The big reveal - what's the best moment for a TV show to reveal it's secrets to the audience?
Contains minor spoilers for WandaVision, now streaming on Disney+...
The Marvel Cinematic Universe's first 'phase 4' release has certainly hit big when it comes to managing fan expectations. Wandavision has been a largely critical success, with a loving homage to TV sitcoms of the ages, a powerful performance from the two leads Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, lots of MCU Easter eggs and returning stars and some big twists - not least the game changing cliff-hanger to its fifth episode and the return of a very different twin brother. It's been the perfect blend of water cooler TV, a deeper exploration of two MCU characters, while also offering something very different to what has come before it - and we're not just talking about it being the first TV show to be part of the continuing MCU storyline.
Part of what has made Wandavision should great television has been the weekly release schedule. Sure it took two episodes for the strangeness to really set it, but that's why Disney+ gave us both at once to start us off. Would the switch to life outside Westview in episode four, or the big moment at the end of episode five have had the same impact, had all nine episodes been released at once, as is often the case with streaming shows? Probably not. In the age of internet spoilers, we would all have known about Pietro or Monica's link to the wider MCU before most of us had had a chance to finish episode one. These little drip feeds of Wandavision each week have made it must see TV.
And yet, there have been a few online complaints in the last couple of weeks. Who is the big bad? What is really going on with Pietro? Is Monica's contact Reed Richards from The Fantastic Four? It seems there are those who aren't patient enough to wait eight weeks to see the whole story play out. Should it matter that we don't have all the answers straight away? Isn't the fun the tease of seeing events unfold, pulling us into the mystery alongside Darcy, Monica and Jimmy? WandaVision isn't designed to be a multi-season show where mysteries might take years to be revealed? And after twenty-three films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, isn't it more exciting to have something different? Perhaps too different is a risk, after all, had the Covid-19 pandemic not impacted everyone, WandaVision would have followed the more classic-looking Black Widow and The Falcon and the Winter Solider in the release schedule. (Personally, I think phase 4 is off to an even more exciting start with this show coming first).
So we don't have all the answers, though the latest episode gaze us a doozy of a reveal, so that might help to quell some of those complaints. Regardless of whether we have a big bad or not - it's okay not to have all the answers. It's okay for WandaVision to be just a little bit different.
Perhaps, however, the problem lies with the fact that we've all lost a little a patience, particularly when it comes to the TV landscape. Too many shows have dragged its big mysteries out for what seems like aeons, never really giving audiences satisfying answers after all the dust has settled. Battlestar Galactica teased the Cylon plan from the start, but did it really meet those excitement levels? TV movie Battlestar Galactica: The Plan was an attempt to answer those mysteries, with middling results. Did the government conspiracy / alien invasion threads that ran through the history of The X Files make sense? After all, they mytharc kept changing, to the point when fans can't remember if it was all wrapped up. (It was, in sorts, mid-way through season six). What was the real purpose of the island in Lost? At their heights, these are all terrific shows, but they all ended with something of a decisive grumble. Answers were never really answered, even if there are episodes that suggested otherwise. Looking at Lost, it's easy to see why so many shows failed to recapture its magic; audiences were no longer patient to wait years for answers, only to be disappointed.
There's also the unspoken acknowledgement that the writers were making it up as they went along. The same with the mytharcs of The X Files and Battlestar Galactica. It meant that the big reveals weren't laid out as a roadmap in advance, carefully revealed at just the right points, rather coming during 'sweeps' episodes and season cliff-hangers ("we have to go back to the island" came at just the right moment to save Lost, similar to the reveal of the final five in Battlestar Galactica or Mulder's abduction in The X Files). At the same time, several seasons in, audience patience was already tested by years of drip-fed information.
Maybe then, that's why there are some complaints about WandaVision. I might not agree with them, but I understand them to a degree. People don't want to wait ages for answers. Even with the fact that the show has only been designed to be an nine-episode limited series, there are fans that don't want to get burned by a disappointing conclusion. Furthermore, Disney+, as a streaming service, is not necessarily playing by the rules established by the like of Netflix and Amazon. We haven't had all nine episodes dropped at once for audiences to digest - or binge - at their leisure. They have to wait. Perhaps they are not content too.
It also raises that age old question; how long do you leave it before your big reveal? WandaVision has played that tension nicely. It gave us long enough in the ever-changing sitcom world of Wanda Maximoff and Vision, before taking a look at how this crazy set of events was connected to the wider MCU. It gave its big jaw-dropping moment at the end of the fifth episode, just as we were being swept back into the continuing sitcom narrative back in Westview. Episode seven just turned things on its head at the perfect moment; any sooner and it would have taken the edge of one of the show's biggest mysteries.
Of course, being a limited series run, WandaVision has had the luxury meaning arc-driven shows have not. It is not going to have six seasons, no matter how popular it is. Arguably, Lost suffered because of its popularity; just look to season three for evidence on how quickly the innovative flashback formula dragged the show down. It's lack of momentum is what drove the writers to change pace with seasons four through six, having an ending years before the finale to build towards. Regardless of how satisfying that ending was, there is no denying the excitement and energy in the show's second half. Battlestar Galactica fared better, by keeping to four seasons. Had Chris Carter stuck to his plan of five seasons and then a movie franchise, perhaps The X Files would have delivered a more satisfying conclusion to its story arc.
There is the other side of the coin. Twin Peaks' momentum dropped off a cliff after Laura Palmer's killer was revealed mid-season two. The rest of that season was a shell of its former self and even a thrilling ending could not save it from cancellation. It took twenty-five years to come back - far longer than The X Files - and even then David Lynch took the opportunity to tell a very different story as revolutionary as when the show began. Even then, he kept the big reveals - Diane, the return of Dale Cooper - loaded to the back end of the season for maximum effect.
Perhaps Supernatural got it right; it wrapped up its apocalyptic storyline at the end of its fifth season, having layered a number of big reveals during that run. While still immensely popular (I was a fan to the end), it never had the momentum of those first few seasons, choosing - wisely - to result to season-long big bads for the most part rather than launch a multi-season narrative again in its later years.
Within seasons, playing your hand too soon can sap the show of its momentum. Did The Flash season two loose its momentum with the reveal of big bad Zoom just a few episodes into its run, compared the the later, arguably more successful mid-season tease of Reverse Flash in season one? Leave it too late, and the audience might give up, play your reveal too soon and the pay off becomes a whimper. Maybe again, WandaVision works because it only has nine episodes rather than 22. We certainly wouldn't have gotten that Pietro reveal in episode five if the show was more than twice as long.
What's the best moment for a TV show to reveal it's secrets to the audience? It depends on multiple factors. Having a shorter length and a planned limited season run certainly helps WandaVision. It doesn't need to keep the audience coming back season after season with the tease of bigger things to come. After eight weeks, we'll have all the answers. Perhaps then, audiences just need to have faith. This isn't another Lost of The X Files. It's also far shorter than the likes of The Flash. The reveals are coming, even if they might not be what we expected. But from what we've seen so far, I'm not expecting to be disappointed...