If you told me back in 2009 that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would eventually spawn a weekly television show about S.H.I.E.L.D. produced by Joss 'R.I.P. Firefly' Whedon, I would have probably thrown myself out of a window from sheer excitement. It's the kind of thing geeks love to pitch to each other as dream hypotheticals, like Patton Oswalt's 'Parks and Recreation' Star Wars synopsis, just spitballing impossibilities after discussing the real world disappointments gets too boring. With the announcement of a Luke Cage and Iron Fist miniseries on Netflix, it seems that post-'The Avengers' Marvel has finally realized the financial value of just realizing the forum chatter wet-dreams of the convention crowd, but after what we've seen of 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' the initial reaction will probably be tempered a few steps back from window-leaping this time.
While not a Jar-Jar magnitude misstep, 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' is a significant disappointment both for the generally good Marvel Cinematic Universe and the artistic catalog of Joss Whedon. Its quality can be summed up quite easily with a question: if this show had nothing to do with Marvel, would anybody watch? I'd imagine most people hanging in there are like me, either hoping for content hints about 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' or have to stay in the 'Coulson: LMD or Ghost' pool at work, but outside of that the personality deficit is remarkable and features plots so UPN in freshness that 'Arrow' wouldn't touch them.
However, I don't think the show is broken, and thanks to movie tie- ins and the stubbornness of geeks to never stop watching anything it still has legs enough to hobble back to the realm of entertainment, and even fulfill the considerable potential of the premise. Humble suggestions below.
Moral Consequence and the Whedon Suspicion of Authority
When people think Whedon they probably think of overly-ornate quip pong, TV cancellation, and how Eliza Dushku and Sarah Michelle Gellar look in leather pants. However, as a creator Whedon has one of the clearest moral sensibilities of the writers working in pop-sci-fi today. His feminist ideals are an obvious example, but underpinnings of a basic mistrust of authority and the necessity of individuality runs throughout his works. One of the strongest examples of this was 'Firefly', a theme strengthened and given a central position in the follow-up 'Serenity'. From River Tam to the Reavers, many of the central conflicts of the show came from the government trying to 'improve' humanity, striving for peace through pacification but only creating horror. By contrast, we see the humanity that Whedon praises, free but flawed, with incredible capacity for both viciousness and compassion. However, 'Firefly' was Whedon's argument for the individual to be able to determine their own path, and challenged the structures that didn't trust us to make those calls for ourselves. Whedon's engaging, cancelled, and now largely unjustly forgotten 'Dollhouse' was able to run a tight line of ambiguity, presenting the inhuman business of human trafficking and exploring the folds and justifications of those involved.
Even 'Dr. Horrible' featured a protagonist who sought to be evil, but was really just an idealist frustrated by the stranglehold that powers-that-be have on change. Taking it home with 'The Avengers', the central story arc was initially our heroes uncovering that Nick Fury was maybe being less than truthful (shocker) in his intentions, revealing some pretty unpleasant secrets before he handily distracted them with some bloody playing cards. Even Whedon has admitted that the Hulk's movie-stealing 'puny god' scene had a bit of cheeky atheism peeking out, the ultimate form of authority questioning.
So imagine my disappointment when 'S.H.I.E.L.D.' Episode 5 gave us a scenario where Skye, ex-Wikileaks-esque hacker turned semi-Agent, defended her extrajudicial imprisonment to her indignant boyfriend on the grounds that 'S.H.I.E.L.D.' “doesn't have time” for habeas corpus.
This was shocking to me. Forget the rest of the largely awful episode, from the painful overacting from Ruth Negga to the power-corrupts plot featuring all of the subtly of a Doritos Loco Taco, this single sentence from Skye nearly made me rage quit the show entirely. In a year where public awareness of our government's abuses of surveillance has reached a new summit, a show dismissively depicting Edward Snowden archetypes as shallow self-absorbed hipsters who fail to see the bigger picture was infuriating; for it to come from a Whedon show was crushingly disheartening.
I'm not arguing that 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D' needs to be all-in for the Anonymous crowd, considering who it has as protagonists that wouldn't make a lot of sense dramatically, but 'Dollhouse' played the 'Battlestar Galactica' line of ethical ambiguity, making the audience question their own hard-earned point of view by giving conflicts real complexity and moral imperative. After the first episode I took to Facebook, praising my incorrect assertion of 'S.H.I.E.L.D's unique platform for talking about our age of surveillance and invasionary government practice, portraying Coulson as one of Whedon's dreaded authority figures only with an unshakable moral core that has to wrestle a world and a job full of grey. 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D' still has the ability to be that show, but first it has to present some real moral dilemmas for the cast, not just the thumbs-up/thumbs-down attitude of 'CSI: Miami' simplicity. 'The Avengers' almost did it. 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' looks like it might do it. And 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D' has a chance every week to do it. Sure, they have to probably fight through the House of Mouse, but if Whedon can bring a fraction of his moral energy back then he'll also restore a sense of drama to the currently tepid program.
Read Warren Ellis' “Secret Avengers” and Find a Sense of Awe
In the last scene of the 'S.H.I.E.L.D' pilot, Skye and Coulson climbed into his signature 62' Chevrolet Corvette Lola, and with a shot reminiscent of the end of 'Back to the Future', flew it off into the sky. It was a goofy moment, but full of promise of adventure and a sense that they understood the 'anything-could-happen' nature of what the show could be with all of the Marvel Universe at their fingertips. Lola seemed to symbolize that explorative whimsy, which is fitting since from that moment on the car has remained firmly parked in the hanger.
The reason I bring it up is it reminded me of Warren Ellis' brief run on 'Secret Avengers' in 2010, back when The Heroic Age was the Marvel Now of 'what's actually changed?'. Specifically, I remember Issue #16, “Subland Empire”, where the team found an abandoned underground city beneath Cincinnati containing an old time machine intended for use as a weapon of mass destruction. Since the city was Cold War era super-science the team found a Russian built atomic convertible, very much in the same candy-apple red retro aesthetic as Coulson's Lola. It was such a neat little aside in the overall story, a bunch of superheroes tooling around a cavernous concrete ghost-town in a nuclear powered roadster, wonderfully weird and communicating the same mysterious sense of secret history that Ellis' 'Planetary' specialized in.
Let's examine some similarities between series for a moment. Both feature an episodic exploration of the Marvel Universe, with a top-secret crew getting mixed up in the strange world of super-science and arcane magic that exists just out of reach of the 24 hour news cycle. A lot of people complain about the episode-by-episode nature of 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D', wishing they'd go for the serialized long-form arcs that shows like 'Arrow' utilize. However, this isn't really the problem with 'S.H.I.E.L.D's approach; it's that nothing they investigate is interesting. 'S.H.I.E.L.D' shares a lot in common with 'Fringe', a show I quit watching during Season Two after the super-science started to feel like flabby rehashing of 'The X-Files' episodes. In terms of creativity however, 'S.H.I.E.L.D' makes 'Fringe' feel like Phillip Jose Farmer; Mystery of the Week comes with exciting sounding descriptions like an electrically transmitted virus or a World War II era energy device found in South America, but are revealed to just be a hook-phrases to justify tiresomely old-hat plots. Decades of Marvel history to pull from and the best episode to date has all the working parts of one of 'Alias's weaker episodes.
For all of the extraordinarily pretty and expensive looking set pieces, like last week's impromptu skydive, the shoddy creativity around the central super-science makes the show frequently feel oddly cheap. This even extends to the acceptable Whedon-directed pilot, where the central mystery was built around an arm-piece that looked like a discarded Power Rangers prop and reminding you 'Iron Man 3' came out earlier that year. Think about the stage 'S.H.I.E.L.D' is set on! The world has suddenly become aware that they are not alone in the universe, in literally more ways than one. The world powers are struggling to cobble together their own responses to the eyebrow raising number of People of Mass Destruction that are Americans, utilizing technology that even S.H.I.E.L.D doesn't fully understand. World War II was fought with weapons powered by magic, brilliant minds left discarded technology in their wake as they secretly changed the world, gods and extraterrestrials have walked the same earth. 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D' has a free ticket to be as weird, wonderful, and imaginative as they'd like. The Avengers don't even have clearance to the stuff that our protagonists have, so why does it feel like they're investigating the dishwater of the Marvel U? Have the S.H.I.E.L.D crew take on some startup guys making some backroom Iron Man knockoff suits from Internet plans, or a Taiwanese Gamma lab trying to replicate the Hulk formula in test gorillas. Red Skull inspired neo-Nazis, extraterrestrial refugee families, hell, even just a drunk Asgardian that got lost.
In the end it comes down to a lack of any sense of awe, both for the characters and for us as an audience. Remember, our leads are supposed to be in the frontier, exploring the brand new world that has unfolded since New York. However I don't get that vibe from them, no sense of fear, elation, and curiosity. Every mystery warrants an initial 'hey, cool' before it's straight to easily solving the problem. Watching Fitz and Simmons work on a problem is like watching a video buffer; you know it's going to happen and then the story will just resolve. It needs to feel as new to them as it does to us; we need to see their anxieties, their fuck-ups that awe of true discovery. We need that long car ride through the abandoned supervillian city under Cincinnati, on the hunt for a half-century old-time machine. I can get my airplane hijackings in bad Liam Neeson movies, but there's only one Marvel U. Explore it.
Being a Spy is Scary
I mentioned 'Alias' before, and there are really not a lot of similarities between it and 'S.H.I.E.L.D', but it had what 'S.H.I.E.L.D' sorely lacks and that's any sense of danger. The world of 'Alias' was a scary place, where death, harrowing torture scenes, and disturbing revelations were the currency of drama. It was a spy vs. spy show, of mazes inside mazes, and where every mission had real urgent consequence. Meanwhile, on 'S.H.I.E.L.D' I can count on a single finger the number of times I've felt like any of the characters were in actual danger. A major contributor to this feeling is the professional laxness about S.H.I.E.L.D as an organization in general, something that's actually been expanding for a while.
The central arc of Skye in the show is that she's in training to be an agent, because...I don't know...they hand that stuff out to anyone? Not only was she quite recently working to undermine S.H.I.E.L.D's daily operations, but what is it about her that makes her Agent material? She's goofy, has no ability to defend herself, and has so far been thrown real softballs as situations to prove herself. It feels like offering to train someone to play in Major League Baseball because you were stuck with them in the dugout. In the Marvel Short 'Item 47' two jokey bank robbers are offered consulting positions in S.H.I.E.L.D as a way of getting out of killing them. Even under the watchful eyepatch of Nick Fury it's apparently worth the risk to play Galaga on the bridge of the helicarrier. Some of that's okay (Galaga earned a laugh from everyone I think) but the across the board Summer Camp vibe of S.H.I.E.L.D and their operation really takes the badass level down to 'Get Smart' scale.
'S.H.I.E.L.D' is downright cutesy, making missions feel like rough and tumble field trips, making the end result less engaging and even frivolous. Cute isn't the death sentence, 'Firefly' has a big following in the cute department, but tempered it with a universe full of killers, rapists, and torturers that had to be survived with a smile. 'Buffy' was set in high school but knew just the right amount of horror and violence to put the heroes through to give it a dark edginess at the corners. 'S.H.I.E.L.D' feels like Disney knows kids could be watching and tamps things back to TV-PG, save for the occasional incineration by Chinese pyromancer. 'S.H.I.E.L.D' needs to feel free to get a little scary, make an episode feel like it's loaded with some genuine risk, or else we'll be stuck with Fitz asking opinions of which plaid shirt he should wear today. -- Do I expect 'S.H.I.E.L.D' to make changes? Not really. The show is so out of character for Whedon that I have to expect that there's quite a bit of studio meddling to blame for what we've received. That said, 'S.H.I.E.L.D' isn't entirely broken either. The most recent episode 'F.Z.Z.T.' actually did a good job pretending Simmons was at actual risk, and the scenes featuring Coulson one-on-oneing with a terminal firefighter and Melinda May were well acted and heartfelt.
What we have however is a show with infinite potential afraid to take any kind of risk, leaving the show feeling prepackaged and artificial. Admittedly, it's not that largely less brave than the rest of the Marvel Cinematic catalog, which plays it safe 90% of the time whether the fanbase wants to admit it or not, but it doesn't have the iconic superhero imagery, epic effects budgets, or Hollywood stars to make up for the thick padded kid gloves. 'S.H.I.E.L.D' is already a risk, so take risks with it. It's not like audiences can't take it; I'm still shocked by the wide appeal extremely violent programs like 'The Walking Dead' and 'Breaking Bad' found with the US Weekly crowd. And while splatter won't make 'S.H.I.E.L.D' better, it's got to have some sort of dramatic teeth to make us care what happens next, because people won't hang on much longer if finding out what makes Tahiti so magical is all they've got.
Speaking of Coulson being dead, maybe the fix is simpler than all that. You could just crash the plane, leaving Coulson the only one alive because he's a robot, forcing them to recast the rest of the team. Just saying...