Agents of SHIELD Needs Training
Good news, everyone! Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD has been picked up for a full 22-episode season. Despite declining ratings, the TV show tie-in to the recent Marvel movies is sticking around for a little while longer. It’s good news because it now has a chance to improve, and I hope the writers don’t squander the opportunity.
I’ll be honest. My interest is starting to fade. The long-awaited TV series based on the exploits of shadowy organization in a world populated by Monsters, Gods, and Iron Men, is suffering greatly from First Season Syndrome. If nothing is done the show will likely be shelved after its first season, forever known as a “good try.”
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. With the exception of Firefly or How I Met Your Mother, no television series hits home runs in its first batch of episodes. The writers are hesitant, the actors don’t know each other, the money isn’t a sure thing and the pressure is on to succeed despite all of the stumbling blocks.
For evidence of this I look at the first seasons of some of my favorite TV series and count just how many of them had scenes that made me cringe. CSI, The Simpsons, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer— each wildly different shows– all had unpolished, rough outlines that showed only a glimmer of the quality they became known for. I’m not ready to lump in Agents of SHIELD with those shows just yet, but I do see a glimmer.
The Pilot episode was tremendous, largely due to Whedon alumni J. August Richards as Mike, the man caught between the world of men and the world of heroes. Richards worked directly with Joss Whedon during his run as Charles Gunn on Angel, the companion show to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the show that made David Boreanaz a household name. Joss’s presence is huge in the Pilot, full of wit and energy and fun among all of the terrible things happening, and Richards is quite at home there. Even brief appearances from Cobie Smulders (as Maria Hill, reprising her role from The Avengers) and Ron Glass (as Dr. Streiten, but best known to Whedon fans as Shepherd Book from Firefly) help fill the corners of the episode with enough familiarity to get us to ask for more.
The episodes that followed have been less than stellar, and have not yet lived up to what the Pilot promised us. I fear that, even though Joss’s name is attached to the writing credits, his role is greatly reduced due to time constraints (he is, after all, working on Avengers 2 at the moment). Jed Whedon (Joss’s brother) and his wife Maurissa Tancharoen seem to be more involved with the actual scripts, and each episode has been directed by someone new. Only one of those directors had a hand in the script they directed, and yes, you guessed right: it was the Pilot episode, directed by Joss himself.
If you’ve wondered about the disparity between the first episode and the rest, well, there you go. How different would the series be already if Joss was on it full-time like say, Buffy, Firefly, or even the undeservingly and oft-maligned Dollhouse? We may never know. As in, the show might be cancelled.
I don’t want to paint Joss Whedon as the be-all, end-all solution to the series’ woes, but you have to admit his body of work points to a guy who could probably turn it around in a heartbeat.
Again, I’m not saying Agents of SHIELD is a failure, not yet. It needs a lot of work, but it’s not a lost cause.
We know now what these characters can do, we know their archetypes. Now we need to see those characters break out of them and explore. Their roles have to be challenged, and their personalities need rounding. In these last seven episodes, we’ve seen them work together, argue, and laugh, but we’ve yet to see any of them in focus. When we first meet Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) she’s sitting in a cubicle, forcing herself to be comfortable. It’s revealed that she’s some kind of legendary SHIELD agent who just wants to stay away from combat, yet she walks around in nothing but combat gear.
Where are the hints of that conflict? She wants to lead a normal life, so why isn’t she trying normal-life things like taking pictures with her phone or collecting refrigerator magnets or something? You can argue that she’s supposed to be the Blade of the team, but a lack of human qualities doesn’t make a person more of a badass, it makes a badass less of a person. Whedon projects are known for their wit and charm, and May doesn’t claim either yet.
Brett Dalton’s Grant and Chloe Bennet’s Skye have similar issues. There’s a rudementary flirtation between them, but no chemistry yet- Grant has yet to show us why Coulson picked him among a dozen other guys with the same attitude, and Skye has yet to show us why she’s important enough to tag along with this super secret spy group. Iain De Caestecker as Leo Fitz and Elizabeth Henstridge as Jenna Simmons are charmingly called “FitzSimmons” much in the way of “Bennifer,” but it’s not clear why they’re called that, why both of them are okay with it, or even what their relationship to each other is. Are they childhood friends? College roommates? They certainly don’t seem to be lovers, but who knows?
It’s one of those things we as an audience think we should know but the show doesn’t really explain, and that’s the problem that keeps popping up. We can’t see the small details that humanize these characters, so we don’t end up caring a whole lot. For the best example of this, look at how Whedon handled Coulson’s hero-worship of Captain America in The Avengers; although initially written as part of a joke, Coulson’s Captain America trading cards ended up becoming a powerful symbol that Fury used to motivate Tony and Steve after Coulson’s death. Small things lead to big things.
Despite the overall shakiness, Agents of SHIELD has shown us some fun sequences and funny moments.
I just wish there were enough of them to make it a stronger show. The Nov. 19th episode, directed by Star Trek: The Next Generation actor and director Jonathan Frakes, looks promising. Supposedly it ties into the recent Thor: The Dark World film, which is exciting. There are plenty of tidbits to see and many directions they could go after a film like that opens so many more doors.
The series is filling in the gaps between blockbuster movies and occasionally giving us glimpses into this brave new world of marvels, but nothing is really clicking yet. Its heroes are tame, its villains are painfully one-dimensional, and we need more than the baby steps we’ve been given. That said, I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see if Agents of SHIELD is hiding in the shadows of the films around it or if it will dare to step up and create its own.