Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD (so far)

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD premiered this fall on ABC accompanied by a huge marketing push and high expectations. It certainly seemed like a can’t-miss premise: set in the wildly popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, the series follows a team of SHIELD agents as they travel the world, dealing with the repercussions of the events seen in those films.

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (so far)

The first episode was watched by a whopping 12 million people. But going by the overwhelming number of “How to Fix Agents of SHIELD” blog posts that have cropped up ever since, it’s safe to say the show has failed to live up to the hype. And it’s not just bloggers who are disappointed: ratings have been steadily declining since the premiere (down from a 4.7 in the prized 18-49 demo to a 2.5) and there’s no telling yet where the bottom is.

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But here’s the good news: This won’t be another “How to Fix Agents of SHIELD” article, because in all honesty, I haven’t got a clue how to make this show any better. For one thing, I don’t watch enough scripted TV these days to speak with authority on the matter, and for another, I believe the show is doing exactly what it was designed to do: Expand the borders of Disney’s multi-billion dollar Marvel empire to primetime TV, and be just good enough to open the door for more series pitches down the line.

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (so far)

I think it says it all that despite the falling ratings, ABC has already picked up the show for a full season. It’s probably worth keeping around solely to have the Marvel name front and center on TV screens every week, and all the better to plaster each episode with ads for the Marvel Cinematic Universe release du jour. (Let’s just say everyone keeping up with this show was very, very aware of the impending release of Thor: The Dark World.)

Caption contributed by Winston

Cheer up, Skye, at least they didn’t tattoo “November 8” on your forehead.

I suspect a lot of the online disappointment was due to Agents of SHIELD debuting within a week of the highly acclaimed finale of Breaking Bad. I never got into that show, but I’m sure the disparity in quality was staggering. Here’s the thing, though: Agents of SHIELD will never be, and was never remotely intended to be, another Breaking Bad. This is not to say that the disappointment isn’t justified. Agents of SHIELD is undoubtedly a weak show—staying awake through all six episodes again to write this post was a bit of a challenge—but it doesn’t appear that great, memorable TV was ever really the goal here.

Agents of SHIELD is not going to be another Game of Thrones or Walking Dead or Boardwalk Empire or The Wire or any other show popular in the blogosphere, for one simple reason: This is a show squarely aimed at the family hour. It’s an action-adventure series that parents can watch with their teenage kids. It’s hard to remember the last time a show like this was even a success, let alone one that delivered much in the way of sophisticated characterization and plotting.

Family-friendly action probably hasn’t been successful on TV since Star Trek was still on the air. And much like Star Trek, Agents of SHIELD shares the burden/blessing of being part of a larger franchise running concurrently in the movies. No surprise, a couple of former Trek actor-directors (Roxann Dawson and—coming later this month—Jonathan Frakes) have directed episodes of Agents of SHIELD. But even if you happened to enjoy later Trek like Voyager or Enterprise, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that they made for groundbreaking television, and the same seems to be true for this show.

Either due to the frugal budget, or the need to not upstage the Marvel movies, or a combination of both, the stories on Agents of SHIELD so far have been hopelessly low-key and inconsequential. There’s an episode where an alien virus is killing people, and the big hook of the episode is that the virus leaves its victims’ corpses hovering in mid-air. That’s it. They built an entire episode around that concept, and I’m actually talking about what’s easily the best episode of the series so far.

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (so far)

And the only character from the comics they’ve introduced so far has been a prototypical version of Avengers nemesis Graviton, who I assume is far too lame to be the villain in any future film.

The Marvel movies aren’t exactly great cinematic triumphs, but at least they can get by purely on big-budget spectacle. But this is a TV show with a TV budget, and as such, it lives and dies by its characters. And these may be some of the least interesting characters to populate a network series in recent memory.

In an ideal world, this show would be Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (Marvel actually did try to make that series happen back in the ‘90s with David Hasselhoff), but there’s obviously no way they can afford whatever Samuel L. Jackson would be asking for to do a weekly series. (Though, they did get him to do a short cameo at the end of episode two, which didn’t accomplish much besides giving The Goldbergs an above-average lead-in.)

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (so far)

So in the absence of Nick Fury, the show revolves around Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson, who was a minor, amusing presence in the Iron Man movies and Thor, and whose heroic “death” in The Avengers greatly raised his stature among fans.

Obviously, he’s back from the dead, since no character stays dead in the Marvel Universe—not even Bucky. (Though, they’ve been dropping plenty of blatant hints that this isn’t the “real” Agent Coulson, or that he’s been transformed into something radically different. Whatever the deal is with Coulson, they need to just come out with it, and soon, because I can guarantee the truth is nowhere near as interesting as everybody’s pet theories.)

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (so far)

Coulson is the most well-rounded character of the bunch, though that’s not saying a whole lot. He’s tough, no-nonsense, occasionally given to unconventional tactics, and shows a lot of compassion for his agents. Clark Gregg is sort of like the cool principal you wish you had back in high school. But not even the awesomest high school principal in the world is dynamic enough to build a series around.

Coulson’s right hand man is Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), who’s the muscles of the team, and about as expressive as a cardboard box full of styrofoam peanuts. In six episodes, the most intimate detail we’ve learned about him is that when he was a little kid, his older brother beat him up over a piece of cake.

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (so far)

Then we have Melinda May (TV veteran Ming-Na Wen), an agent retired to desk duty until Coulson convinces her to return to the field. She’s basically den mother to Coulson’s scout leader, and occasionally kicking ass when needed. Other than Gregg, Ming-Na seems the most capable out of anyone in this cast of conveying actual human emotions. Naturally, she’s the one they have deliberately acting stoic.

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (so far)

We also get the obligatory geek-pandering characters in scientists Fitz and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge and Iain De Caestecker). They’re your standard-issue techie geniuses who can whip up advanced weaponry and cure alien diseases in less than an hour. They’re cute, they’re dorky, they’re British… and that’s about it. Frankly, I’m still not sure which one is Fitz and which one is Simmons.

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (so far)

To round out the cast, we have “Skye” (Chloe Bennet), former member of an Anonymous-like hacking collective called the Rising Tide. SHIELD apprehended her, but instead of locking her up, Coulson decided to recruit her to join the team. And now it’s become a bit of a formula where every episode leads us to believe that Skye is still working with the Rising Tide, only to reveal in the closing moments that nope! She was loyal to SHIELD all along.

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (so far)

Skye is the closest thing this show has to a main character. She’s obviously the audience proxy, through which we get to learn all the inner workings of SHIELD. Bennet is also the show’s eye candy (they keep coming up with ways to show off her cleavage), and no arguments about her hotness here, but she’s far too girl-next-door to be believable as either a secret agent or an elite hacker. If this were a sitcom, she’d be the cute best friend of the actual lead actress. Also not helping is that she appears to have honed her acting skills by closely studying Jennifer Aniston’s mannerisms on reruns of Friends.

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (so far)

Oh, and apparently Bennet once tried to be a Chinese pop star using her real name of Chloé Wang. I’m guessing the singing career didn’t work out for her, but at least we’ll always have a music video to remember it by.

The pilot episode was a pretty dull affair, but upon watching it again, it’s clear it had an above-average script (co-written by show creator Joss Whedon) that got completely buried under this cast’s terminal blandness and lack of chemistry. The dialogue should have been snappy and snarky, but as delivered by this group of actors, it just dies onscreen. That’s actually the main reason I would never write a “how to fix this show” kind of article: Short of firing most of the cast and starting over from scratch (which will never happen), I have no idea how to fix this show.

But it remains Exhibit A for why sci-fi on TV fails more often than not: The creators and writers get so caught up in their high-concept premises that the characters and casting become almost an afterthought. Coincidentally enough, Whedon also gave us Exhibit B a few years back.

Even the guest stars are uniformly dull. There’s an actress who appears in the pilot and then reappears four episodes later, and she’s so utterly generic that I didn’t realize it was the same person until I looked on IMDb. That’s not a good thing, considering her appearance was meant to tie together those episodes into what’s supposedly a season-long story arc about an organization called “Centipede” trying to stabilize the Extremis formula from Iron Man 3. (Was Extremis even interesting enough to carry one movie, let alone an entire season?)

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (so far)

I think the most we can hope for now is that they bring on some new, interesting recurring characters, hopefully played by seasoned actors with more experience under their belts. Cobie Smulders had a brief cameo in episode one, reprising her role of Maria Hill from The Avengers. I have no idea if she wants to jump back into series TV once How I Met Your Mother wraps, but I assume a regular role on this show is hers for the asking.

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (so far)

And while we’re at it, how about giving us a regular character with some superpowers? Even the lame Hasselhoff version of this show managed to have a team member with psychic abilities.

Maybe a little cross-network synergy is in order? ABC Studios also produces Castle, starring an actor who I hear once worked with the show’s creator. Could you imagine the internet fangasm if Nathan Fillion did a guest spot on SHIELD? And if that’s out of the question, there are literally dozens of actors from genre shows like Battlestar Galactica or Lost or Smallville or Heroes who could stir things up with a guest appearance or two. Think outside the box, ABC!

Oops, I guess I wasn’t supposed to talk about how to fix this show, was I? Well, it probably doesn’t matter anyway, because they may not have the budget to bring on even that limited amount of star power. The cost-cutting moves on this show tend to be rather obvious. The entire SHIELD organization appears to consist of our six regulars, plus four or five extras. The show’s visit to “Malta” was just somebody’s very nice mansion on the California coast, and when the show took us to “Hong Kong”, it was clearly just L.A.’s Chinatown, complete with storefront signs in English.

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (so far)

Understandably, it’s hard to justify pouring millions of dollars into an effects-heavy show when they can comparatively spend next to nothing on something like The Amazing Race and attract a much bigger audience. But maybe Disney should consider indulging in an act of corporate welfare, and set aside just a small portion of the billions of dollars they’re earning on Marvel properties to breathe some life into this show.

Wait, did I say there was no way they could afford to bring on Samuel L. Jackson as a regular? Perhaps he’s a little more affordable than I thought, given one of the ads seen during last week’s episode.

Caption contributed by Winston

“What’s in your wallet? And does it say ‘Bad Mother Fucker’ on it?”

For me, this series now occupies the same space as other regrettably bland sci-fi network shows of the past few years. I’ll probably continue to half-watch it in the background, just like I did with Threshold or FlashForward or The Event or the V reboot, in the hopes that it’ll get better. But if those shows are anything to go by, it probably won’t.

TV Show: Marvel's Agents of SHIELD
Tag: Marvel Cinematic Universe

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  • Thomas Stockel

    Me, I’m enjoying the show. I thought the first episode was pretty rough but the second was a dramatic improvement. Yeah, it isn’t ground breaking or Earth-shattering but I am entertained pretty consistently. And heck, it isn’t another police procedural or super genius Sherlock Holmes type “homage” series. We have so much of that crap on television already.

    • I’m enjoying this too, about as much as Dollhouse at least. It does feel like the show is waiting for something to shake up the formula, but I’ve learned to expect that from Season 1 of any show.

  • I actually don’t have an issue with the show. It is a medium caliber show. Kind of like the “X-Files” if everyone knew about UFO’s so when Mulder filed a report rather than it mysteriously disappearing they just pat him on the back and tell him, “good job.”

    Somebody is going to die in the season finale. I won’t bet on who, but they will kill someone, and it will work.

  • DeanD

    This article helped me understand that this show is B-grade and was only ever meant to be that. Now that I know not to expect A-level stories, acting or effects I can just try to accept it as it is. No sarcasm, but this article really helped; I couldn’t understand why it all felt so meh. Thank you! And thanks for cluing me into Skye’s music career. Ha!

  • Muthsarah

    *laughs*

    *laughs more*

    I LOVE that face that Sam Jackson’s making. By now, I fully expect to see from your reviews at least one screencap that looks a little…off-tone. But Jackson’s pic rings like the end of A Day in the Life.

  • Gallen_Dugall

    The mopey super hacker primary character that is supposed to be carrying the show is bad. The actress is fine, the material is horrible. A mopey super hacker who makes incredibly dumb decisions is not an interesting or appealing character archtype. This is fixable. Hit her with some trauma to force her to grow up, stop mopeing and clearly dedicate herself. Her “evil boyfriend” surviving that episode is a missed opportunity.

  • $36060516

    This show sounds terrible (didn’t watch it based on the previews), but at least I got the enjoyment of reading your teardown of it, so thank you Disney!

  • Chris Beier

    “And now it’s become a bit of a formula where every episode leads us to believe that Skye is still working with the Rising Tide, only to reveal in the closing moments that nope! She was loyal to SHIELD all along.”

    Two episodes are hardly a formula. And the 2nd time Skye pulled a stunt like this, Coulson sat her down and forced her to come clean, so I doubt this plotline will be milked further.

  • Nate Winchester

    Am I the only one that thinks Chloe Bennet could play Eliza Dushku’s sister?

    Eh, I find Elizabeth Henstridge much hotter anyway. Though you’re right, still not sure which one she is name wise.

    You’re spot on about the chemistry though. I find myself more intrigued by the guest stars each week than the actual stars of the show. (Oh hi J. August Richards, can you come join the team?)

  • Carlos Rivas

    Sam jack is stupid for not being apart of this series, he might have helped the show and himself!

  • The_Stig

    yes yes, the show has its problems (not the least of which being a lack of direct involvement from Joss. Jed is no Joss). but it IS getting better…maybe. The last couple of episodes have been pretty good.

  • Richard16378

    For me this has been hit & miss, some episodes better than others.

    At times it’s felt like an American Torchwood.

  • fabio

    So Chloe Wang/Bennett went from a laughable failed attempt at being a popstar, straight into the leading role on one of the biggest tv series launches in years. She’s either unbelievably lucky or knows some really powerful people.

  • Bart Fargo

    I love the show.
    He’s Fitz. She’s Simmons. [sarcasm]Though I suppose I can understand the confusion, since they are only called by name once every episode.[/sarcasm]

  • whodat

    Can’t be any worse than that garbage called smallville. Thank god the Japanese get their hero shows right. Kamen Rider away!

  • Jennifer Schillig

    I tried to get into this, but as you said…except for Coulson, there’s just no character that grabs me.

  • The show is basically in that limbo… it’t not bad enough to hate and not good enough to like. It never quite dips into the realm of Asylum movies where it’s fun to watch BECAUSE it’s bad but it also never has figured out how to be Buffy or Angel and be fun to watch because it’s really great either.

    It’s wallpaper TV basically – background noise.

  • Excuse me, but the review seems to think that family friendly entertainment is not popular on TV… It seems to me that the BBC has a pretty popular family-friendly TV show that it airs around the world and is incredibly popular, plus it features complex plotting and characterization… it’s name is “Dr Who”…