So we’re five weeks in and by now we can all agree that Agents of SHIELD is okay. It’s not really bad, per se, but it feels very, very safe, and given the sheer volume of executive restrictions within which Joss Whedon has to work, it couldn’t really be otherwise. This show was designed to take absolutely no risks that might cause it to fail, and that’s what will guarantee that, in the grand scheme of things, it does fail. This is not going to be remembered for years to come or become anyone’s favorite show. The best it can do is pave the way for better Marvel shows in the future.
Agents of SHIELD has a fine premise and fan favorite Agent Coulson to hold it together; also, in contrast to the Avengers films, it actually has some women in the main cast, including the first woman of color we’ve seen in this universe*. So what is it actually doing wrong and how could it, theoretically, have been done better? Let’s have a look.
The most obvious weakness is the arc, or lack thereof. Villain of the Week shows just don’t cut it anymore, nor should they. There’s simply a limited amount of investment that can be built around characters and situations that were only introduced at the beginning of the episode and will be resolved by the end. Building a continuity while avoiding disrupting the continuity of any other Marvel property would be a major problem, but it’s absolutely necessary and would play to Whedon’s strengths. Who would want to watch a show where, every episode, they discover a MacGuffin and then launch it into the sun?
The show has the rudiments of an arc–most of the episodes end with some hint of how the person, organization, or plot object might reappear–but it’s a facade. Nothing important is really changing as a result of each episode. The stakes are not growing. Everything could instantly be wrapped up by introducing (and then defeating) a big boss who was behind everything for no particular reason. So the first way to improve the show would be to commit to a strong, meaningful arc.
The plotting is weak in the details, too. Far too many of the obstacles are overcome by “use computers to do something” or “apply science gadget.” You might not think there’s better or worse technobabble, but there is. Technobabble needs specificity (think Bond gadgets: the interest comes from how they will come in useful) and setup (so that it doesn’t come out of nowhere and create the feeling that anyone could produce anything as needed). Setting things up in one episode to be used in the next is helpful, so improving the arc dovetails with improvement in this area.
The themes are another problem. The Marvel films deserve credit for not taking a post-9/11 American-imperialist approach to SHIELD and portraying it as a government agency that’s always in the right no matter what it does because it’s fighting the bad guys (like, say, the Counter-Terrorism Unit of 24) SHIELD has its moments of ambiguity: The time when they steal all Jane Foster’s stuff and then act smugly righteous about it and the excellent scene where an argument breaks out after the Avengers discover that Coulson has been lying to them about SHIELD’s activities. Questions about SHIELD’s purpose and ethics get raised and not completely answered.
Those questions get raised now and then in Agents of SHIELD, too, but in a far more mealy-mouthed way. A character will pop up to rant about the evils of government surveillance, but the next moment the team will be happily jetting off to save someone who SHIELD’s surveillance has discovered kidnapped. People may discuss whether SHIELD is right or wrong, but it’s ultimately meaningless because SHIELD is always right. The show would benefit massively from some major blunders and failures that would demonstrate the dangers of SHIELD’s strong-arm approach.
The rest of the problems relate to the characters. It’s surprising that Whedon turned out such a weak cast, but no doubt there was a lot of executive meddling at work. The cast is mostly young, adorable, and bland, which is neither very realistic for an elite government agency nor very compelling to watch, and their blandness leaves very little room for development. Coulson is strong and his backstory is intriguing, but May’s arc feels forced and Fitzsimmons are eminently forgettable. But the biggest problems–and the most room for improvement–fall on Ward and Skye.
Ward is supposed to be the highly competent field agent with absolutely no interpersonal skills, but that’s a completely informed flaw. I can’t think of a single instance where he’s actually made a faux pas or had trouble interacting with someone. Instead, he makes woobie faces and stands around looking sympathetic while people tell him about their troubled pasts. A character who was actually abrasive and repellent, both to other characters and to the audience, would actually be more sympathetic, because we’d have a vested interest in seeing him develop.
And then there’s Skye. Skye falls into what I call “Snape syndrome.” Here’s the issue: Characters with ambiguous motivations are interesting. In a single movie, book, or TV episode, it works great to introduce a character who claims to be an ally but does questionable things and raises suspicion, until the end, when zir true motivations are revealed. But you can’t do this every episode with the same character. It’s tempting on the principle that what worked once will work again, but in order to keep a character acting ambiguously for the entire length of a series without ever doing something that provably puts zir on one side or the other, zie has to act more and more improbably, until finally the only possible explanation for zir behavior is that zie is actively attempting to look ambiguous to the audience**.
Now, it’s fine to make Skye ambiguous, but not at the expense of being a coherent character, and not by making that the only inter-team conflict that we ever get to see. Skye is introduced just fine with a couple of episodes where her motivations are a little dodgy, but the show would be better if she then lost the ambiguity and acted entirely like a good guy for the entire middle of the season. Then, at the end, she can double-cross the team and we might actually be surprised.
Overall, I’d say Agents of SHIELD is more in need of a number of small changes, rather than a big overhaul. Unfortunately, most of these changes couldn’t actually be made at this point (Ward couldn’t suddenly lose his social skills, for instance). Soon we’ll start seeing episodes that were filmed after the show began to air; I hope we’ll start seeing some changes based on viewer response, but if we do, they’ll have to be rather mild changes. Most likely, it will continue to be a pretty good show, and that will be all.
I’ll still watch it, though.
*The main cast is still awfully white (though less white than the Marvel cinematic universe), but Whedon seems to be attempting to balance this out by introducing guest characters of color in nearly every episode. Unfortunately, this means that they’re almost always villains. Oops.
**Additionally, it becomes necessary to raise the stakes in order to keep the audience invested and to prevent them from going “Oh, it’s just that person being kind of sketchy again.” So zie needs to do more and more terrible things, justified afterwards with more and more improbable explanations, until finally Snape has to kill Dumbledore.