Entertainment Weekly ran an article today about “How to fix ‘Agents of SHIELD’”, which brought up many of the common complaints about Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. along with a variety of suggestions for how the show to improve. I’ve spent some time perusing forums and comment sections and have seen most of these complaints before, and I thought I’d take some time to answer some of them. I should preface this by saying that I’m hardly an unbiased observer. I’m already attached to SHIELD, and I’m obviously enjoying it. I want to see it succeed, but even more than that I want the writers and creators to tell the story they want to tell without trying to bow to internet grumblings. (This would obviously be different if the show had a problem of a social variety, such as racism, misogyny or a negative attitude towards LGBT issues. I would say that the show is pretty darn white, though of the 6 leads one actor is Chinese and another is half Chinese, so that’s something at least. As for LGBT characters, I have faith in Joss and company if not in ABC, considering it took huge ensemble show Once Upon a Time three seasons before we got an LGBT character.) Suffice to say I’m invested in SHIELD and I think it’s doing a lot of things right, and while I’m not a big fan of audience blaming I think some of the criticism is unfair and shortsighted.
Before I get to addressing Darren Franich’s specific complaints/suggestions, I should say that I think SHIELD’s creators have a different approach to “genre” television than what is commonly seen on TV in the 2010’s and what audiences expect from “genre” television in general these days.
In the last decade the most widely talked about shows have been ones like Lost, Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead and others in a similar vein (while smaller shows like Supernatural have carved out passionate fanbases that keep them around for years). Those three shows are all heavily serialized, with big stakes established from the very first episode. However, SHIELD is much more like the other works from Joss Whedon, which started slowly and without much serialization, giving audiences more “monster of the week” episodes than overarching plot episodes at the beginning. Buffy established a threat, The Master, in its first episode, and then spent most of the rest of the season with standalone episodes that focused on things like a demon inside a computer stalking Willow and a teacher who flirts with Xander and turns out to be a giant praying mantis. Angel gave us a regular formula of Doyle’s visions leading them to someone in need of saving, with only occasional appearances from the show’s Big Bad, Wolfram & Hart. Dollhouse gave Echo a mission of the week, and didn’t blossom into something truly spectacular until season 2.
If you listen to Joss Whedon talk about his shows, particularly on his DVD commentaries, he has a very specific approach to things. He holds back serializing the plot in the early episodes on purpose, so that he doesn’t alienate new viewers that tune in after the show has been on for a few weeks. He points out in the commentary for Firefly that he would give Simon a line explaining about River’s condition because he felt he couldn’t assume that a viewer had seen the previous episodes. I fully expect that we’re getting a very similar approach with SHIELD. There have been hints about the larger mysteries of the show, including Coulson’s resurrection and the Centipede group, but beyond being mentioned in each episode there has not been much development along those fronts (though Centipede featured prominently in this week’s episode, and gave the show a big step forward in terms of a story arc for both plot and character).
It’s clear that this sort of storytelling is not popular anymore. Audiences want and expect forward momentum and big revelations each week, and get frustrated when they don’t get it. The current popularity of shows from the 90s like the various Star Treks and The X-Files, which featured very little serialization in their first seasons, can perhaps be attributed to the ability to binge on the shows now that they’re available on DVD. When you’re watching a season of TV over a week, it feels more serialized than if you were watching it over a season of TV. The annoying “monster of the week” episodes are over quickly and you’re on to mythology episodes without having to wait. On TV today, however, it’s much easier to catch up on a show than it had been even a few years ago when Dollhouse first aired. DVRs are commonplace now, not to mention the availability of on demand viewing and streaming episodes on the show’s websites. It’s now easy to binge and catch up on a current show, and the need for writers to hold back so as to not alienate new viewers might be a thing of the past. Regardless, Whedon’s philosophy is clearly in effect with SHIELD, for better or worse, which is why I preach patience.
I appreciate his rationale, because that sort of storytelling appeals to me. If a show starts with something huge, it then is forced to try to live up to that every week, which makes it hard to build. I like a slower paced show, giving the characters time to grow and for the show to find a rhythm. I want my TV shows to feel different than movies. I realize, however, that this is just me, and for better or worse SHIELD is going to have to deal with the fact that it’s what some might call “outdated” in its style. It doesn’t help matters that the cast, while generally strong, doesn’t have the natural chemistry that other casts seem to have (Buffy and Sleepy Hollow come to mind), but I feel like every episode since the 2nd one has gotten progressively better, and the character interactions are getting more interesting as things progress. The only real criticism I have for the show is its use of FitzSimmons, who are cute and funny but do little else for the show. I’m willing to wait on that, but it’s definitely something to be addressed, and soon, but the SHIELD crew.
But on to Darren’s criticisms and suggestions. He starts off fairly by admitting that SHIELD being a “resolutely okay TV show” is an accomplishment. He is willing to admit the context of the show’s creation and to realize that the solutions to the problems he sees might not be simple to implement, given the number of concerned groups that have a say in its creation. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from making his recommendations anyway, despite how unrealistic or short sighted some of them may be. His first group of suggestions are “Soft Touch” suggestions, that would theoretically be easy to implement. The first one is that the show should immediately reveal how Coulson returned from the dead. I understand that the teases about this plot point are both recurring and repetitive, but I think the reason that it hasn’t progressed is entirely due to Whedon’s philosophy I discussed above. Obviously the show is building to a revelation on what happened to Coulson, and based on this interview we probably won’t have to wait very long, but if revealed in the first few episodes it would have no impact. It’s important for us to hear how Coulson is different before we can care about how he might have been changed by his resurrection. I predict that the answers will come either near or at the end of the first half of this season (episode 13 or so), given the comments about how their plot was planned out based on originally having only a 13 episode order for the show.
I agree somewhat with the suggestion that SHIELD cut down on the “touchscreen storytelling”, because it’s true that they have an overreliance on that sort of tech on the show. It’s tough to balance, because Skye’s primary function is as a hacker, so there will definitely be some computer screen time in the show every week, but the show could do with cutting down on it a bit. I disagree that the climax of last week’s show was touchscreen related, however, and I think that he misinterpreted the episode, and perhaps the show in general. He refers to the hacking scene as “the climactic action scene”, which I think is entirely wrong. For starters, despite how it may appear SHIELD is not an “action” show. It’s an investigative/problem solving show, so I don’t expect or want every episode to end with an action scene, and therefore the scenes we are given shouldn’t be interpreted as such. The climax of the episode actually occurred when Coulson made the decision/realization that Chan/Scorch was beyond saving and that they had to take him out in order to save others. It was not an issue of “how do we beat this badguy and escape”, but one of “can we save this person is he too far gone?” which for me is the far more interesting storyline. I’ll deal with his other “Soft Touch” issue, “stop referencing The Avengers” a little further down, but I will say that this also ties into the Whedon philosophy of making sure that new viewers on the same page as ones who watched from the first episode.
Darren calls his next group of suggestions a “Big Shift”, but I think several of these stem from a lack of patience with the type of storytelling on SHIELD. His suggestion of limiting the group’s resources is a good one, but I think it’s far too soon for that. That seems like the sort of plot point that would come along in a 2nd or 3rd season of the show. Actually, since the moment Coulson hid the Gravitonium in episode 3 from SHIELD as a whole, I’ve assumed that at some point in the future Coulson’s crew would have a break with their parent organization and go rogue. It’s predictable, in a sense, but it’s also a storyline that would work very well with the show and the characters. However, just like Darren’s example of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, the fourth film in the series, that storyline requires an established system before breaking from that system can have any meaning. Without years of Buffy working for the Watchers Council it would have been meaningless for her to rebel against them. It’s far more interesting to watch a believer lose faith than it is to watch a character start as a rebel and stay a rebel. We’re seeing Skye go from rebel to believer this season (putting on the bracelet was a big step), and I would expect to see Coulson go from believer to rebel as the show progresses.
I also think it’s too soon to start killing people off. There will certainly be death to come, considering Joss Whedon’s affinity for that (Book, Wash, Doyle, Cordelia, Joyce and Tara, just to name a few), but he prefers deaths with impact rather than deaths just for the sake of killing someone. If the show lasts, I don’t expect all of our main cast to still be around at the end, and I would be willing to bet it’s shocking and emotional when it happens, but it would be meaningless so soon. Darren’s other suggestion, about how SHIELD should stop worrying about continuity, is incredibly unlikely. It’s important to Marvel that the show fit in with what they’ve established of their Cinematic Universe and with their plans for the future. That’s not going to change, and wishing for it or suggesting for it is an exercise in futility. It can be limiting for the show, but it’s something the writers will have to find a way to work around. I think they’ve done a decent job of it so far, but regardless that is not something I see changing.
Darren’s “Total Reboot” suggestions are a bit silly to me, but they do feed into something that I hear a lot online from people who are complaining about the show. His suggestion of some of the agents turning out to be “evil” (for lack of a better word) might eventually happen, but it’s too soon to bring on a big twist like that. It’s very similar to his suggestion about limiting the group’s resources, which could tie in with a rebellion of the crew against SHIELD as a whole. He also brings up Marvel’s deep roster of c-list heroes that SHIELD could pull from, saying that “Turning SHIELD into the low-cost Superhero Theater would instantly heighten the engagement level of SHIELD fans, and create an immediate day-after talking point: What hero/villain did they feature? Did they do them justice?” I think this is a horrible idea, for several reasons. Firstly, while this would get comic fans talking, it would alienate casual viewers. I’m a geek, and I’m a big fan of superhero movies, but bringing in c-level heroes from the comics would mean nothing to me. I don’t know who the Iron Fist (one of Darren’s suggestions) is, and including him wouldn’t get me interested at all. I had no idea who Graviton was until I looked him up, despite SHIELD featuring his origin story in an episode. And while it would get people on the internet talking, it wouldn’t necessarily be in a good way. Remember Iron Man 3 and how it handled the classic villain The Mandarin? It hugely divided the fanbase, creating groups who appreciated the unconventional turn and groups who were furious that they hadn’t been faithful to the comics. That’s a road that SHIELD doesn’t want to walk down, because diving the fanbase may get people talking but it doesn’t make for loyal viewers.
Secondly, this suggestion would distract people from the show. It’s one thing to feature a familiar face every now and then, and quite another to fill every episode with these sorts of characters every week. The show would cease to be about the crew and would be just about the guest star of the week. There’s a time and place for this sort of thing, but it’s not every week. Which feeds into the third reason, which is that this simply is not that kind of show. The creators have been very explicit that the show is about the ordinary people who live in a world full of mysterious things and people with powers. But the focus is on the “average, if extremely attractive and brilliant, Joes”. What Darren is basically saying is that he wants a different show than what we have, which I think is people’s real issue with SHIELD.
Early in the article, Darren says “Listen, none of us really knew what to expect from SHIELD.” I think that is a bit of a true lie. A lot of the criticisms from the show seem to stem from the issue of expectations vs. reality. This is often the case when a highly anticipated show, film or book finally arrives. However, I think that the claim that “none of us really knew what to expect” is a load of crap. What he probably means to say is that “none of us could really decide what we wanted”, which would have been a much more honest statement. TV shows (and movies and such) are responsible for the way they promote themselves and for the message they put out there about what is coming, and sometimes it can get them in trouble. Sometimes things are intentionally misleading in order to gain more viewers, either by implying plotlines that they never intended to follow through on or by misrepresenting the show so as to appeal to those who would otherwise be uninterested. But SHIELD was never that much of an unknown.
The Avengers was one of the most successful films of all time. It’s the 3rd highest grossing film ever, and holds many records on the financial side of things. What’s more, it was widely praised and was the most talked about film of the summer when it was released. It was a success for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that it was a never-before-seen experience having all of these big name heroes uniting in a single film. Beyond that, however, it hit people on a personal level because it appealed to them on a variety of levels. It had action and explosions and fantastic effects for those who wanted that, sexy and charismatic actors and actresses, a fun and witty script and some solid emotional beats. It also walked a fine line between loyalty to what came before and blazing its own path. It was a hit with the fanboys/girls and with the masses, and its success is the reason that Agents of SHIELD exists at all.
So when the show was first announced, particularly when it was discovered that the writer/director behind the film would be creating it, people assumed that they’d be getting “The Avengers on TV”. That was quickly shot down, both by the trailers for the series and by interviews with those responsible for its creation. They explained the concept of a team of people without powers responsible for dealing with the consequences of the sort of events seen in the films. Coulson’s inclusion helped define the sort of characters we’d be seeing on the show, and Joss Whedon’s inclusion helped tell us the tone we could expect. So far, I feel like the show has adhered very closely to my expectations, but I realize I’m only one person.
A big issue online seems to be the internal conflict among both the fan community and individuals as to what they want. Even Darren suffers from it in his article. He wants SHIELD to do its own thing and stop referencing The Avengers and the other Marvel Cinematic Universe films, but then wants it to start pulling characters left and right from the comics. Basically he’s saying “stop being a slave to the movies and start being a slave to the comics”. This makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. I’ve seen a lot of complaints after episodes that make no reference to the movies or the comics, and then after episodes like the one with Graviton complaints about how the show needs to do its own thing and not lean on the comics. At this point, I feel like SHIELD is damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
Along the same lines, I hear lots of complaints about the show’s tone, despite the fact that it meshes perfectly with that of The Avengers, which was a huge success. I think this comes from The Avengers being a bit of a superhero fluke. It may have been a perfect film, but it did so despite being counter to the standard operating procedure of superhero movies these days. If you ask people what sort of superhero movies they like, many will mention Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which could not have been darker or broodier. That’s clearly the style these days, as it was carried on to Man of Steel, and even other series like the Spider-man reboot and this year’s The Wolverine. So why, if that is what audiences prefer, was The Avengers such a massive hit? Obviously, people do like the style shared by The Avengers and SHIELD, yet I’ve seen countless complaints about the quippy dialogue and the general humor of the show. I don’t think it’s at all fair to say that the tone is unexpected, especially if you look at Joss Whedon’s other works.
There’s also the issue of how much the studio is controlling Agents of SHIELD. I think it’s fair to imagine that while they have some leeway to tell their own story, there are limits. By all accounts, the studio has been pretty fair and even encouraging of the show, but common sense would dictate that there are probably some strong restrictions on what they’re allowed to do. Continuity is a big deal in the MCU, and I think the show is probably held to that pretty firmly. While they may have less restrictions when it comes to introducing characters from the comics (like Graviton), there still are probably some rules there. Regardless, SHIELD is trying very hard to be its own show, walking the tightrope between loyalty to the universe and actively avoiding being “The Avengers on TV”.
Darren also does little to point out SHIELD’s strong points, of which there are many, but this is understandable as it wasn’t the aim of his article. I feel like I should, though, even if I try to do it in my recaps as much as possible. SHIELD is fast paced and cleverly written, particularly so for a series only on its fifth episode. It does a great job of maintaining the tone of The Avengers, which seemed to be pretty popular despite what has been said online. It has a strong cast, particularly Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson but the rest of the cast as well, who are growing into their roles week by week. This past episode saw some of the best acting and character development yet. It has plenty of action despite not being what I would call an “action show”, along with some impressive visuals that only a big budget can buy. It has a connection to a fascinating world that has entertained millions of people over the course of at least 6 movies with several more on the way, but it’s not tied down to them so much that it can’t stand on its own. It has a vast and deep pool of Marvel characters to draw from, but not an obligation to simply become a “superhero of the week” show.
Even more interestingly, SHIELD’s writers have found a way to make their plots and characters relatable to the state of the world and current events, whether it’s Mike Peterson’s criticism of the American dream in the first episode, Skye’s endorsement of social media and communication in its ability to unite people in common causes in episode two, its anti-Ayn Rand message of episode three or this week’s discussion of the importance and pitfalls of freedom of information. It’s worked some “big ideas” into the type of show that doesn’t generally see big ideas, but has done it in a way that has none of Star Trek’s preachiness. If there’s one thing that I think sets SHIELD apart on its own, it’s that. It makes the show feel modern and connected, but never so focused on these moments that it neglects the story.
So above all I want to ask for patience. SHIELD is a different kind of show than what people might have expected, or might have told themselves they wanted, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a show worth watching. I’m all for personal choice, so if you don’t like it by all means don’t watch it, but I get a bit exhausted hearing it bashed by people who I feel probably would enjoy it if they’d let go of their preconceptions a bit. I think SHIELD will continue to improve, and I have faith in Joss Whedon and the rest of the writers/creators to deliver something unique and interesting as it goes on. At worst, the show is a fun and entertaining way to spend an hour on a Tuesday night, but at best it is a show with a lot of potential and a lot of talent behind it. All it needs is some patience and understanding and it can become something truly great.