Why It Worked…And Why It Didn't: MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.

Why It Worked…And Why It Didn't: MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.

Why It Worked…And Why It Didn't: MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.

SauronsBANE is back with the latest installment of his "Why It Worked" editorials, but with a twist - this time, focused on what went right AND what went wrong with the first season-and-a-half of the divisive, schizophrenic, and at times, maddeningly inconsistent Marvel television show.

Pilot.
0-8-4.
The Asset.
Eye Spy.
Girl in the Flower dress.
F.Z.T.T.

These were the very first 5 episodes of the first season of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.

Well, what’s so special about that, you ask? Honestly? Absolutely nothing. And that was exactly the problem.

These were the only episodes I could manage to watch when Agents of SHIELD first aired. . .before my interest in this show dropped to nil, and I (along with many other viewers around this time too, apparently) just couldn’t bring myself to watch a single second more of this extremely disappointing, lackluster series.

And for the longest time, I didn’t even feel an ounce of regret over that decision, either.

Oh sure, I started to hear some commotion here at CBM.com, The A.V. Club, and a few other sites that the show was actually starting to get good. That it was “finding itself” or “gaining its footing,” or whatever other buzz phrases people like to use to rationalize a rookie show’s first several messy, uneven episodes. I found it easy to ignore those little pockets of praise (amidst a much larger sea of relentless criticism, mind you) and continue to feel confident I made the right choice.

Some highly-marketed crossovers were soon brought to my attention: first concerning Extremis from Iron Man 3, leftover Chitauri relics from The Avengers, and then a Thor: The Dark World crossover. After those came and went, we even got a Lady Sif episode. By most accounts, those episodes ranged from lackluster to flat-out gimmicky. I still wasn’t missing out on much, it seemed.

Then Captain America: The Winter Soldier happened, and everything changed.

 
Or more accurately, the show finally caught up to the game-changing events that took place during The Winter Soldier. And this, it turns out, had been singlehandedly holding the show back from reaching its full potential.

From that point on (as I would eventually discover), Agents of SHIELD actually had a mission, an overarching narrative, a villain with a name and a face, and several interesting character developments - all of which were crucial elements that had been glaringly and conspicuously absent up to that point.

And that was before Season 2 even began, which would feel like a completely different show altogether.

The enormous swell of goodwill and praise directed towards these new developments soon convinced me that this show had turned a corner in a big way. And having only just recently caught up with the mid-season finale of Season 2, I feel I'm finally able to throw out my thoughts on the overall series so far.

So what worked? What didn't? And perhaps more importantly, what can we actually learn from these facts? Let's find out. . .


What Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Got Wrong:

No beating around the bush. No dressing it up in trite, flowery language. I'm just going to come right out and say it:

For the majority of its first season, Agents of SHIELD flat-out sucked.

To be sure, it was actually an interesting dilemma - seemingly in the show's favor, you had Phil (first name: 'Agent') Coulson making his much-anticipated return from seeming death in The Avengers. You had Joss Whedon, the master writer himself, directly helping out with the pilot and possibly the next few episodes as well. You had the first notable instance of a television show being set in the same universe as an ongoing cinematic event. What could possibly go wrong?

Answer: A LOT.

The pilot itself wasn't completely awful, but the next few episodes definitely drove home the point that this show wouldn't nearly be in the same league as the rest of the MCU.


In retrospect, this makes sense. While the just-debuted Agent Carter series appears to be a special case of a Marvel television show that is being closely monitored by prominent members of the MCU films division (including Kevin Feige, Marvel co-president Louis D'esposito, The Winter Soldier director Joe Russo, and Captain America writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely), Agents of SHIELD is run by an entirely separate studio branch that exclusively deals with Marvel's TV side of things. The difference between both shows couldn't be more striking.

On a purely technical level: the early budget for Agents of SHIELD was noticeably small, the sets were inexcusably bland and uninteresting for an espionage show, the poor lighting made everything look cheaper and less cinematic, the action sequences were small-scale and unimaginative, and the various directors for each episode seemed afraid to put their own spin on things, choosing instead to film everything as generically as possible.

From a storytelling standpoint, the plot was stuck in a formulaic "Case-of-the-Week" rut that made it seem more like an NCIS procedural rather than a Marvel television show, any semblance of an overarching plot was nonexistent, and the main characters were total black holes where charisma and personality went to vanish and die.

Okay, fine, it's possible that last point may be exaggerating a bit. But seriously - this leads directly into my first example of what Agents of SHIELD got woefully wrong.


1) The Characters.

Let's just take a look at each member of the initial roster.

  • Grant Ward was written as a wooden, stiff, and ridiculously bland field agent, with no personality of his own, who just happened to be a competent and capable fighter. This intentional blah-ness would pay off in a big way down the line, when he would eventually transform into one of the most entertaining characters on the show. . .but putting up for so long with the pre-HYDRA reveal version of Ward really tested one's patience.

  • Moving on to Melinda May, she was the one character with perhaps the most obvious potential. She was set up as someone who had an interesting and mysterious past, a previous history with Coulson himself, and a far-ranging reputation regarding her top-level skills. . .but the show never decided to actually do anything with all that tantalizing background material, instead portraying her as a detached, emotionless robot of an agent whose defining personality trait consisted of nothing more than beating bad guys up (there WAS a bold choice to have May and Ward hook up with no strings attached, but it sort of fizzled out, went nowhere, and didn't really improve either of the characters at all).

  • As for Fitz and Simmons? For the first 5 episodes, I couldn't even tell who Fitz was, and which one was supposed to be Simmons. They rarely were given actual lines of dialogue, apart from their constant need to annoyingly finish each other's sentences as they spoke in painfully clichéd "tech-speak" mumbo-jumbo (usually accompanied by another character, usually Ward or Skye, who would spout off the equally-clichéd line of "English, please!" Ugh. That awful trope needs to go die in a well already).

  • And Skye was just inexplicable. A no-name hacker (a talented one, to be fair) who Agent Coulson apparently saw something in, enough to roll her into the SHIELD organization despite her obviously murky connections? It's clear only in retrospect, but it was just plain weird how everyone (not just Coulson) treated her like she was so important right from the get-go for some reason. . .only for the writers to neglect to actually give her anything interesting to do with her often-times irritating arc of becoming a full-fledged SHIELD agent.
Early on, the only saving grace here was Phil Coulson himself. After showing up in a handful of MCU movies and immediately charming us with his laid-back personality and dry sense of humor, it seemed like a natural fit to make him the lead of a show that dealt with the super-spy organization associated with our favorite superheroes.

The only problem was that Coulson's appearance necessitated a resurrection from the dead. . .and that actually segues perfectly into the next thing that Agents of SHIELD got horribly wrong.


2) Dragging Out the "T.A.H.I.T.I." Subplot.

Right from the start, I was among the outspoken critics who argued that bringing Coulson back to life would inevitably cheapen his sacrifice from The Avengers.


The show was given every possible opportunity to work some magic and prove the doubters wrong. . .but honestly, even after seeing everything that Agents of SHIELD had to offer with his character, I'm still conflicted over his return from the dead. A big part of the reason for that was just how poorly the showrunners handled the ultimate mystery of exactly how Phil Coulson is still alive after being impaled with Loki's scepter.

In theory, this concept should've and could've been the driving force for the entire first season. . .or even just until the mid-season finale, if the writers didn't want to drag it out too long. But the execution of this idea left much to be desired, as 'dragging it out too long' is exactly what they ended up doing.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of SHIELD would know that it isn't exactly a clean, bright, and shining example of government bureaucracy. The shady organization gets its hands dirty and does whatever it takes to get the job done. Thus, it stands to reason that Coulson's resurrection would probably have something sinister behind it. . .and this suspicion is confirmed in the very first episode, with Maria Hill stating that Coulson can never know about 'Tahiti' and what was done to him there.


That's all fine and dandy, and it even introduced an intriguing mystery that should've given the show an extra boost of narrative propulsion to carry us through the first several episodes. . .except, the only significant progress this subplot ever seemed to make was how it kept being thrown in the audience's face. By the 50th time we saw that Coulson's knee-jerk response to the word 'Tahiti' was "It's a magical place", I was about ready to chuck my TV out the window.

Further hints throughout the next few episodes only reinforced that something was vaguely wrong with Agent Coulson, but the writers seemed content to simply trickle-feed us the tiniest hints and references as to what the actual problem was.

It wasn't until the eleventh episode, titled "The Magical Place", that we even started getting some concrete backstory as to how Coulson was resuscitated. . .and even then, all that build up and suspense led to a single glimpse of a robotic instrument picking into Coulson's exposed brain as he pleaded to die. So basically, a total non-answer plot twist that simply piled on even more questions than answers.

Not surprisingly, it wasn't until John Garrett (Ward's former S.O.) and Agent Antoine Triplett made their first appearances in "T.A.H.I.T.I." that the storyline of Coulson's death began to pick up some steam in a big way. In fact, Episode 14 marked a clear distinction where the show finally began to display signs that it was beginning to realize its own potential.

Yet despite the welcomed boost, Season 1 infuriatingly ended without revealing what Project T.A.H.I.T.I. was officially all about. Clues such as the blue alien body, the fact that SHIELD implanted false memories within Coulson, and Coulson's disturbing behavior of carving alien symbols on walls went a long way towards paying off on the ultimate riddle, yet the entire plot thread stretched into the second season as well (though it would finally be answered once and for all by Season 2 Episode 7 "The Writing on the Wall". . .which was also the 29th total episode of the series).

Luckily, this whole ordeal of constant teases with little-to-no actual payoff became tolerable thanks to the show's noticeable uptick in quality. To its credit, Agents of SHIELD eventually improved on almost every single one of its failures and ended up delivering an excellent final stretch of superb episodes.



What Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Got Right:

If there's one thing that the creators of Agents of SHIELD should have learned by now, it's this:

By itself, Marvel's brand name will only take you so far.

Indeed, the show's first season experienced mostly solid ratings and viewership totals - no doubt buoyed by the rather marketable fact that this show was taking place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But nothing lasts forever, and all that goodwill eventually gave way and all but disappeared. . .just as the show was starting to get good, frustratingly.

The ratings may not reflect it now, but Agents of SHIELD has clearly learned (and continues to learn) from its mistakes, turned a complete 180, and finally delivered the superhero show that it should've been right from the start.


1) Reinventing the Characters.

As poorly-written, one-dimensional, and flat-out boring as the majority of the main cast ended up being, I can't emphasize enough how the appearance of personable, charismatic, and fun characters such as Trip, Alphonso "Mack" Mackenzie, Lance Hunter, Bobbi Morse (perhaps the best and most well-rounded addition to the cast, IMO), and John Garrett turned out to have such a lasting ripple effect on the rest of the pre-existing cast.

  • Suddenly, the previously-bland Grant Ward had a mysterious father figure - a father figure that secretly worked for HYDRA and therefore completely changed the tenor of Ward's relationship with the team (a role like this needed someone like Bill Paxton to just go hog-wild and chew the scenery with reckless abandon, and it was so much fun to watch. . .right down to that perfectly Whedon-esque death scene).
No longer was Ward simply one of SHIELD's best agents, eager to be on Phil Coulson's team for some odd reason. . .now he had become a bona fide villain and a total wild card, complete with conflicted allegiances, complicated emotions, and an undying loyalty to the man revealed to be the mysterious "Clairvoyant" (which, along with the awful "Deathlok" thing with Mike Peterson, was one of the show's earliest and most misguided attempts to establish some kind of long-term narrative. . .needless to say, it didn't really work). 

When Season 2 picked up with Ward in SHIELD custody, sporting a scruffy beard, a ridiculously jacked physique, and a sick, twisted, puppy-dog love for Skye, the possibilities for this 'new' character were endless. His unhinged, obsessive psychopathy became a much more interesting development than his previously boring straight-man attitude, his cold-hearted betrayal of the team was a genuine shock, and his multiple attempted murders led to some dramatic and cathartic interactions with his estranged team of SHIELD agents.

Oh, and he also straight-up murdered his brother and parents. The dude's certainly turned into one fascinating, monstrous little son of a gun.
  • Melinda May, on the other hand, would soon be evidence of one of the few positives to come out of the TAHITI mess, as it established Agent May as a sort of protective older sister towards Coulson. Her constant concerns over Coulson's well-being (prompted by how Garrett went insane because of the GH.325 Kree serum he was injected with) finally offered some much-needed, tangible insights on their relationship with each other, and the writers suddenly realized they could capitalize on such a backstory by incorporating it directly into the plot.
As a result, the entire episode of "Face My Enemy", which featured May and Coulson going undercover, sharing a wonderfully-choreographed dance/recon, and repeatedly referencing their shared history together (complete with several kick-ass action sequences with a pesky Melinda May lookalike), was a major highlight.

  • If it weren't for Ward's complete turnaround, I would say that FitzSimmons were the absolute pinnacle of SHIELD's new direction. Somewhere along the way, the unbearable team of quirky scientists became the genuine emotional core to the whole show. I never thought I'd see the day where I would actually miss Simmons completing Fitz's thoughts (see, I even managed to learn to tell the two of them apart! Progress!), but it actually happened.
The turning point for me occurred when Ward dropped the pair out of Coulson's plane and into the ocean, and Fitz finally had motivation to reveal his true feelings for his close friend. Though it was unclear if she reciprocated those romantic feelings at the time, Fitz selflessly figured out a way to save her life. . .though it left him substantially damaged.

One of the best decisions for Season 2 was having Fitz injured, utterly broken, and struggling to make himself of use to his team. Not only did this turn his character completely upside down and open up several new directions for him, but it led to the heartbreaking discovery that Simmons had left him during the hiatus and he had only been hallucinating her.

Somehow, Fitz and Simmons' interactions throughout Season 2 would continue to be a constant source for raw emotion and drama, but without ever becoming overbearing.
  • And Skye. What can I possibly say about Skye? I'm not quite ready to proclaim her as the most-improved character in the show, but I do have to give credit where credit is due. Writers Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen clearly had an endgame for her in mind all along. . .it just took a little while to finally get there.
And boy, did it take its time.

In the early going, the show managed to simultaneously insult our intelligence and waste valuable time by having Skye waver over her true loyalties (no, writers, Skye is clearly not actually a double-agent for an anonymous hacker group that we will soon never hear about again). After the team finally got around to trusting her, we then had to accept that becoming a SHIELD agent was now her life-long dream. Once that happened, the HYDRA reveal had taken place, the season ended, and the hiatus provided a fully-welcomed excuse to jump ahead to Skye already being a badass spy under the tutelage of Agent May.

All of a sudden, the writers seemed confident enough to kick-start her path to becoming a superhero. Previous hints about her past were expanded upon with the introduction of her mysterious father (a delightfully hammy, yet sinister performance by Kyle MacLachlan), the previously-indecipherable Raina was wisely folded into that subplot, Coulson's Kree-related issues turned out to be directly connected to the search for the hidden alien city, and it all led to one hell of a memorable mid-season finale.



2) Creating Overarching Narratives.

Of course, in order to get to that very satisfying winter finale and witness 'Skye' turn into 'Quake' before our very eyes, the show had some serious heavy-lifting to do first. At the top of the list was the task of creating some sort of long-term storytelling that would provide some structure for the season.

The Inhumans plotline ended up being the pivotal event that Season 2 would revolve around, but Season 1 had been doing nothing but sitting still and treading water until it caught up with The Winter Soldier. It turns out that the threat of HYDRA was exactly what the show needed to make it to the finish line and redeem its much-maligned rookie season.

One of the biggest hindrances to establishing an overarching plotline right from the get-go was the fact that there were just so many episodes to get through. This meant that there were plenty of episodes that, in the hands of untested and unproven writers, would inevitably lead to filler, inconsequential episodes, and aimless wheel-spinning.

Unfortunately, this led to entire handfuls of episodes early on that are totally dispensable and utterly meaningless in the grand scheme of things, and I can't think of something more damning to a television show than a criticism like that.


Again, this was clearly a direct result of the writers being forced to wait until the Captain America sequel came out before they could reveal the presence of the HYDRA infestation. . .but that's still no excuse for not being able to make the earlier episodes more engaging and more necessary, at the very least on a character-development level.

Thankfully, the HYDRA plot twist managed to shake up the status quo so much that it led to a frantic and thrilling finish to the first season, with enough material and momentum left over to hit the ground running in Season 2.

But the showrunners weren't simply content to milk the exact same plot thread for all it was worth. . .to their credit, they took the initiative and managed to intricately weave a couple of new HYDRA villains into the mix, several new supporting cast members that injected TONS of energy and charisma into the proceedings, and the beginnings of an Inhumans narrative that would pay off brilliantly by the middle of the season.

The best part about that payoff, though?

It's the fact that it happened on a deeply personal level, rather than a cosmic one. The upcoming Phase 3 film will have the budget, time, and talent to explore the larger scope, deeper ramifications, and hidden motivations of the Inhumans. A show like Agents of SHIELD, meanwhile, has the burden of taking a massive concept like that and immediately making it relevant on a personal level.

This is where Skye, and to a lesser extent Raina, comes in. Taking a character we were introduced to in the very first episode, and seeing her changed and transformed into her very own superhero origin story, really drives home the point of the MCU version of the Inhumans. Now the stage is set for even more character revelations regarding Skye and Raina, intriguing plot developments for Coulson's entire team, and the rampant fanboy speculation distinct possibility of a Terrigen bomb.


For a fun little exercise, just take a minute and note where Agents of SHIELD was by the mid-season mark of Season 1, compared to Season 2.

While the team was racing against HYDRA to uncover a hidden Inhuman city, defeat the villainous Daniel Whitehall, and avoid a potential cataclysmic event as a result of the mysterious Obelisk. . .

. . .for comparison's sake, the corresponding tenth episode of Season 1 involved Centipede kidnapping Mike Peterson's son, exchanging him for Coulson, and blowing up a car as they got away - all while our team of supposed high-level SHIELD agents just stood around and let everything happen. And all of this because, you guessed it, Centipede's demands just so happened to revolve around the mystery of Coulson's resurrection.

*Yawn*

Man, what a difference a season makes, huh?


Conclusion:

In many ways, Agents of SHIELD has a lot in common with the fictional organization it bases its name off of. Just like SHIELD itself, the show had tons of great, innocuous qualities on the surface (a diverse cast, the return of Coulson, the MCU connection, etc). . .but dig a little deeper, and you could almost sense the tell-tale signs of HYDRA lurking underneath.


Some might complain that I'm being a little harsh on Season 1 of Agents of SHIELD. After all, it wasn't ALL bad, right? There were some pleasantly 'comic book-y' episodes, enjoyable character interactions, fun easter eggs, and even a shocking revelation or two along the way.

But I think it's undeniable that, after seeing how the first season ended and how the second season picked up the pace. . .few people would disagree that Season 2 was a vast improvement on what had come before.

Heck, one of the biggest criticisms of the show early on was that it had to constantly name-drop all of our favorite Avengers, simply to remind us that this show took place in the same universe.

But now? Look back at the last several episodes.

The plot has been so enthralling, the characters have been so engaging, and the feel of the show has changed so dramatically, that it's actually possible to imagine someone as badass as Mockingbird fighting side-by-side with Black Widow on the big screen. Or, at one time, to have believed the rumors that Trip (ugh, may that man rest in peace) might've popped up in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Or to even look forward to the day that Coulson reveals to the Avengers that he's not quite dead.

New and likable characters, improved direction, stronger world-building, a better budget, and more visceral action all played important roles in improving the show. Indeed, the entire second half of the show is a prime example of just how much of an impact a comic book series can have on the overall cinematic universe.

Introducing characters from the comics that don't quite fit in the movies, setting up storylines and character arcs that make things feel personal for the audience, and serving as a sort of prologue to a huge concept that won't even materialize on the big screen until Phase Three. . .in these regards, Agents of SHIELD absolutely righted the ship, learned from its many mistakes, and became a genuine success.

At this time a year ago, I never would've been caught dead saying those words.

Now? I honestly can't wait until the last half of Season 2 picks up again in early March.

. . .Actually, maybe I can. Agent Carter is kicking all kinds of ass right now.




So there you have it! Thanks for reading, and hope you enjoyed it. Do you totally agree, or find that I'm way off-base? Just want to start a flame-war? Have at it in the comments below!

(But seriously, do try to steer clear of that whole flame-war thing, thanks.)

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