How did Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. go from pop-culture behemoth to scrappy underdog?

Photo: Matthias Clamer (ABC)
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In 100 Episodes, The A.V. Club examines the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity and/or longevity. This entry covers Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., which has run for six seasons and 123 episodes from 2013 to now, premiering seven years ago on September 24, 2013. The final season premieres Wednesday, May 27; this article was originally published ahead of the shortened 13-episode sixth season which aired in the summer of 2019.  

The past spring’s wave of cancellations on ABC was part of a yearly bloodletting, one that happens at the end of every traditional TV season (roughly mid-May) when networks decide which shows will live or die to see another year. This year was particularly brutal—nine shows got the hammer dropped on them—but one show still had yet to hear a decision after all the others: Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. The series, set in the same Marvel Cinematic Universe as its big-screen brethren, was again on the bubble, its future uncertain.

It ended happily once more, albeit in abbreviated form: The series would return next year, following the release of Avengers 4, with the episode order cut from the usual 22 to only 13. For fans, it was a chance to breathe a sigh of relief, but for those interested in the nature of the medium, it was another reminder of one of the more unusual transformations in recent network action series. How did a property with a huge global fan base, directly connected to what is easily now the biggest film franchise in history, end up the feisty underdog, barely surviving by the skin of its teeth against subpar ratings and mainstream inattention? How did the general public get so disinterested in the first place? Shouldn’t this have been a slam dunk for ABC? The tale of the show’s development, and the unexpectedly frustrating obligations of corporate synergy, provide an object lesson in the perils of a shared universe.

Avengers: Infinity War has been a good reminder of just how massive a Marvel tentpole film can be, but when the first Avengers premiered in summer 2012, there had never been anything quite like it before in cinematic history. A giant shared universe, each movie tangentially related to the next, that started with Iron Man and slowly introduced other heroes, only to them bring them together into one massive franchise pileup? It felt exciting and new and part of a cultural moment you didn’t want to miss out on. Moviegoers repaid Joss Whedon and Marvel’s cinematic gamble by making the movie the third-biggest film in history, behind only Titanic and Avatar. (Star Wars: The Force Awakens has since taken third place.) The dream of a shared universe, and the enticing possibilities offered by that structure, was never more appealing to fans.

That was the climate when ABC and Marvel (together under the aegis of parent company Disney since 2009) announced new plans for Marvel Television. The small-screen wing of the company had launched in 2010, and several high-profile projects fizzled or get delayed—a Hulk TV series, a Jessica Jones network show (which eventually moved to Netflix), a Cloak & Dagger drama (which finally came to fruition on Freeform, seven years later), and more—the plan revealed in 2012, shortly after the opening-weekend success of The Avengers, was that the studio was developing its first primetime series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The show would follow agents of the Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)-led government agency S.H.I.E.L.D., a.k.a. Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. (In the pilot, when asked what those words mean, an agent replies, “It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out ‘shield’.”) This would be an opportunity to see the MCU on a weekly basis, led by a beloved supporting character from the films (Clark Gregg’s agent Phil Coulson); and while no one had any illusions that Iron Man would be stopping by to help fight small-screen crimes, it was still a hugely appealing demonstration of the continued determination to make a self-contained Marvel universe across multiple mediums, based on the biggest pop-culture behemoth on the planet. It was, in the eyes of any sane network exec, a no-brainer.

Anticipation was understandably high. The pilot was written and directed by Whedon himself, and featured a combination of old and new faces (ER alum Ming-Na Wen, relative newbies Chloe Bennet and Elizabeth Henstridge), as well as the promise of superpowered spectacle on the small screen that would have a budget to match its ambitions. Marvel fans and curious ABC watchers alike tuned in for the Tuesday-night premiere, and the results seemed to bear out the obvious assumption: S.H.I.E.L.D. was a hit. Pulling in 12.1 million viewers, it was the biggest debut for a TV drama in four years—and it pulled this off going up against CBS and NBC’s biggest shows, NCIS and The Voice. Within weeks, ABC was already picking up a full season order. As expected, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a juggernaut.

Only, a funny thing happened on the way to the mid-season hiatus: People started to notice the show wasn’t actually very good. Despite a strong start (thanks in no small part to Whedon’s participation), S.H.I.E.L.D. quickly foundered in a creative rut, dealing each week with some lackluster third-tier nemeses and delivering uninspired inter-office drama among its core protagonists. It looked bizarrely ugly for being so expensive, and inexperienced showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen couldn’t seem to define themes, structures, or even basic character shading as the series struggled to find an identity. This very site was assigning “D+” grades to individual episodes, because it frankly deserved them; a superhero show with no superheroes, it was a jumbled, leaden mess. As Todd VanDerWerff put it in our season-one recap, “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.”

Yet it turns out audiences weren’t the only ones frustrated by the creative wheel-spinning: The showrunners had essentially been forced into a corner by the events of the larger MCU. As Whedon and Tancharoen would elaborate in subsequent interviews, everything in season one revolved around a giant secret that was revealed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier—namely, that evil organization Hydra had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D., necessitating the collapse of the agency and sending our heroes on the run. That meant the writers had to tread water while building a series from the ground up, a huge roadblock for a new show just trying to find itself. It wasn’t until episode 17 of 22 that S.H.I.E.L.D. could unveil its big secret, and by then the damage had been done: The show had acquired the perception of a big, expensive bore. Viewers checked out in droves, and while it still handily earned a second-season renewal, that first wave of critical and popular scorn was toxic.

By the time season two kicked off, talk of Marvel on the small screen had already shifted to another place: Netflix, which by then was in production on Daredevil, the first of four series announced in a massive deal with Marvel that would provide the MCU a new home on streaming. The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen would soon by followed by Jessica Jones and Luke Cage (and—sigh—Iron Fist), all of which would prove successful for Netflix (not that we can do anything but take their word on that) and all of which would see media attention far outstripping Marvel’s original MCU series. The second-season premiere still got a fair amount of advertising put behind it, but it was markedly restrained in comparison to its blockbuster inaugural year.

Despite being superior in every way to that miserable first season, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. continued to stumble ratings-wise in the second season. The show never recovered from the flood of negative attention it had garnered, and many fans simply tuned out. To be fair, part of the problem was a continuing reliance on slow-burn storytelling spread out over an entire season, which isn’t necessarily the best strategy when viewers are checking in expecting to see thrilling heroics and breathless action each week. The season’s big reveal was introducing the existence of Inhumans—the MCU’s version of mutants, since rights to the X-Men belonged with 20th Century Fox. (Though not for long.) One of the team’s own, Daisy Johnson, was revealed to be one, finally giving the S.H.I.E.L.D. team a super-powered individual of their very own. But bringing powers into the fold appeared to be a case of too little, too late: By the end of season two’s improved but oddly complicated narrative, ratings were soft enough that the third-season pickup was still granted, but far from a lock.

By season three, Whedon and Tancharoen had made great strides in improving the show’s wobbly creative direction, still maintaining a broad narrative arc but introducing better “act breaks” that helped keep it from feeling like a 22-hour movie. The season followed the team as they once more fought against a menacing Hydra leader (Powers Boothe) and his long-held plans to bring about an alien takeover of the planet, also adding new cast members (Henry Simmons’ Mack) while saying goodbye to others (Adrianne Palicki’s Bobbi and Nick Blood’s Lance Hunter, the latter a rare case of an actor’s real name being almost more comic book-y than his character’s). But whereas the previous season had been a steady build to the end, season three juggled multiple arcs and had clearly defined stakes, all of which combined with stronger character development and a more surefooted sense of pacing to create a satisfying year of stories.

Unfortunately, by now Netflix had stolen all the MCU thunder. Jessica Jones and Daredevil season two were both released during this time, and firmly established Netflix as the place to go for Marvel content, leaving ABC as an afterthought. It didn’t help that ABC’s only other attempt at bringing the MCU to network television, Agent Carter, was watched by even fewer people than S.H.I.E.L.D., despite a largely positive critical reception. There was still an audience for this tale of humans and Inhumans alike teaming up to fight evil, but it sure didn’t seem like ABC was paying attention to them.

By the fall of 2016, frustrations about ABC’s lack of interest in its Disney-owned superhero property were spilling over into public view, led in part by series star Chloe Bennet, whose character Daisy, a.k.a. Quake, was playing an increasingly central part. The actor publicly called out Marvel for not caring what happened on the show, and rendering moot all the series’ creative efforts to remain linked to the MCU, which was, after all, kind of the whole point in the first place of the shared universe. But S.H.I.E.L.D.’s place in the MCU was still more of a hindrance to its spark than a help, and the reasons for the disconnect have everything to do with basic issues of production between movies versus TV.

As Joss Whedon explained during a Q&A at the time, the path between Marvel’s films and TV shows will always be a one-way street. On a practical level, the development time for a film takes years, whereas TV seasons by necessity begin and end in the course of 12 months or less. To try and incorporate the happenings on the small screen into massive, long-planned blockbusters simply isn’t feasible. Second, the movies are where Marvel makes its money, its reputation, and its fan base. While shows like S.H.I.E.L.D. or Runaways can benefit from affiliation with their cinematic brethren, they are second in line, always, when it comes to what can be done with Marvel’s deep well of characters and properties. (In recounting how the shows are often told certain things are off-limits based on what future films are planning to so, Whedon said, “Which unfortunately just means the TV show gets, you know, leftovers.”) Put plainly: the events of Infinity War can be acknowledged on S.H.I.E.L.D., but the planetary threat of extinction on season three of S.H.I.E.L.D. would never, ever be mentioned in Infinity War.

But that ever-more-tenuous thread—and the clear disregard for the goings-on in the small-screen world of the MCU by its films—actually proved to be a valuable creative jolt for S.H.I.E.L.D. The show embraced its underdog status, and the more it abandoned efforts to stay up on the timeline of the movies in favor of minor, Easter egg-style acknowledgements of MCU events, the better it got. Season four became the high-water mark of the series, breaking up its narrative into three distinct stories over the course of the year. Rather than mentioning Doctor Strange, for example, a narrative arc involving an alternate dimension featured a portal that looked awfully familiar. Eventually, the show left the real world altogether, entering a malevolent digital universe and subsequently becoming the best version of itself as a result.

And that’s as it should be. No TV show should have its hands tied due to being beholden to films that planned their stories out years ago. By proudly leaning into its spunky behind-the-eight-ball spirit and jettisoning any responsibilities to the larger MCU, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. found its voice. It still possesses its share of uneven storytelling, but what long-running show doesn’t? Rarer still is to see a series with such a public initial flame-out hold on long enough to repair itself creatively, and manage to crawl its way back to the hopes many had for it way back in season one: that it would provide all the satisfying pleasure of the MCU films on the small screen.

A shortened sixth season is an unexpected victory lap—the fifth-season finale acted as a definitive end to the story, suggesting everyone involved thought the end might be nigh—but it’s likely the disastrous debut of Marvel’s Inhumans, which ABC had hoped would inject new life into its corporate partnership, contributed to the extension of S.H.I.E.L.D. Whatever the reason, it’s a well-earned chance to let the series do what it does best: deliver superpowered action, laughs, and drama, all without the weight of MCU world on its shoulders, and with a playful nod and tweak of the nose to its big-screen counterparts.