Does Agents of SHIELD deserve a second chance?
Last year, I posted my thoughts about the first six episodes of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, and to be honest, I assumed that would be all I’d ever have to say about it. I was so turned off by those episodes that I had no intention of ever watching the show again. But towards the end of the season, I started to hear murmurings that things had finally improved, and with the second season premiere coming up this Tuesday, I decided to give it another go.
After a few binge-watching sessions, I can confirm there’s truth to what you’ve heard. The show does pick up a lot in the episodes leading up to and immediately following the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It eventually gets close to what it should have been from the start: an Alias-type espionage saga full of double-crossings and triple-crossings where our main characters never really know who to trust. In retrospect, it’s clear all the boring episodes were a stall tactic, as the showrunners were forced to wait for the big HYDRA plot twist of Winter Soldier to unfold so they could fully kick things into gear.
This was also the point where the producers heeded my advice, and brought on more seasoned guest stars to add a bit of gravitas to the ensemble. Bill Paxton appeared in several episodes as a colleague of Agent Coulson who eventually turns out to be the big bad of the season. There were also appearances from Marvel characters we know from the movies, including Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, Jaimie Alexander as Sif, and of course, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, now sporting his post-Winter Soldier eyepatch-free makeover.
We also got to meet several other agents (played by the likes of Patton Oswalt and Saffron Burrows, among others), and at long last, it started to feel like our main characters were actually part of a large, global organization. Prior to the big turning point of the season, the team felt more like the Scooby Doo gang, flying around in their Mystery Machine jet and stumbling upon random monsters and mutants terrorizing the locals. But by the end of the season, one could almost believe there were things at stake and the team actually had a mission. And all it took was the total dissolution of SHIELD to get there.
Last time around, I pleaded for the show to stop playing coy about the circumstances of Agent Coulson’s return from the dead. That mystery was mostly solved, and while the truth wasn’t terribly shocking, I must admit it wasn’t what I was expecting. It turns out Coulson was resurrected by an injection of alien DNA that may have possibly given him cosmic powers. I thought he was just a Life Model Decoy, so kudos to the writers for that reveal.
And I was pleasantly surprised to see the return of several characters and artifacts introduced early on, which I had initially disregarded as one-offs, never to be seen or heard from again.
Unfortunately, the “good” episodes still don’t excuse the sheer amount of boredom viewers had to endure to get to them. Even in hindsight, those early episodes spent setting up characters and plot points that eventually became important still don’t feel like time well spent. Did anyone actually remember (or care) what the deal was with evil industrialist Ian Quinn when he finally re-entered the series after four or five long months? Did the show really have to devote an entire episode to establishing that evil super-soldiers occasionally get cybernetic eye implants that allow HYDRA to track their every move?
We got a lot more setup than we needed, which is unfortunate, because the writers had no idea how to make all that setup interesting. If they were really that creatively hampered by having to hold off on the HYDRA reveal until the release of Winter Soldier, then the first season should have been 13 episodes long and premiered in January. Shorter seasons have been working pretty well on basic/pay cable for at least a decade, so it makes no sense that the broadcast networks still insist on these lengthy seasons with way too many filler episodes, and way too many “bottle” or “ship” episodes (or in this case, “bus” episodes) to stretch out the budget.
You can see the effects of the sluggish start in the show’s viewership: After months of ratings freefall, Agents of SHIELD eventually stabilized in March at about 5 or 6 million viewers per episode. But despite the improved state of the show, it stayed right at that number until the end. Even the big season finale barely saw an uptick from the previous week.
The problem is that the show getting “good” coincided with it becoming completely impenetrable to new viewers. We went from episodes where nothing happens, to episodes where you needed to tack up index cards on a corkboard and string them together with yarn to make sense of everything. That’s just poor planning on the part of everyone involved, plain and simple.
And underneath the big plot twists, the show still had all the same fundamental flaws; they were just less obvious when the characters were actually, you know, doing stuff. The show is still severely limited by not being allowed to upstage the movies, and most of the cast is still too young and devoid of charisma. And spending two-thirds of the season watching them act like hormonal, sullen, mopey teenagers made it that much harder to take these characters seriously when things finally started to get real.
I understand this show is aimed at the younger demographic that watches the Marvel movies, which compelled them to cast a bunch of cute, twenty-something actors. But if that’s the case, they should have just called the show SHIELD Academy. Or Rookies of SHIELD. They could have started the show off with Agent Coulson, still traumatized from being brought back from the dead, wanting to retire from active duty and high-pressure situations. Instead of being out in the field, he decides to mentor some fresh-faced recruits right out of the academy. And then when the HYDRA shit hits the fan, Coulson comes to rely on these borderline-incompetent novices because he’s got no one else to trust.
Frankly, the show wouldn’t have been that much different with a premise like that, but at least it would have been consistent. What we got instead was a show constantly playing up its main characters’ ineptitude and unprofessionalism for laughs while still trying to convince us they were the best and brightest that the agency had to offer, and worthy of serving under a guy who reports directly to the head honcho of SHIELD. And I, for one, never quite bought it.
Chloe Bennet as Skye still isn’t the least bit believable as a secret agent or a master computer hacker. Her character became more tolerable in the latter part of the season simply because they stopped having episodes focused entirely on her.
In my previous article, I stated that Brett Dalton as Agent Ward was “about as expressive as a cardboard box full of styrofoam peanuts”, and that hasn’t changed, even despite the reveal that he was an agent of HYDRA all along. I can’t say for certain that the writers totally pulled his heel turn out of their asses, but it sure feels that way. I doubt rewatching those early episodes would reveal any clues about Ward’s true loyalties that we didn’t notice before, and Brett Dalton himself had no inkling of the twist until 15 episodes in.
This is where Agents of SHIELD could have lived up to the potential of injecting long-form storytelling into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It had the opportunity to do something Captain America: The Winter Soldier didn’t have time to do while it was busy blowing up skyscrapers for the umpteenth time in a Marvel movie: It could have delved deep into the HYDRA twist, and explored the true reasons why so many SHIELD agents decided to join up with what’s essentially a Nazi offshoot.
The explanation in Winter Soldier boiled down to “they’re evil”. It would have been far more interesting if Agents revealed that the members of HYDRA actually thought they were the good guys, keeping the world safe with black-ops tactics that even SHIELD found morally repugnant. But they didn’t go there. Agent Ward is a HYDRA double-agent because he’s evil. Oh, and also because when he was a kid, Paxton’s character made him live alone in the woods for five years and shoot his dog.
But the worst part of the sudden improvement of Agents of SHIELD is how it lends more credence to the insidious myth that every TV show needs a full season (or more) to find its footing. Which then feeds into a constant game of lowered expectations where we tell ourselves that the first few months of a TV show have to be boring. They don’t. I can think of plenty of shows, like 24, The Shield, The Sopranos, Lost, and Heroes that hit the ground running and gave us strong first seasons. (Whether or not they kept up that level of quality for the rest of their runs is another story, but it does prove that it’s possible to be entertaining from episode one.)
Also, would someone tell the writers that dropping in references to obscure Marvel characters does not make for a better show? From a recurring character who becomes Deathlok, to unimpressive guest appearances by Graviton and Blackout and Lorelei, to awkward namedrops of Blizzard, Quasar, and the Griffin, I can assure them that no one other than hardcore Marvel fanatics cares about this stuff in the slightest. They need to spend less time researching old comic books and more time creating interesting original characters.
Heading into season two, Agents of SHIELD probably deserves another chance. There are plenty of plot threads from season one still left to be tied up, and a few interesting guest stars on the horizon, including Lucy Lawless, Kyle MacLachlan, Haley Atwell (appearing in flashback as Peggy Carter), and Adrianne Palicki as Mockingbird. And yet, this series still doesn’t qualify as must-see TV. This is definitely not a show where I feel compelled to watch every episode as soon as it airs because everybody will be talking about it the next day. Agents of SHIELD is never going to give us any true shocks or surprises. No matter what, Marvel is always going to save its A material for the movies.
I think it goes without saying that if we had gotten the spring episodes back in the fall, my feelings would be a lot different. I didn’t have high expectations for this show, and all I ever wanted was some fun cloak-and-dagger action (and no, I don’t mean Cloak and Dagger, though I’m sure those two will be referenced in a throwaway line sooner or later). It’s unclear who’s to blame for why it took the better part of a year for Agents of SHIELD to finally deliver that action, but hopefully the makers of future Marvel shows like Agent Carter and Daredevil have learned a lesson from this, and won’t make the same mistakes.