Oct 30, 2019
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.