Ever since the show was announced, I can’t help suppress my fears that Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. —the highly anticipated ABC series which premieres on Sept. 24—might be a case in which the concept is better than the execution.
On paper, it certainly seems like a can’t-miss idea: a small-screen spin-off of Marvel’s The Avengers, to be executive-produced by Joss Whedon, the movie’s writer-director. And it certainly didn’t hurt that Whedon is a veteran of TV and the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of the most fondly-remembered series from the last two decades. You can understand why ABC execs—eager to capitalize on the success of one of the top-grossing movies of all time—quickly gave the green light to Agents.
There is also something oddly exciting for viewers of a certain age at the thought of Joss Whedon returning to television. He is that rare talent: able to work within the strictures of genre tropes and still deliver great stories and satisfying character development. From Buffy through Angel —yes, even that difficult fourth season—and Firefly, a Joss Whedon show was the closest thing to a guarantee of a good time that you could expect on TV.
Of course, there’s a “but” coming—his last TV series, Dollhouse.
Perhaps that’s not fair. While the show had its (many) problems, Whedon’s Midas Touch started to fade well before the first episodes aired. In fact, I’d argue that Serenity, his big-screen attempt to bring some form of closure to the gone-all-too-quickly Firefly, is perhaps the first time that Whedon stumbled as a storyteller after his Buffy peak. There’s an uneven quality to the story that leaves some of what should be the bigger moments unexpectedly flat, and feeling unearned in a way that they really shouldn’t.
Dollhouse, stripped of the fun nostalgia of familiar characters in Star Wars-esque stories, was more obviously difficult to watch. Both the show’s concept—having as its main character a black-slate “doll” who has a new personality programmed into her every week by evil overlords—and execution made it feel like the anti-Buffy: unfocused where Buffy was razor sharp, and depowering instead of empowering.
That discomfort continued to be apparent in Whedon’s next projects, the web series Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (he co-wrote and directed) and the movies The Cabin in The Woods (co-wrote) and Much Ado About Nothing (wrote and directed). Each of the projects had their appeal, but all felt like Whedon was awkwardly working against type and playing against his natural strengths in an attempt to demonstrate his range as an artist. It’s partly what I think made Avengers feel so welcome — this idea of “Fast-paced action, with equally fast-paced snarky dialogue? This is the Joss we’ve been hoping for!”
It wasn’t, though. Avengers is a fun film, there’s no denying it, but it lacks anything close to the emotional resonance of Buffy. Whereas that series had subtext and meaning that underscored and gave depth to the monstrous, fantastic elements, Avengers is exactly what it appears to be (for better or worse). Just as Firefly‘s all-too-brief life had an impact on Whedon—after all, you never know quite when the rug is going to be pulled out from underneath you, so maybe the long game isn’t one you want to play after all—I can’t help but think that Dollhouse‘s similar fate pushed Whedon to be more less nuanced in his storytelling.
Ultimately, then, what makes me nervous about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is which Whedon will have greater influence over the show as executive producer—the confident, contrary Buffy vet or the eager-to-please Avengers writer/director—and just how much influence he’ll have as executive producer. Doing superheroes on TV is tricky, and the answers to those questions could make the difference between S.H.I.E.L.D. being a must-watch as it continues, or just a curious footnote to the larger Marvel story.