Taking the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the (sitcom) suburbs

The new television show WandaVision is set in the suburbs portrayed on earlier sitcom TV:

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With “WandaVision,” Feige said that he had wanted to honor the complexity of the title characters and Wanda’s reality-warping abilities but also to leaven the story with tributes to sitcom history…

The series finds Wanda and Vision — now somehow alive — residing in suburban bliss, not entirely sure of why they are cycling through various eras of television history and encountering veteran Marvel performers like Kat Dennings (as her “Thor” character, Darcy Lewis) and Randall Park (reprising his “Ant-Man and the Wasp” role of Jimmy Woo) as well as new additions to the roster, like Teyonah Parris (as Monica Rambeau) and Kathryn Hahn (playing a perplexingly nosy neighbor named Agnes)…

“You enter a sitcom episode with the understanding it’s going to make you feel good and it’s all going to be OK at the end,” said Schaeffer, who also worked on “Captain Marvel” and “Black Widow.”

What “WandaVision” adds to this formula, she said, is an element of “creepiness — the idea of shattering that safety in a calculated way.”

In a recent post, I summarize scholarly work on television depicting the suburbs. It sounds like this new show tries to do something new but it might just fall into already existing patterns.

The suburban sitcoms of the 1950s are often portrayed as providing a common image: the white nuclear family living happily in a single-family home. The episodes revolve around relatively minor issues that are resolved at the end of the show.

By the 1960s, there were some twists to this theme. Lynn Spigel writes of new television characters who provide an edge to the typical suburban image. Think Samantha on Bewitched who with her magic powers and odd relatives provides a new angle to the suburban sitcom.

In the late 1990s, more shows looked to push the suburban sitcom in even further – and often darker – directions. Take The Sopranos: from the outside, the family has the look of a successful suburban family living in a large McMansion in an upscale community. But, of course, the secret is that the gains are ill-gotten and the attempts to find happiness in this suburban lifestyle never coalesce.

Indeed, this darker approach to the suburban sitcom has an extended history in other mediums as well with novels, films, and other narratives suggesting something similar: the suburbs are not what they seem. These products offer a critique of the the suburbs where the American Dream is not what it seems, where all the suburban striving does not amount to much or falls apart spectacularly.

While I have not seen WandaVision, the narrative arc may then fall into familiar territory: the suburban household with a twist or dark secret is already an established genre. These may be new characters in the suburbs and it may be an expansion of the Marvel Universe but it remains to be seen how much new suburban ground it really treads.

Miming playing an instrument is not an easy task

My academic department recently put together a lip sync video of “Blue Christmas.” For part of my time, I played the alto saxophone.

I first took up the instrument in middle school and played regularly through college in band, marching band, and pep band. Even with this familiarity, miming playing a song was difficult. I did not know what key it was in. I could move my fingers to the music and go up or down when needed but this does not mean I was close to the right notes. As a musician, it felt strange. (Yes, if I had a little more time I could have figured out the key of the song and transposed for the saxophone.)

I have thought about this numerous times before with television shows and movies when they depict people playing instruments. Since I play piano and can strum a few guitar chords, these performances especially catch my attention. For piano, they often show separate shots of playing the keys and the person sitting at the piano with their hands hidden. For guitar, you can sometimes see which chords are being played or see the strumming patterns. But, this too can be hidden or obscured.

All of this reminds me that musicians like the Beatles sometimes had to mime playing their instruments on television because of particular rules. In these situations, I assume professional musicians with all of their training could play without sound. In music (and much of the rest of life), practice makes perfect, even if it is not a full performance.

Perhaps the normal viewer does not think about this much. This may matter more in films where music is at the heart of the story but if you do not watch too closely or the shots do not really show much, any issues may not be noticeable. The music generally sounds fine, regardless of what the musicians on screen is depicted as doing. And if people want to see musicians play, there are many fine music videos and recorded performances available for viewing. Still, this ended any dreams I might harbor of adding saxophone to numerous lip syncing videos – I will need to leave that to the professional musicians and cinematographers.

The Simpsons portrayed a (rare?) comfortable working-class family life

If television helps provide viewers reference groups to compare themselves with, The Simpsons suggests working-class Americans can have a decent life:

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The 1996 episode “Much Apu About Nothing” shows Homer’s paycheck. He grosses $479.60 per week, making his annual income about $25,000. My parents’ paychecks in the mid-’90s were similar. So were their educational backgrounds. My father had a two-year degree from the local community college, which he paid for while working nights; my mother had no education beyond high school. Until my parents’ divorce, we were a family of three living primarily on my mother’s salary as a physician’s receptionist, a working-class job like Homer’s…

The Simpsons started its 32nd season this past fall. Homer is still the family’s breadwinner. Although he’s had many jobs throughout the show’s run—he was even briefly a roadie for the Rolling Stones—he’s back at the power plant. Marge is still a stay-at-home parent, taking point on raising Bart, Lisa, and Maggie and maintaining the family’s suburban home. But their life no longer resembles reality for many American middle-class families.

Adjusted for inflation, Homer’s 1996 income of $25,000 would be roughly $42,000 today, about 60 percent of the 2019 median U.S. income. But salary aside, the world for someone like Homer Simpson is far less secure. Union membership, which protects wages and benefits for millions of workers in positions like Homer’s, dropped from 14.5 percent in 1996 to 10.3 percent today. With that decline came the loss of income security and many guaranteed benefits, including health insurance and pension plans. In 1993’s episode “Last Exit to Springfield,” Lisa needs braces at the same time that Homer’s dental plan evaporates. Unable to afford Lisa’s orthodontia without that insurance, Homer leads a strike. Mr. Burns, the boss, eventually capitulates to the union’s demand for dental coverage, resulting in shiny new braces for Lisa and one fewer financial headache for her parents. What would Homer have done today without the support of his union?

The purchasing power of Homer’s paycheck, moreover, has shrunk dramatically. The median house costs 2.4 times what it did in the mid-’90s. Health-care expenses for one person are three times what they were 25 years ago. The median tuition for a four-year college is 1.8 times what it was then. In today’s world, Marge would have to get a job too. But even then, they would struggle. Inflation and stagnant wages have led to a rise in two-income households, but to an erosion of economic stability for the people who occupy them.

This critique hints at broader patterns of how television depicts the working class. The 2005 documentary Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class discusses how television tends to minimize the difficulties of working class life. The Simpsons fits some of these patterns: Homer still somehow keeps working despite his mistakes and anti-intellectualism, the family does not really get ahead, and the family seems happy-go-lucky. Shows with working class characters rarely challenge the economic and social systems that constrain working class Americans.

Similarly, The Simpsons falls into the mold of many sitcoms in television history where there are happy endings and the characters end with good relationships. Despite all the controversy about the show in its early years, the show is at its heart a typical sitcom. While the show does poke fun at many people and aspects of American life, at its basis is a loving nuclear family living in a single-family home with Homer having a steady job. The Simpsons is not a critique of working class life in the United States. Perhaps the portrayal of Mr. Burns best critiques the systems that keep the Simpsons in place.

One place for wiggle room in this critique may be the location of Springfield. The show has been very careful to not reveal where Springfield is within the United States. Homer’s income might be meager but cost of living does differ by region.

When television shows help interpret history

What responsibility do television shows have to accurately depicting history? Take the case of The Crown:

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Historical dramas might similarly warp our attitude toward history, encouraging us to expect that cause and effect are obvious, or that world events hinge on single decisions by identifiable individuals. Academics have been trying to demolish the great-man theory of history for more than a century; television dramas put it back together, brick by brick.

What matters here is that we are having the right arguments about these ethical and dramatic decisions, not lobbing grenades at each other from opposing trenches of the culture war. Reasonable people can disagree over artistic license and the writer’s duty of care to her or his subjects. And none of this would be an issue if so many people didn’t love The Crown. Dowden is right to argue that the show is so popular that its interpretation of history will become the definitive one for millions of viewers.

That is something Netflix could mitigate, if it wanted to. Not with a pointless disclaimer, but with an accompanying documentary, rounding out the stories told in the drama. (There is a Crown podcast, featuring Morgan, but I mean something packaged more obviously alongside the main series.) There is certainly an appetite for one: Three unrelated Diana documentaries now clog up my Netflix home screen, and newspapers have published multiple articles separating fact from fiction.

Ultimately, it is not illegitimate to create narratives out of real lives. In fact, a good historical drama has to do so. But when we talk about the monarchy, modern Britain, and the legacy of divisive politicians like Thatcher, The Crown should be the start of a conversation, not the last word.

Television, and mass media more broadly, has the potential to shape how people udnerstand the world. This is not only because people find it a compelling window to the world; the sheer amount of time Americans spend watching TV on a daily basis means that television depictions have at least some influence.

Given this, it is interesting to consider whether Netflix and other producers and distributors of television should do more to depict history accurately. How possible is this? Here are a few problems that might arise:

  1. Balancing a historical drama with an accompanying documentary might help. But, documentaries are also told from particular points of view. And how many viewers will watch all of both?
  2. History is an ongoing narrative. The Crown comes from a particular point of view in a particular time that may or may not with other depictions before and after. Imagine some time passes after Queen Elizabeth dies and another director with a different vision comes along – how different is the story in facts and tone?
  3. Other mediums could present different realities in different ways. History often requires working with a variety of sources, not just visuals. How about at least giving viewers additional resources to consult?
  4. How much should TV viewers know or be expected to know about particular phenomena they observe?

Public understandings of history, academic understandings of history, and other interpretations of history have the potential to interact with and shape each other. How exactly The Crown helps shape the ongoing conversation about the monarchy, Queen Elizabeth, and all the involved actors remains to be seen – and studied.

Three Soc 101 concepts illustrated on Big Brother

Many television shows could (and have) been mined for sociological content. Big Brother is no different. Here are three concepts:

https://www.cbs.com/shows/big_brother/
  1. Houseguests talk about having “a social game.” This roughly means having good interactions with everyone. A more sociological term for this might be looking to accrue social capital. With so many players at the beginning, this might be hard: simply making connections, talking to a variety of people, discussing strategy, contribute positively to house life. But, this social capital can pay off as the numbers dwindle, people show their different capabilities, and the competition heats up. It could also be described as the ability to manipulate or coerce people without others hating you, particularly when it comes down to the jury selecting the winner among the final two.
  2. Connected to the importance of social capital are the numerous social networks that develop quickly and can carry players to the end. The social networks can be larger or smaller (ranging from two people up to 6 or more), some people are in multiple networks (more central) while others may be in just one or none (less central), and the ties within networks can be very strong or relatively weak. At some point in a season, the overlapping or competing networks come into conflict and houseguests have to make decisions about which network commitments to honor – or reject.
  3. There are plenty of instances where race, class, and gender and other social markers matter. A typical season has a mix of people. Relationships and alliances/networks can be built along certain lines. Competitions can highlight differences between people. The everyday interactions – or lack of interaction between certain people – can lead to harmony or tension. Some people may be more open about their backgrounds outside the house, others are quieter. With viewers selecting America’s Favorite Houseguest, there is also an opportunity to appeal to the public.

There is more that could be said here and in more depth. Indeed, a quick search of Google Scholar suggests a number of academics have studied the show. Yet, television shows are accessible to many and applying sociological concepts can be a good exercise for building up a sociological perspective. Even if the world does not operate like “Big Brother,” this does not mean that aspects of the show do not mirror social realities.

Considering what we know about the broad sweep of suburban TV shows

An Atlas Obscura piece on Levittown begins with a summary of suburbs on television:

gray scale photo analogue of television

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From the air, the homes fan out like intricate beadwork. For decades, America’s suburbs have been a popular setting for television shows, from Leave It To Beaver* to Desperate Housewives, chronicling entertaining trivialities against the backdrop of meticulously shorn lawns, the drifting smoke of barbecues, the infrastructure of cars and roads: a pleasantly domestic—but fraught—version of the American dream.

There is no doubt about the claim in the second sentence: “America’s suburbs have been a popular setting for television shows.” Today, television viewers can still find new suburban sitcoms that play with the 1950s formula (actually begun in radio) of a happy nuclear family with plenty of resources working through entertaining yet relatively low-level issues. And as noted at the end (and developed by numerous scholars – I would recommend starting with the work of Lynn Spigel), the television image of suburbs was too pleasant and reinforced a well-off white image of the suburbs.

At the same time, I have published two articles on television in the suburbs and they contribute to a more complicated story of suburbs on television. In my article “From I Love Lucy in Connecticut to Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane: Suburban TV Shows, 1950-2007,” I find that suburban-set shows never dominated the most popular American TV shows. Although such shows might be familiar, common, and live on in memories connected to a different era, they are not the only places Americans see on television. Take as one example the Brady Bunch: it may have been watched for millions in syndication, it may have particularly influenced younger viewers, and it had an iconic house but it never was a Top 30 television show. The suburban TV show is well-known but how influential they are is debatable.

Similarly, more recent suburban TV shows have truly tweaked the format. Lynn Spigel points out that twists to the typical format started early on while more recent shows feature suburban lifestyles from a different point of view (thinking of Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, and American Housewife off the top of my head). I wrote “A McMansion for the Suburban Mob Family: The Unfulfilling Single-Family Home of The Sopranos” and considered this critically-acclaimed and popular show set in suburban New Jersey. It has a similar set-up to 1950s suburban shows – the successful white nuclear family living in a big suburban house – but ultimately suggests all of this is an illusion as Tony Soprano’s mob dealings undergird and undercut the family’s attempts to live a normal suburban life. The Sopranos is not the only show to do this; others feature other family structures, deviant behavior, and alternative routes into and out of the suburban dream.

At this point, have television shows covered all of the stories of American suburbs? No. Is there still a typical format? Yes. Have creators played around with the typical format to present other stories? Yes.. Do Americans want to watch suburban TV shows? Yes and no.

Seinfeld on the suburbs (and city)

I have watched a few episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. I recently saw the opening episode of Season 4 where Jerry Seinfeld talks with Sarah Jessica Parker that included Seinfeld discussing the suburbs:

I grew up in the suburbs, didn’t like it — always wanted to live in the city. Now, I want to live in the suburbs.

This could be the story of many Americans. Jerry Seinfeld was born in 1954, the era of a postwar population boom and mass suburbia. Millions grew up in new and expanding suburbs organized around single-family homes and driving. At some point, Seinfeld was drawn to the city where I’m guessing comedy and entertainment possibilities beckoned. His iconic television show Seinfeld revolved around quirky New York characters doing city things. Yet, whether he was in the suburbs or cities, he wanted to be elsewhere.

Seinfeld’s line in the episode is enhanced both three features of the episode: the 1976 Ford Squire station wagon Parker owns and loves, the discussion Parker and Seinfeld have about their growing up in the suburbs (with Parker just outside the suburban Baby Boomers but sounding like she had some similar experiences), and they drive out of Manhattan to the suburbs.

This could simply be the case of the grass is always greener on the other side. Seinfeld and Parker seem caught up in some nostalgia about simpler times. Or, it might hint at a larger conundrum in American life for many residents: is the suburban or urban life preferable? The big city offers cultural opportunities, jobs, unique communities, and often an urban identity. The suburbs offer private space, perceived safety and opportunities for kids, the American Dream.

There may even be places that offer some of both. New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and numerous other major cities offer urban residential neighborhoods that have single-family homes where urbanites can escape to private dwellings and still be close to the urban excitement. Or, there are some suburbs, often inner-ring suburbs, with denser residences and downtowns, that feel more lively than the stereotypical suburban bedroom community.

This also gets to the crux of Seinfeld as a show. While it was massively popular and helped lead to a run of popular television shows on network television in the 1990s, Seinfeld’s quote above makes me wonder: is it a critique of cities or is it a celebration of them? Just as the characters turn out in the series to now be nice people, how does New York City fare in the end? The individual characters are not happy or content people; is this because of their personalities (the types that would never be happy anywhere) or is it provoked by the setting? Jerry lives in the city but the city always presents problems, from people who get in their way to unusual settings.

Even though these might just be television shows and personal memories, how these are later interpreted – positive sentiments regarding the suburbs or city? – can later influence whether Americans pursue a suburban or urban future.

The most McMansiony residence on Modern Family

Adding to earlier posts on the details of the three primary residences on Modern Family and the way the show was successful even with three McMansions, this post considers which home is the most McMansiony.

https://www.housebeautiful.com/design-inspiration/house-tours/a23472261/abc-modern-family-house-design/

To make this decision, I am working with the four traits of McMansions I developed: size, relative size, poor architecture/design, and a symbol for other American problems.

The Pritchett House: this is the biggest home at over 6,000 square feet. The relative size is hard to judge since the neighboring homes are almost never seen (I cannot recall seeing them). The home is built in a modern style with big windows and some strange angles. There is a good-sized pool in the backyard. With its size and design, the home could definitely be considered for the wealthy and Jay Pritchett is a successful business owner.

The Pritchett=Tucker home is in a more Mediterranean style (title roof, stucco, balcony, some arched windows and an arched doorway). There is a round turret in the middle with the doorway. Cam and Mitchell have the least space (since they only occupy the first floor on the show). Again, we do not have much of a sense of the surrounding neighborhood since other homes are rarely shown. This is easy to select as the least McMansiony home, at least as presented on the show as a oe story dwelling.

The Dunphy home is nearly 3,000 square feet and built to look like a traditional home with its white picket fence, covered entryway, and front entrance that leads to a hallway as well as a staircase to the bedrooms upstairs. The home seems to fit in of what we see of the neighborhood; we see more of the Dunphy neighborhood than any of the other homes. Phil and Claire are portrayed as typical parents who with three kids are just trying to help their kids be successful and keep their sanity at the same time.

Based on my definition and what we see on the show, I think the home of Jay and Gloria Pritchett best fits the bill of a McMansion. It is large. All that space for a family of four. (When the whole family gathers there, it looks like they all fit easily.) It is the most expensive of the homes. It has newer features plus a pool. The architecture is unique though not necessarily garish – this could depend on one’s view of more modernist homes. As the patriarch with his second family, Jay clearly has plenty of resources (and there are other hints of this on the show as well).

Perhaps a more interesting question is whether the Dunphy home is really a McMansion. It is a larger than average home. It costs quite a bit, though this is due more to its metropolitan market and its location. The home does not look garish on the outside; the proportions may be off, the entryway covering is large, and there are multiple gables but it does not scream ostentatious. Furthermore, the show does not portray the family as evil or overly-wealthy McMansion owners; they are a typical sitcom family. Given all of this, I am on the fence about calling this home a McMansion even as a majority of Americans could not live in such a home in that real estate market.

More on the McMansions on Modern Family

Following up on yesterday’s post, here are some more details on the main residences featured on Modern Family and which one I think qualifies as the most McMansion-y. (This post draws on “Stalking from Los Angeles: Houses from Modern Family” – denoted as SfLA below, House Beautiful – denoted as HB below, and the Modern Family Wiki – denoted as Wiki below.)

  • Phil and Claire Dunphy’s house.

“Phil is the only one working in the Dunphy family and as a realtor he’s doing very well. The Dunphy house is worth almost $1.8 million, according to Zillow.com.” (SfLA)

“Phil and Claire’s house is a little more traditional, almost as if it’s ripped directly from an early 2000’s catalog. And that was exactly the goal: The space is supposed to be very comfortable and lived in, with a vibe that’s “Pottery Barn meets Restoration Hardware,” production designer Richard Berg told Architectural Digest back in 2012.” (HB)

“It is a detached, suburban home with two living rooms, kitchen/dining room, 2 bathrooms, 4 bedrooms, and a garage. Outside it has both a front and back garden with a trampoline.” (Wiki)

  • Jay and Gloria Pritchett’s house.

“According to Zillow.com Gloria and Jay’s house in Brentwood is currently worth more than $8 million. This 6,359 square foot (590 square meters) single family home has 5 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms and a pool.” (SfLA)

“Fun fact: That exterior is an actual, two-story house in Los Angeles’s Brentwood neighborhood, though most of the filming is done on a soundstage. The Modern Family production team had built “80 percent” of the set before finding the perfect house to serve as its exterior, so they had to go back and change its windows and layout to match, Berg said.” (HB)

“It seems to be the largest and grandest house of the three families, as Jay earns a lot of money from his job. Contains 2 floors, a living room, 1 kitchen, 3 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, and a garage…Outside there’s a front garden and a huge pool that is first seen in “The Incident“, and is frequently seen ever since…The real house is located in Brentwood, 15 minutes away from the house used for Mitch and Cam. There is a whole extra wing of the house that is not show in the shots of the house for the show.” (Wiki)

  • Mitch Prichett and Cam Tucker’s house.

“Cameron’s and Mitchell’s house is very near to the Dunphys (well, for L.A., of course). Their house has 4 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. Its worth: $1.3 million (source: Zillow.com).” (SfLA)

“Mitchell and Cameron’s apartment, with its villa style and ivy snaking up the walls, definitely caught people’s attention. It’s a little more romantic, and even though their home would mean settling for less square footage (they live in the ground-floor apartment of the two-story, technically), their interiors tend to be a little more upscale and collected over time. “We saw the couple as being new to the parenthood plateau and fresh off the plane from years of travel and singledom,” Berg told the magazine.” (HB)

“Unlike The Dunphy House or The Pritchett House, it only has one floor, the upstairs is open for rental, revealed in Slow Down Your Neighbors. Their floor contains a living room, 1 kitchen, 1 bathroom, 2 bedrooms, and a garage. It is revealed in “Mistery Date“, that Lily’s bedroom was previously Mitchell’s home office, but they had to give it up for her room. Outside it has both a front and back garden..” (Wiki)

In summary:

The homes are all large and expensive, located near each other west of downtown Los Angeles, are meant to reflect the characters that live there, and have recognizable exteriors that are then recreated on sets where the interior scenes are shot.

Tomorrow, I will compare how the features of each home match up traits of McMansions. In other words, which Modern Family dwelling is the most McMansion-y?

Modern Family a successful TV show for taking place in McMansions

McMansions do not have a positive reputation yet they can serve as the primary setting for popular television shows. For example, Modern Family had a successful run and featured three large homes:

The path of the mockumentary series arcs from a trailer park in Nova Scotia to a McMansion in Los Angeles. In 2001, the Canadian cult comedy Trailer Park Boys inaugurated a soon-to-be-ubiquitous style of show: deliberately messy, handheld camera work paired with confessional interviews and presenting scripted fiction in the style of candid reportage. In 2020, the ABC megahit Modern Family wound down after 11 seasons and 22 increasingly aggravating Emmy wins. Between those two events lies the rise and fall of a genre that was not reality TV, but came up alongside it and echoed its conventions.

Since the rest of the article is more about mockumentaries as a genre than about the residences of main characters in such shows, I will go on the McMansion tangent regarding Modern Family. Here is what is unique about the McMansions on the show:

1. The McMansions are not objects of derision or mockery. The genre may lend itself to this but Modern Family sought to end episodes and story lines with feel-good family togetherness. The characters were portrayed as goofy or quirky suburbanites who otherwise lived normal lives. The McMansion is the center of family life and good things result for the family that lives there. (Compare this to many recent portrayals of troubled families that live in McMansions – see examples here and here. Or, consider the McMansion on The Sopranos.)

2. The homes are all clearly large and their architecture is unique in different ways: Cam and Mitchell’s home has a turret (and supposedly has an upstairs apartment), Jay and Gloria’s home is more modernist, and Phil and Claire’s home tried for a traditional look. In other words, the show displays the variety of McMansions.

3. These are not just large homes; they are expensive homes in an expensive housing market. The Dunphy home went on the market several ago with a price tag over $2 million. The homes are portrayed as normal yet the houses are not within the reach of many viewers.

4. There is little doubt that Modern Family was successful: 11 seasons? 22 Emmys? A long life in syndication? And it happened even with the consistent presence of McMansions, homes critics would say symbolize all sorts of large American problems. Did the show work in spite of the homes? Was it all just one big wink and nod about the characters and their homes?