird a route to take as it is a risky one. Each small crack in her fake reality might feel disproportionately large to longterm fans MCU, who have been living with Wanda’s trauma as long as Wanda has, but to anyone else, it could feel like she was trapped behind a wall; as if she was the mystery, waiting to be revealed, rather than a person we were getting to know better each week.
That’s often how movies are made. Catharsis is held back until the very end. But TV tells much longer stories and demands a different structure. It thrives on an intimate connection between viewer and character, so restricting that connection for eight weeks is a gamble — here, it paid off because the MCU is just that popular. When asked at a recent TCA panel about the different approach to MCU movies and MCU shows, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige said, “The short answer is we don’t distinguish it too much.” “WandaVision” showrunner Jac Schaeffer, in an interview with IndieWire, said something similar about why this story had to be a TV show. “I can’t imagine [‘WandaVision’] as a movie because we really require the television aesthetic in order to break it.”
Using the “aesthetics” of TV to mimic episodic structure and treating series like long movies may work for MCU favorites like “WandaVision,” but similar attitudes won’t pass muster with less bulletproof properties. Amazon Prime’s “Lord of the Rings” series won’t be the next “Game of Thrones” if it feels like an even longer version of Peter Jackson’s director’s cuts. (Though, even I might not complain if it did.) All those Paramount movies about to become Paramount+ TV shows won’t have a universe to fall back on, just one popular film. And you better believe Peacock’s “Battlestar Galactica” is going to be wild.
Courtesy of Disney+
More Tentpoles, Less TV
One of the more brilliant choices Disney+ made with its tentpole shows was building them with half-hour episodes. The House of Mouse isn’t the first to recognize the potential in a drama series made from smaller parts. “The Girlfriend Experience” on Starz, “Homecoming” on Amazon Prime, and even Elizabeth Olsen’s short-lived Facebook Watch show, “Sorry For Your Loss,” all told serious stories at a length typically reserved for comedies.
Most of those decisions were made to better serve the story. So far with Disney in the Throwback Era, it seems more like a financial choice. “The Mandalorian” has made two, eight-episode seasons, totaling around five hours each. “WandaVision” is one, nine-episode season that should run closer to six hours. Feige has said that’s the “sweet spot” for his Disney+ originals, and six hours is much less than the standard season of television expected by American audiences. On broadcast, “This Is Us” pumps out 18 hourlong episodes a year. Cable still hovers around 10-12 for its drama series, and streaming originals are all over the map, but “Ozark,” “The Crown,” and “The Umbrella Academy” (none of which are cheap) all ran 10 episodes in Netflix’s latest seasons.
And yet, those drive conversation for a few weeks or so, while “WandaVision” has taken over television for months. Combining the weekly release model with half-hour episodes mean each project takes up more of the calendar with less content. Three MCU shows can lock in subscribers from January through mid-July, sans interruption. “WandaVision” can lead into “Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” which can lead into “Loki.” If Disney had followed the Netflix model — playing the content game by releasing full seasons at once — it would have had to produce more shows to fill the gaps.
HBO Max, Paramount+, and Peacock could easily follow a similar gameplan as Disney+ and focus on shorter episodes, weekly releases, and thoughtful IP expansion, all of which would result in fewer original series. Like Disney, these legacy brands can get by with fewer originals because of their massive inherited libraries, which new media like Apple and Netflix don’t’ have. But if the MCU can work on TV, why not the DCU? “Frasier” aired weekly half-hour episodes before, why not try it again? Even Amazon Prime Video, which recently invested in weekly releases for “The Boys” Season 2, should be asking if doing the same would help “The Lord of the Rings.”
There are a lot of questions facing television’s Throwback Era. A further increase in IP brings fears of further homogenization. Will new programs be happy to copy past hits, or will they find their own paths forward? Less content could mean less diversity in storytelling as well as who is telling those stories. Will the end of Peak TV limit the scope of television, or will the progress made during all those Golden Ages persevere?
For “WandaVision,” the answer is just, “yes.” There’s a lot to be excited about and a lot to be scared of within the Disney+ blockbuster. Maybe it will inspire big swings from future storytellers. Maybe it will encourage more mining of old stories. Maybe both. TV will continue to evolve — even when it looks like the past.
“WandaVision” is streaming now on Disney+.