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?