Sitcoms Are Better with Witches

Wanda Maximoff is a lot of things. Wife, sister, mother. (Well, sort of.) In WandaVision, we find ourselves rooted in the strange reality she’s conjured. Or that someone else conjured for her. We’re still two episodes away from the finale, and thus the answers to our big questions. What’s really going down in Westview? Was it really Agatha all along? We don’t know for certain, but it’s also besides the point. Because no matter what mysteries rest in the margins of WandaVision, the show is still ostensibly about its eponymous superheroes. Namely, Wanda Maximoff, who happens to be a witch.

Each week, WandaVision drops us into a new decade of the American sitcom. And each week, we’re reminded why sitcoms are more exciting with magic. Wanda’s abilities elevate the storytelling. Episodes don’t just pay homage to series like The Dick Van Dyke Show or Family Ties; they imbue these family sitcoms with a sense of danger and excitement. Magic is an ingredient other sitcoms of yesteryear had fun with. Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie found their female protagonists enveloped in near-constant trouble because of their own supernatural abilities.

But there’s more to this magic than funny hijinks. Sitcoms are a rich format, and many—from I Love Lucy to The Mary Tyler Moore Show—shattered the glass ceiling. But as easily as they empower, they can also force women into staid gender roles. Introduce a little witchcraft, however, and suddenly there’s an extra edge. Witches in sitcoms buck tradition even more. They rewire gender expectations and power dynamics. And they do it all with the flick of a finger or the wiggle of a nose.

Artistic rendering of Samantha Stevens from Bewitched, Wanda Maximoff from WandaVision, and Grandmama from The Addams Family, a trio of sitcom witches.ABC / Marvel

Must Be the Season of the Witch

The witch as a symbol of power is something we see all over pop culture these days. It isn’t new, necessarily, but there’s an element of reclamation. The election of Donald Trump instilled fear in the women of the world, who found power in that which once persecuted them. Recall the Women’s March in January 2017, when women united globally to carry signs with messages like, “We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.” The idea of being powerful—and therefore feared—was thrilling and restorative.

Around this time, witches came to the forefront of media. Robert Eggers’ 2015 movie The Witch made waves. The Neon Demon, The Love Witch, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Hereditary, and Suspiria followed. All films where witchcraft, in some shape or form, resembles power; the ditching of tradition. Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina continued this idea on streaming television; likewise American Horror Story: Coven on cable. Suddenly, witchcraft was everywhere—onscreen and even in stores. You can buy crystals and tarot decks at Urban Outfitters and Forever 21. “Witchy” is an aesthetic as much as it’s a practice.

But it started long before this. Cinema has an affinity for witchcraft, sure, but television is where witches came to have fun. And where they played with expectations in major ways.

Cartoon Samantha from the Bewitched creditsABC

The Bewitchment of Bewitched 

Films like 1942’s I Married a Witch and 1958’s Bell, Book, and Candle set the stage for the groundbreaking sitcom Bewitched. Elizabeth Montgomery starred as Samantha Stevens in the series, which premiered in 1964 and ran for eight seasons. Samantha is a witch, hailing from a family of other witches, a fact that causes friction in her marriage to mortal Darrin (played initially by Dick York and later by Dick Sargent). She tries to suppress her magic to lead an ordinary life as a housewife. But that isn’t so simple; her life is enmeshed with witchcraft. Her mother, Endora (Agnes Moorehead), shows up routinely to cause mischief. Samantha eventually has a daughter, Tabitha (Erin Murphy), who also has powers.

Bewitched was a smash-hit series. It was the second-highest-rated show on TV in its debut season, and remained in the top 10 for its first three years on air. It still runs in syndication and is often ranked as one of the greatest shows of all time. But the brilliance of the show rests less in its flashy magic tricks and supernatural allure than in its commentary on domestic life in the 1960s and ’70s. In fact, Samantha rarely uses magic, and usually just by necessity. What her powers signal, instead, are a challenging of gender norms. Darrin is uncomfortable with her magic because Darrin is uncomfortable being the less powerful of the pair. Samantha’s witchcraft is a threat to his status quo as a husband and the financial provider of the family.

The show got goofier as it went along— as any supernatural series marching into an eighth season might—but its foundation remained strong. Bewitched was a show that used magic as a metaphor for the inherent strength women bring into a family. Samantha wasn’t just the wife character. She was the one with the unique ability to mend any predicament; magic symbolized her strength, but didn’t create it.

Sabrina the Teenage Witch hugs her cat SalemABC

The Teenage Witch

Bewitched wasn’t the only vintage sitcom to use witchcraft as a statement on gender roles. Shows like The Addams Family demonstrated the unique individual powers of Morticia and Grandmama. The matriarch and grand-matriarch stood for very different things within their family structure; control and mayhem, respectively. But in the 1990s, the focus shifted away from motherhood and homed in on witchcraft as a metaphor for teen girlhood. Sabrina the Teenage Witch, starring Melissa Joan Hart, did what films like The Craft were doing on the big screen. It oriented power with self-discovery and adolescence. It gave girls a reason to feel meaningful, too.

To be a teen girl is to suffer in a body that punishes as it grows, that invites suspicion and unwanted attention, and that hands you a power you can’t quite translate. Sabrina the Teenage Witch doesn’t attempt anything too deep, but its sitcom-level approach is still triumphant. It’s a retelling of the classic Archie Comics character, but it’s so deeply ’90s in its setting and storylines that she feels like a whole new creation. Sabrina navigates the ups and downs of having powers as a 16-year-old girl. Sometimes it’s fun; she can switch outfits with the snap of a finger, transport to other realms through her upstairs closet. But spells have consequences. Sabrina’s magic causes trouble, too, and doesn’t magically make her popular. It isn’t a fix-all, and she learns this the hard way over and over.

This idea was further explored in the Disney series The Wizard of Waverly Place, where Alex Russo (Selena Gomez) navigates adolescence through the lens of her magical abilities. As with Bewitched, these shows often work in metaphor. Here, teen girls aren’t just sassy sitcom daughters. They don’t fade into the background and drop in for subtle gags. They’re the main focus, and the shows explore their identities with magic as a symbol of their true capabilities.

Elizabeth Olsen's Wanda looking very concerned in WandaVision.Marvel

The Refreshing Magic of WandaVision

WandaVision doesn’t reinvent the witchcraft wheel. Instead, it revisits what made earlier efforts so effective. In the first episode, “Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience,” Wanda’s abilities factor into a dinner party with Vision’s boss. They’re used to comedic effect; she spins food in the air, accidentally places a lobster on the door. Again, we see magic as a burden as much as a gift.

But as the show moves along, zipping through different decades of sitcoms, planting Wanda in new circumstances, we learn something else about magic, and how it enhances sitcom storytelling. In WandaVision, magic is a salve. Yes, there might be more to this story than meets the eye. But we still see Wanda use her powers to deflect; to cast people out of the Hex who might challenge her grief. In this way, it’s both an asset and a danger. A means of survival and a tool for destruction. Integrating her powers into stories and settings where it shouldn’t belong is a genius move. It creates a rich new world of storytelling for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Magic is metaphor here, too, but on a grander scale.

Episode seven, “Breaking the Fourth Wall,” introduced another magical character in Agatha Harkness. We learn that Kathryn Hahn’s incognito character is (allegedly) the one really pulling the strings. That adds yet another layer to the show, and to the way it uses witchcraft. Are these women using magic to challenge reality? Are they puppets for some menacing male figure we haven’t yet met? There are so many possible outcomes, and so many ways to interpret whatever scenario they turn out.

It’s a thrilling, fascinating time for mainstream witchcraft. The symbology mutates like powers. There’s always something new to say about womanhood and power dynamics as related through magic. WandaVision, among other things, is bringing this conversation into greater focus. Let the season of the witch commence.

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