Despite the unprecedented synergy on display in Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., the show isn’t revolutionary television. It’s slick and fun, but also clichéd and formulaic, struggling to find a distinct voice as it builds on concepts introduced in the Marvel Studios films while trying to appeal to the broadest audience possible. Airing in the first slot of ABC’s Tuesday primetime schedule with a tame TV-PG rating, this is a series the entire family can watch, but when a show is dealing with a morally ambiguous international spy organization, you expect a bit more bite from the stories. Sure, it’s early, and the show is still finding its footing, but with ratings continuing to drop each week, time is running out.
Right now, the characters are pretty, witty ciphers, the plots lack a sense of urgency, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that the series is building to. There are the mysteries of Agent Coulson’s resurrection and the shadowy group working in opposition to S.H.I.E.L.D., but the former doesn’t have a large enough impact on the entire group, and the latter lacks a strong villain for the audience to rally against. S.H.I.E.L.D. is currently focused on taking advantage of elements introduced in the Marvel films, which means dealing with leftover Hydra weapons (Captain America), Extremis test subjects (Iron Man 3), and in this week’s episode, a virus that lives inside a Chitauri helmet (The Avengers). But where are the superheroes? I understand Marvel’s reluctance to introduce any costumed characters on this series that could potentially headline their own films (Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Iron Fist, etc.), but there’s a massive assortment of superheroes available whose presence would make the show seem like a more essential companion to the films.
Part of the problem is that superheroes can be tough on a network television budget, but that’s easily fixed by using characters with less fantastic superpowers. People unfamiliar with comic books may not recognize characters like Mockingbird or Luke Cage, but this show could make them household names in the same way the Marvel films brought Tony Stark and Thor to pop culture prominence. Marvel’s Head of Television and S.H.I.E.L.D. executive producer Jeph Loeb has stated, “We didn’t do the show in order to make an Easter Egg farm,” but superheroes shouldn’t be Easter Eggs. They should be an essential part of this series’ recipe.
I enjoyed “F.Z.Z.T,” yet I can’t help but feel that this series could be so much more. The cast is getting more comfortable with each episode, the effects are some of the strongest on ABC (especially when compared to the network’s SFX-heavy Once Upon A Time series), and there’s a lot of potential for the writers to comment on the real world political climate through the machinations of an organization that is all about policing the globe no matter the cost. But like most procedurals in their formative stage, S.H.I.E.L.D. is stuck in a case-of-the-week rut, telling done-in-one stories that deal with different subject matter, but all feel basically the same. At this point, you can expect every episode to feature Coulson being confused about his resurrection while stoic Melinda Mae tries not to look too concerned, Skye’s loyalties being questioned, banter between Fitz and Simmons, and sexual tension between Skye and Ward. While all those are still in full force this week, “F.Z.Z.T.” thankfully puts a twist on that last element as it reveals Fitz’s crush on Skye, adding some variation to the show’s romantic side.
S.H.I.E.L.D needs to switch up the characters pairings, and while Melinda is still saddled to Coulson, Skye and Ward are split up so that they can spend time with their other teammates. Scenes like Fitz awkwardly flirting with Skye in the lab help to complicate the dynamic in the Bus and reveal new facets of the characters that haven’t been seen yet. While there are overarching plot problems, those can be forgiven if the characters are well developed, but S.H.I.E.L.D. is moving very slowly in that department. We rarely see what these characters are like when they’re not in work mode; if they’re not on the ground investigating, they’re in the plane examining, flying to the next location for more investigating and examining. The scene where the agents played cards at the end of “Eye Spy” is one of my favorites of the series because it showed what these people are like when they’re not in the middle of some sort of catastrophe, and at the start of this week’s episode, we get more of that kind of energy when Fitz and Simmons poke fun at Ward behind his back.
The X-Files influence is strong in “F.Z.Z.T.,” beginning with a creepy opening sequence where a group of Boy Scouts tell scary stories around the campfire before their troop leader is mysteriously killed and left hovering in the air. Once the agents get involved, the episode moves into less atmospheric territory, but the shadiness of Agent Blake (Titus Welliver reprising his role from the “Item 47” Marvel short film) makes me think of The X-Files’ Men In Black, people who worked for a similarly expansive government group with mysterious intentions. The tag for this episode suggests that Coulson is breaking away from the rules and regulations set down for him by his superiors, and it would be great if S.H.I.E.L.D. actually ended up being this season’s Big Bad. Judging by the trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it looks like S.H.I.E.L.D. is one of the villains of that film, and it would be a smart decision to use this series to set up a more villainous role for the organization. (That trailer also poses some interesting questions about the future of this show if it’s renewed for a second season.)
Whedon television shows are always ensemble affairs, with the supporting cast often proving more interesting than the central figures. Firefly is the exception because Captain Mal is awesome, but the relatively bland main heroes of Buffy, Angel, and Dollhouse are surrounded by captivating characters that help elevate each series. Like Firefly, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has the benefit of a charismatic lead in Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson, but the show will only improve as it begins to further explore the histories and relationships of the people under his command. “F.Z.Z.T.” shines a spotlight on Agents Fitz and Simmons, and it benefits from the shift in focus. When Simmons is exposed to the Chitauri virus and quarantined in the lab, Fitz steps up to help her find a
vaccine antiserum, and when it looks like all hope is lost, Simmons goes through with S.H.I.E.L.D. protocol and throws herself out the airlock. The dynamic between the two is very reminiscent of Buffy’s Willow and Xander, two long-time friends who act like brother and sister but easily have the potential for something more. The kiss on the cheek Simmons gives Fitz at the end of the episode makes me think that, like the Buffy pair, Simmons has romantic feelings that are unreciprocated by Fitz, who is fawning over Skye the way season one Xander lusted over Buffy.
Despite my problems with the series, I still look forward to watching S.H.I.E.L.D. every week. It does a good job capturing the thrill of the big screen on a TV budget—as evidenced this week by the action sequence where Ward throws himself out of the airlock to save a falling Simmons—the dialogue is breezy, and the cast becomes more appealing with each new episode. There’s plenty of room for this show to grow, but I’m not ready to write it off yet. It’s already received a full season order, so I expect the show to improve as the writers get the opportunity to address the concerns of the viewing audience, but they need to start fixing those problems immediately or that audience will continue to dwindle away.
- David Sims wasn’t able to join me tonight because he has to cover some sort of political election thingy in his hometown tonight, but he’ll be here next week for some S.H.I.E.L.D.-centric dialogue.
- The November 19th episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. will deal directly with the fallout of Thor: The Dark World. In other news, that movie looks pretty freakin’ cool. (I still can’t believe Marvel found a way to make Thor popular to a wide audience.)
- Bear McCreary’s musical score for this series has been very aggressive with telling the audience exactly how it should feel, but this episode’s opening sequence shows the value in taking it down a notch and letting the action on screen determine the viewer’s emotional response.
- Melinda Mae’s interrogation technique: “Have a cookie.”
- “I don’t sweat; I glisten.”
- “So sad a man died this way. And yet, so amazing.”
- “Little heavy on the iron. But don’t worry, you don’t have to start calling me ‘Iron Man’.”