Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel Studios’ attempt to bring its franchise-driven storytelling to the small screen, splits readily into three different shows of varying levels of quality. For the first nine or 10 episodes, the show is too often a slog, an attempt to create a weird blend of NCIS and The X-Files with a chaser of superhero dramatics. For every moment that works, there are at least seven that don’t, and the characters are flat and uninteresting. Right after the first of the year, however, producers and showrunners Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen, and Jeffrey Bell started righting the ship. The episodes in this middle portion of the season are often clunky, but they do a better job of fleshing out the characters, and the superhero spy shenanigans start to coalesce into something more interesting than their disparate parts.
All of that was prelude, however, for the version of the show that has appeared from its 17th episode onward, a version of the show that’s had to deal with fallout from the Marvel Studios’ theatrical features in often interesting ways. A show that had absolutely no stakes is suddenly crammed with them, and a show that wouldn’t know how to find a theme if one was handed to it is now beginning to grapple with questions of loyalty and individuality. These episodes have even made a half-hearted attempt to make those first 10 play, by bringing in the idea that all of the gadgets and bad guys the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were after in those episodes are now in the hands of exactly the wrong people. It doesn’t make those early episodes any easier to take—even when one knows the ultimate point of them—but it at least suggests everybody’s learning from their mistakes, which is all anyone can ask from a first-season TV show.
Thus, it feels weirdly like the consensus against Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is vastly overstated, despite the fact that the show wasn’t good for too much of this season. Even in the episodes after that 17th hour, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the show has too often gone in for big, dumb metaphors and moments that overplay predictable emotional beats. It’s easy to see why so many have concluded the show is awful. It arrived weighted with expectations no series could have lived up to, then promptly did absolutely nothing with the faith the audience placed in it. After all, not only was it the first TV extension of the beloved Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it was also the first TV series co-created by Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly’s Joss Whedon since he became the big-deal director of The Avengers. But this wasn’t anything like those shows. Ultimately, disappointingly, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a whiz-bang kids’ show, just like its cinematic forebears.
This is not to disparage any of the show’s big-screen cousins. After all, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of Hollywood’s most potent and mainstream critiques of the post-9/11 security state, all wrapped up in the friendly confines of superhero entertainment. But in the best Marvel films, the vegetables get snuck into the viewer’s diet alongside the jokey dialogue and big action sequences. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has approximately a third of the running time of the average Marvel film, which left it wanting when it came to talking about anything deeper than cool cars and awesome stuff blowing up. Joss Whedon has been less involved with the program than many fans had hoped he might be (since he’s directing Avengers 2 and all), and though Jed Whedon, Tancharoen, and Bell were able lieutenants on other programs, there hasn’t always been the sense that they knew how to steer the ship or make the necessary course corrections.
Fundamentally, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. just didn’t know what it wanted to be. In its mind it’s a Whedon show, but its soul is closer to that of an all-ages adventure—sort of like when George Lucas tried to distill one of his biggest franchises into the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. (At least that program occasionally tried to teach kids something about history.) Bear McCreary’s music was bold and brassy, and both the production design and cinematography worked in some in-between space of poppy colors that nonetheless felt muted. The result: One of TV’s most expensive shows too frequently looked like a children’s series imported from Canada in the 1990s. (There are whole action sequences early in the season that are staggeringly ugly.) Further complicating matters was an adherence to the structure of the Marvel movies, with their “three big fights marking the three acts and some secret revelations” screenplays. That’s fun every six months or so, but it’s murder when the formula comes at you every week.
It also didn’t help that the show was poorly cast, filled with actors unable to liven characters that seemed purposefully dull. Clark Gregg was so much fun in the films as S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Phil Coulson, but he was at sea as the TV show’s center. (He’s always been better as the guy who gets to react to everything than as the guy driving the story.) Faring even worse was Chloe Bennet as female lead Skye, whose character played the audience’s eyes into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and nothing else. Brett Dalton was terminally boring as the show’s token hunk, Agent Ward, while Ming-Na Wen simply gritted her teeth and turned her character into a hyper-competent badass without much support from the scripts. The urge to write in primary colors meant nobody had any shades to play other than bright and fun, and it grew wearying the longer the show went on. Whedon has never been particularly great at casting; he usually finds actors who aren’t very good, then writes around their weaknesses, with the occasional Alyson Hannigan or Alexis Denisof slipping through. But without Whedon around, the series kept writing directly to those weaknesses, not even beginning to change course until midseason, when the show abruptly decided there should be some character development.
Yet as soon as the show made the big turn in episode 17, it snapped into place so quickly that it’s easy to forget how long the growing pains lasted. Bill Paxton was dropping by regularly as an old friend of Coulson’s and revealed a talent for Whedonspeak few in the cast possessed. Gregg started to relax at the show’s center. And both Bennet and Dalton got more basic dramatic situations to play and no longer had to enliven scenes with raw charisma they didn’t have. But how much praise does a show deserve when it was just stringing things out in order to meet a movie’s release date—particularly when the early goings were so hard to deal with? Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. definitely turned a corner, but it did so because dramatic stakes were thrust upon it by another work. Season two will be the proof of how much of this was just always going to happen, but for now, let’s err on the side of hoping the show has found a new gear.
Developed for television by: Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen (from characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)
Starring: Clark Gregg, Chloe Bennet, Brett Dalton, Ming-Na Wen
Airs: Tuesday at 8 p.m. Eastern on ABC.
Format: Hour-long superhero drama
Season to date watched for review