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How to Make Agents of SHIELD More Super

ABC's Avengers-based series just got a full first-season pickup. Here's how it can earn a second

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Today, ABC announced a full-season order for Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. This is one of those cases where I’m happy the show is getting more time, not because I like it so much as I’m excited by the ways I could like it if it figures itself out. As I wrote before the premiere, the pilot did some interesting things with the idea of life in a world of superheroes; the second episode, I thought, was a step back, and the third episode a step forward from that.

But as a fan of both sci-fi/fantasy generally and Joss Whedon in particular (even if Whedon is not running the show day to day), I find myself watching so far more because I want to see what the show becomes than because the show has made me care what happens next. And while the premiere ratings were excellent, they’ve also dropped week to week. Fortunately, the show now has a full season. Here’s what I hope it does:

Define the Stakes. SHIELD is a show set in a world with superheroes, yet it is not about superheroes. This means any world-threatening danger it sets up immediately has a credibility problem: i.e., why don’t The Avengers just come in and save us? (Not to mention, even a well-funded TV drama has neither the time for the budget to match the movies, though I liked the ingenious dancing-on-the-ceiling gravity effects in episode 3.) But SHIELD should look at this not as a handicap but an opportunity. So many action dramas are trapped in a cycle of constantly upgrading their threats to keep our attention. If SHIELD can’t threaten to destroy the world every season, that actually frees it to focus on smaller-bore, more TV-scaled conflicts. For instance…

Should We Be Worried About SHIELD? I wrote about this in my column previewing the pilot, but the most interesting aspect of it was how it explored the fact that an omnipotent, secretive global superorganization might not be universally beloved. SHIELD need not make itself into some kind of big metaphor for the NSA (the parallels kind of take care of themselves anyway). But a lot of the questions that don’t need to be answered in a movie are the stuff of rich long-form television: Who does SHIELD answer to? What’s its history? How much of its job is keeping the world safe, and how much is keeping a monopoly on superpowers? And this has the advantage of being a theme you can get into without having to involve superheroes at all.

Focus on Who Coulson Is, Not Just What He Is. Clark Gregg is a gift to the show, and the series has done a smart thing in playing up the mystery of exactly why he’s alive again anyway. (Or, in fact, if he is literally the same Agent Coulson at all.) But as the focal character of a TV drama (even an ensemble one), I’d like him better fleshed out, defined by more than competence, cleverness, and a love for planes and cars. The ensemble in general needs some fleshing out (Skye is unfortunately flat so far for such a central character), but this is a good place to start.

Open Up the Show’s World. In an earlier post on SHIELD’s episodes to date, Alyssa Rosenberg argues that the most interesting aspect of the pilot was the storyline involving regular-guy-turned-quasi-superhero Mike. That plot was a bit stiff in execution–like the on-the-nose “We’re what they step on” speech he gives at the end–but I agree in principle. Here’s a show set in a world that’s just gone through a radical change, as destabilizing as learning an asteroid was headed for Earth. Much of what everyone believed about the universe and humanity’s place in it has been upended (along with much of Manhattan). Giving us a sense of how this has changed the world, beyond the SHIELD agents and their targets, should be rich material for any writer. And again, you don’t need a Sam Jackson cameo to do it!

Now, SHIELD has only aired three episodes, and all these are things that would take any show time to develop. So look at this not as a list of complaints but suggestions, from someone who was rooting for the show from the beginning. I’m looking at the series with the standard Whedon caveats–Buffy took a season or so to find itself, &c.

If you’re still on board–and plenty of you are or ABC wouldn’t have picked it up–what can SHIELD do better for you? Or is it already super enough as it is?

10 comments
AlexMarrero
AlexMarrero

I'll start off with a much broader statement that has little to do with this series overall, only its execution:

I don't understand the difficulty in creating a pilot that reflects what the series will strive to be. Even the most beloved of series started off no better then slightly above average, a testament to those that did realize the potential from the very beginning I must add. A pilot is something the creator(s) have had up to years to conceive both in mind and on paper. I realize there are obstacles such as corporate interference and often little say in the creative and editing process of both script and visuals. But, there are those who have succeeded despite such road blocks as I've said. 

On to the topic at hand, Joss Whedon has NEVER been a conformist with his creations, yet he is taking a tremendously cheap, bleacher-esque seat in the stadium to what could be his comeback tour while being perfectly content with taking his grosses and having little to do with it otherwise (something I never would have guessed he'd do). He is THE producer and spokesperson behind possibly the most anticipated new series of the television year, behind his highly successful and beyond worthy "The Avengers" film, yet he chooses to keep a relative distance from this iteration. It is, and I say this with high regards, in desperate need of his greater future involvement. The attempts at humor and wit fall mostly flat beyond the pilot (the latter of which he is credited as a partial writer), the plots are atrociously cliche (though Joss has never been a great plot writer to begin with anyway, it just goes to show his genius with characterization), and worst of all the characters fall tremendously flat (I don't even know a single name other then Clarks character, of which obviously escapes me at the moment giving a sort of humorous validity to my claims ). At his peak, at least the characters were likable even only 3 episodes in.

My verdict: If not for it being a part of the mostly above-par Marvel film continuity (outside a couple of obvious franchises such as "X-Men" and "Spider-Man") and Joss not being a creator, this would be a series I'd given no more thought to other then "drop". It probably is mostly irrelevant to this topic, but nothing within said continuity has given me much hope since "The Avengers" that the quality will continue. "Iron Man 3" was slightly too melodramatic and sacrificed most of  its characters for an almost solely  "Tony Stark is traumatized by his experience in New York" vibe. There are necessary and relevant references that should be made to his prior grand experience, but the film took that experience in "The Avengers" too far ( I'm a distinguished believer in subtlety as long as it's believably noticeable, something difficult to achieve I admit). 

This series has a similar vibe.  Let's get less "sophisticated" with our analysis now and more "personal". There is no "subtlety" as I mentioned earlier. I came in hoping for a few passive references to "The Avengers" and other films in continuity,  only to be bombarded with "the New York incident" being mentioned every 10 or less minutes. In addition, I don't see how anyone could care about characters with such run-of-the-mill quarks and backstories from what has transpired so far. This is not an attack, but simply observation yet mostly just my opinion. I realize it's only opinion as I've stated, and everyone is entitled to theirs, but there isn't enough here to make me care. It is relying too much on its reputation both in it's co-creator and comic book name. I will continue to give it a chance, however, I don't expect much more especially out of this initial (and hopefully not only) season. 

If this rant hasn't already granted you this conclusion: I'm not at all impressed with its plot, wit, and especially characterization thus far. It certainly can be with time, but as we should all know "time" isn't always on a television series side.

Maybelline
Maybelline

I confess that I haven't watched the third episode.  The second was so limp (South American banana republic style baddies?  in the 21st century?  What is this, The Six Million Dollar Man?) that I decided my time could be more profitably spent rinsing out my humidifier.

For me the primary problem is the blandness of the cast, most of whom seem like they were cast more for their looks than their talent.  Both Skye and Grant are seriously lacking in charisma, and watching them try to be all smart and snarky with the dialogue (which in itself is pretty weak, especially given its imprimatur) has me shaking my head and wishing the producers had ponied up for more accomplished actors.  Fitz and Simmons are okay.  Ming Na is fine but hasn't been given all that much to do.  That means that an awful lot is resting on Clark Gregg's shoulders, and frankly, as likable and talented as he is, I don't think his shoulders are broad enough to support this show.

TaraM.Clapper
TaraM.Clapper

Thank you for this article. It's hard to find one that identifies areas of improvement without totally slamming the show. 

geoff.clarke
geoff.clarke

I thought the third episode showed a lot of progress, and was the most compelling so far. I do appreciate that the villains are not of the "I'm just evil because that's what I am" type, that they try and take a moment to look at motivations. I guess they feel comfortable taking their time with the agents' motivations, but you're right that we really need more, and soon. 

I also think that, if I were 8, this would be the most amazing show ever. 

ThomasEReed
ThomasEReed

I like the show - it's the only thing any network is running that I consider worth watching. Your positive suggestions, Mr. Poniewozik, are very good. But I think there are other characters that need fleshing out. Melinda May, the "Cavalry," has had nearly nothing to do but her chop-socky in the first episode. She is obviously a pained person, especially about the violence she can unleash so successfully,  but she isn't talking about her pain and neither is anyone else.

And Fitz is far more interesting than Simmons. He is almost as socially incompetent as I am, especially around women. I suspect he's the most broken character on the show, perhaps the victim of violence. Did you see how he cowers and gets into a fetal position whenever guns are firing? Skye may be a lonely orphan, but Fitz practically makes me want to cry. His story is the one I want to see.

One point nobody else has made is that the extras and guest characters are not prettified characters. The truck driving agent and the anti-gravity scientist from Episode 3 are ordinary, even homely, characters you'd never see on any other show, not even as comedy relief. This flies in the face of most network shows, and I really enjoy it.


nagaisu
nagaisu

This show is awful. Terrible, absolutely cliche ridden dialogue and weak plots. The characters are so contrived.....ugh. It's like it was written by an ABC intern. What a disappointment. Also, it's obvious from the first time someone said, "no one has told him?" that Coulson is a clone. Steal a writer from HBO or something.

IPFletcher
IPFletcher

I *do* have to keep reminding myself that it's way too early to rag on the show- had this been completely separated from our expectations, it'd be described as "promising".

I agree with most of what you said, although my problem cast-wise isn't so much Skye; I think the actress is doing her best with a vaguely-written character. My cast problem is Agent Ward- he's just...boring. It seems they went for a Bourne-type character (deadly and kinda humorless), whereas this show could really use a Han Solo type. They already had a Bourne-type character in Melinda May- why add more of the same?

jcb10
jcb10

@geoff.clarke Don't be so sure, Geoff. I watched the third episode (which I agree was the first episode to feel "Whedonesque," even if it was the fourth season of Buffy-like) with my nine-year-old, who was non-plussed.

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator

@IPFletcher It's funny, because I almost feel the opposite of your first paragraph. I mean, I do agree it's way too early to write the show off, but I suspect I'm giving the show MORE slack so far because of the extraneous things I know about it. I'm predisposed to want to like this show. But if I didn't know it were from Joss Whedon, and I wasn't familiar with the Marvel and Avengers backstory, I wonder if I would be thinking: what's the idea behind this show? What in the grand scheme are these characters trying to do, and why do I want them to do it? 

But I also agree with Geoff above that while I say that, 8-year-old me would want the lunchbox.