'WandaVision' and how Disney+ makes weekly TV an unmissable event
Watch: Clip from WandaVision
*** This article contains spoilers for the second season of The Mandalorian **
In May 2019, the final episode of Game of Thrones aired, provoking a firestorm of online discourse on a number of fronts. One of the few things on which just about everybody agreed was that this was the end of an era for broadcast television. Thrones was event TV in the purest sense of that term, with almost everybody choosing to watch it “live” — including those of us in the UK staying up until the wee hours to watch it and therefore avoid spoilers. Nobody was saving Game of Thrones to watch it all in one go over a lazy weekend. The excitement — and the spoiler stakes — were just too high.
For a while, the received wisdom of Thrones as an unusual throwback held firm. Netflix had long traded in “binge viewing”, ever since House of Cards delivered 13 episodes of prestige drama in one go way back in February 2013. The star of the first coronavirus lockdown in England was the streamer’s unhinged documentary series Tiger King, which just about everybody seemed to scarf down like... well, like a ravenous big cat.
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It seems, though, that things in the streaming world are beginning to shift back to the classic model. Netflix is certainly still reaping the binge benefits, with The Queen’s Gambit and most recently Bridgerton proving to be monster hits with hungry audiences desperate to fill empty days and nights, but others are breaking the mould and returning to tradition. This week, Disney+ debuts the first of its MCU series — WandaVision — and is premiering a double bill today, with subsequent episodes added weekly.
Disney previously raised eyebrows in the UK with their handling of the first season of The Mandalorian. American viewers had worked their way weekly through the entirety of the spin-off show’s opening run by the time the platform launched in Britain at the end of March 2020 — a couple of days into lockdown. Many expected that Disney would make those episodes instantly available to UK audiences, so fans were perturbed at having to wait a week between each dose of Baby Yoda — already a household name by that point due to the critter’s sheer meme power.
Unsurprisingly, the Mouse House repeated that strategy when season two of The Mandalorian began airing in October. This time, though, the whole world was watching it together. Every Friday, discussion in the pop culture corner of social media was dominated by the adventures of Din Djarin and his green-hued buddy. If you wanted to join the chat and avoid finding out what happened in advance, the only option was to carve out an hour or so to watch it on the day of release.
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For eight weeks, Disney owned people’s Friday evenings. But more than that, this release strategy actually improved the experience of watching the show. The shocks, surprises and fan service flourishes of The Mandalorian were greatly enhanced by the delayed gratification. It took several weeks from the first mention of Ahsoka Tano’s name before audiences were able to see her lightsabers swinging. Meanwhile, the kidnapping of Baby Yoda — we should probably call him Grogu at least once — felt far more perilous given we had to wait to see its resolution.
Just as the now iconic “Portals” scene from Avengers: Endgame worked because of the year of anticipating it, The Mandalorian drip-fed its revelations, its big moments and, ultimately, its emotional pay-off.
Obviously, none of this is even close to being new. Cliffhangers and scheduling have been used forever to increase tension and, before the rise of the “binge”, weekly releasing was very much normal for big series. The concept of a property as big as WandaVision — a small screen spin-off of the biggest blockbuster movie franchise currently running — arriving all in one go would once have been deemed ludicrous. Now, though, the fact it is being released more traditionally feels like a risk.
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WandaVision is, by all accounts, a deeply strange and unconventional show. Certainly, something like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier — originally due to be the Disney+ MCU curtain-raiser in pre-COVID times — feels like a far safer bet. WandaVision’s oddball storytelling could easily turn viewers off and, when there’s such a huge gap between episodes, there’s ample opportunity for those on the fence to check out or forget the show is even happening.
But that’s where social media comes in. The reason The Mandalorian worked so well as a weekly release was that prominence it had around the digital water cooler every Friday. If WandaVision is able to keep creating buzzy talking points and compelling story threads, there will be plenty for fans to talk about. This is the sort of speculation which is absent from binge releases, which tend to flame out after a weekend of dominating discourse. I’ve not yet seen Bridgerton, and I feel as if I’ve already missed the boat.
For audiences starved of their MCU fix for the 18 months that have passed since Spider-Man: Far From Home hit cinemas, WandaVision is going to be an enormous weekly talking point. If the show, as expected, effectively tees up the idea of reality-bending and multiverses for the studio’s Phase Four story, there’s going to be a lot for fans to dissect — and they’ll be doing it every week.
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Disney is spending a fortune on its MCU TV shows. WandaVision is estimated to be budgeted at around $25m (£18m) an episode — enough to make a movie, by anyone’s measure. They’re creating events, and they want those events to stretch over time as the streaming wars hot up in 2021. Without the sheer breadth of content possessed by Netflix or Amazon Prime, Disney+ has to make its marquee projects really land. It seems they’ve decided — with a fair amount of evidence — that the key to that is forcing audiences to wait and savour every morsel.
Watch: The cast of 'WandaVision' explains how the weirdest Marvel project came to be