How WandaVision tells the history of expressions through TV

Since the 1950s, American television has acted as a mirror, reflecting the style and speech of the times. And no current series reflects TV back on itself like Marvel’s deeply meta WandaVision. (Stop now if you care about spoilers!) The superhero vehicle follows Wanda Maximoff and Vision, probably the oddest of all the odd couples in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as they settle into a seemingly sitcom-perfect marriage in the suburb of Westview, New Jersey. Each episode parodies various chapters in sitcom history, from costumes to set design — from The Dick Van Dyke Show to The Brady Bunch to Family Ties and beyond.

As the style fast-forwards from one decade to the next, so too does the pitch-perfect dialogue. I saw a version of this play out in real life in my own family. When my parents, Harold and Shirley Kobliner, started to collect expressions for their book, So to Speak: 11,000 Expressions That’ll Knock Your Socks Off, they enlisted three generations of our family to help. The gap between my parents’ expressions (“sweetie pie”) and those of their millennial and Gen Z grandkids (“bae”) was as stark as the difference between Bewitched and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Through the twisted lens of WandaVision, here are six decades of colorful expressions from the black-and-white past to the plasma-screen present.

1950s–1960s

Although the first television set was invented in 1927, it wasn’t until the 1950s that TV programming took off. This Golden Age of Television is when WandaVision begins, paying homage to fifties classics like I Love Lucy and sixties primetime mainstays such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie. The makers of WandaVision even consulted with Van Dyke himself to ensure that the show evoked those classic sitcom vibes authentically, especially when it came to the period dialogue.

In the first episode, nosy neighbor Agnes exclaims, “This is gonna be a gas!” The Oxford English Dictionary notes the phrase’s first appearance in print in a 1957 James Baldwin short story in The Partisan Review. “Knock your socks off” makes an appearance in Episode 2. (It also appears in the subtitle of So to Speak.) Its origin dates to the 1940s, when it meant beating someone in a fistfight, before gradually taking on its less combative meaning. Yep, everything is just, as Wanda’s new pal Geraldine says, “peachy keen (a compliment that dates to 1955) in this depiction of American suburbia.

1970s

As WandaVision transitions to a new decade (and to saturated 1970s color), the show pays tribute to seventies sitcoms like The Brady Bunch, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Partridge Family. Beyond the hairstyles and bell-bottoms, the swinging seventies are all over the slangy dialogue. Wanda’s friend Geraldine doles out the period compliment “foxy,” while neighbor Herb echoes the popular truckers’ CB lingo of the day when he tells Vision, “Catch you on the flipside.”

1980s–1990s

By the fifth episode, Wanda and Vision are living on a set eerily similar to that of classics like Family Ties, Growing Pains, and Full House. In a series of wink-wink jokes for Gen X and older millennial viewers, the writers mined contemporary pop culture for some real gems. Remember Buns of Steel, the VHS workout series and touchstone of eighties fitness culture? A spandex-clad Agnes brings it back. Then there’s “radical and “cowabunga.” While both expressions were originally part of sixties surf culture, “Cowabunga, dude!” was popularized as a rallying cry among The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And speaking of riding the waves, brace yourself for “surf the internet.” This phrase was coined in 1992, when dialup modems and those ubiquitous AOL CD-ROMs were becoming all the rage.

2000s

In the season’s final few episodes, WandaVision takes on a more contemporary single-camera look thanks to source material like Malcolm in the Middle, Gilmore Girls, and Modern Family. The wholesome suburban vibe gets an aughts update and suitably snarky expressions — plus a sprinkling of memes. Reflecting on her brooding (and truly disturbing) mood, Wanda dismisses it as a “case of the Mondays,” an expression popularized by the 1999 cult film Office Space and granted meme immortality online. The portmanteau “staycation” takes on terrifying new meaning in this sitcom prison of captive “soccer moms,” “rugrats,” and “sassy best friends” — as WandaVision twists the unique expressions to delightful and sadistic effect. (And a certain neighbor — no spoilers! — reveals her true colors.)

Author of NY Times bestsellers Get a Financial Life and Make Your Kid a Money Genius. Journalist, #finlit nerd & mom. http://bit.ly/barnesmg

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