Note: I wrote this entry before viewing episode 5 of SHIELD. There’s an addendum added to the bottom.
Entertainment, by its very definition, is supposed to be enjoyable; you are not expected to convince yourself that something is enjoyable, unless maybe a friend is involved with it. So when I find myself actively working to enjoy Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I know something is wrong. It’s like Dollhouse, all over again, except this time the expectations were so much higher.
I’m not saying S.H.I.E.L.D. is bad, it’s just that by episode 4 of Firefly we were given “Shindig”.
The Expectation: I love Marvel. I love their cinematic universe. And Gods Above know how much I love Joss Whedon. I still hold to the opinion that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the greatest show ever written. The fact that my favorite TV writer was taking on a new show set in the same universe as the films, and right after he did such a fantastic job with The Avengers? Even the underwhelming trailers did not deter my enthusiasm.
The Reality: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been met with a resounding “eh”. io9, my favorite sci-fi blog, hosts a multitude of commentators who loathe the program. Go Google “Agents of SHIELD is”, and tell me the first 4 adjectives that show up in the predictive search. I’ll wait. Now, I don’t agree with most of those, but I will say: If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was not helmed by Whedon, and taking place in my favorite universe, and if Clark Gregg wasn’t in it, I wouldn’t watch it. It’s just not entertaining enough, and, like I said, I have to convince myself to like it.
But let’s break down what’s wrong with it:
1. It’s hard to care about the characters
Skye is a boring character, as is Agent Ward. Coulson is amazing, of course, but he can’t carry the show himself. Every episode so far revolves around the incredibly uninteresting and contrived relationship between Skye and Ward. Fitzsimmons are mostly just background right now, which is too bad, because they are legitimately adorable. Melinda May is probably the most compelling character on the show at the moment, and she’s absent for the majority of each episode.
You can make the excuse that this is just the first season, and it takes a while to develop characters, but then I will bring up Firefly again, which introduced us to nine characters and made us care about all of them within the first few episodes, if not in the pilot alone. As campy as the first season of Buffy was, it’s hard not to love Willow, Xander, and Giles from day one.
2. There’s no established story
At episode four, we have no clear antagonist and no clear story arch. The Rising Sky is such a vague presence it’s impossible to care about. What happened to each of the characters (Coulson’s actually a robot, Melinda May killed someone or something, etc…) is the only through-line of action we have.
To continue the comparison to Firefly, the pilot introduced us to two major antagonists (the alliance and the reavers), gave us a compelling back-story to the characters (the Unification War), and gave us a mysterious, plot-point which drove the story: the reveal of River Tam. On SHIELD, we have the establishment of a team and some references to the movies. Speaking of the movies:
3. It doesn’t fit into the movies or comics
Episode one introduced us to a world changed, where superheroes had rendered regular people into ants, but the show abandoned that idea for a “tech problem” of the week. The show is supposed to be dealing with the fallout from “The Battle of New York”, where aliens invaded, superheroes showed up, and the zeitgeist of our world was transformed. Instead, we have the occasional, easy to miss reference (the random plot device of episode 2 is Chitauri!). At least we were introduced to Graviton in episode three and AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics, not AOL Instant Messaging) in episode four. But still, at the moment it feels more like Alias or Fringe, which is missing the point: It’s supposed to tie into Marvel’s cinematic world.
We need more cameos, and more comic characters showing up. There’s a rich world to mine from, there’s no need to keep developing new characters, especially when they are underwhelming.
4. It’s boring
So the characters aren’t interesting, there’s no real backbone to the story, and it’s not delivering on its promise to be a Marvel show. But the aspect it’s most criticized for is that it’s simply boring. The problem? Unlike Whedon’s earlier programs there are no stakes.
Characters are timid yet confident. Their emotions range from “snarky” to “bored and judgmental.”No one makes any strong decisions character-wise, and it doesn’t give us much to care about.
Threats are vague and overly complicated: what was the threat in episode 2 again? A bomb? I guess it was an alien bomb, which justifies the presence of an elite super-spy organization. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. desperately needs to raise the stakes for its characters, or each episode is going to be flat.
S.H.I.E.L.D. is a paradox for me: On one hand, I’m still watching it and trying to like it. I’m more forgiving of its failings because I have hope that it will improve. On the other hand, my expectations of it were so high that my criticisms are that much stronger. I fail to understand why the man responsible for TV programs like Firefly and Buffy, who wrote episodes like The Body and Objects in Space can pen a show as timid and benign as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., especially following the success of The Avengers.
Meanwhile, Sleepy Hollow, a show I had zero expectations for, continues to be enjoyable. The pilot was fantasy: Likeable characters, a quickly developed storyline, high-stakes, and a solid cast. The developed world is already being tapped for plot ideas (unlike SHIELD), and, honestly, it’s nice to see a show that’s not just about white people, for once.
Seriously, go watch it. It’s fantastic. I’ll keep watching SHIELD, because that is my solemn duty. I’ll let you know if it gets good.
Addendum (with spoilers): I knew I would pay for my snark. Episode five, “The Girl in the Flower Dress”, is the first legitimately good episode, mainly because it addressed all the issues listed above. Skye’s betrayal was the first real thing she’s done that raised the stakes of the relationships, in a way that I’m eager for next week’s episode. The crew’s reaction to her betrayal gave us a chance to see some actual emotions from Ward and Coulson. We finally saw
Skye in her underwear a superhuman, were reminded about Centipede (I had forgotten), and got some great Whedony humor about super-names. And I’m not saying I enjoyed seeing a woman graphically burned to death on screen, but god, the show needed to have something actually happen!