Josh Reviews Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1
It picked up a little bit in the final third, with the episodes set after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but nevertheless it’s hard to characterize the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as anything other than a colossal disappointment.
When the show was first announced, I thought it was a brilliant idea. Any type of TV show based on characters from Marvel Comics would pique my interest, but the notion of setting the show in the same continuity as the Marvel Studios films, and to actually have the show weave around the events of future films as they were released? How cool was that idea! It was such a clever combination of never-been-done-before gall and so-obvious-it-hurts common sense. I wasn’t initially wild about the idea of resurrecting Agent Coulson (so memorably killed off in The Avengers), but I loved Clark Gregg’s performance in the role and was not unhappy to get to see more of him. I’ve loved the work of Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen before, so I was thrilled to see them in place as the show-runners, and with Joss Whedon directing the pilot, the series had a can’t-miss feel.
And yet, right away from the pilot (click here for my initial review) it was clear that something wasn’t altogether right with this show. The writing didn’t have the spark I had expected, and the look of the show seemed surprisingly cheap. Worst of all, the characters were flat as can be. I suppose it’s not fair to compare to compare this show to one of the greatest television shows ever made, but compare this cast of characters to that of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, another fantasy-set motley-band-of-heroes-against-the-world show. By the end of the pilot episode of Firefly, I loved those characters. I wanted to know more about each and every one of them, and I was hooked in and ready to watch many, many more episodes with that crew. (Sadly, that never happened.) But even after 22 episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., even in the final episodes of the season, when the plot was flying fast and furious, I really didn’t care one whit for any of these characters. That’s the sin that most sinks the show for me, because if I don’t really care about the characters, the show doesn’t work.
It’s a shame, because once we got to that final batch of episodes, set after Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we got to see some very cool ideas that the writers had clearly had in mind from the very beginning of the show. They knew that the events of The Winter Soldier were coming, and so the show was designed for the audience to get to know and like this group of heroes, only to have the rug totally pulled out from under them two-thirds of the way through the season. That’s an awesome idea, one that takes full advantage of the show’s being set in the movie continuity. Because these films are in development for so long, it gives the TV show’s writers plenty of time to plan ahead and lay out story-threads that will pay off way down the road.
But while the dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the chaos that followed it gave the last batch of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes some exciting momentum and energy, the show was still the same flawed show. The characters were still mostly uninteresting. The action was still cheap-looking. (Oh my god the Deathlok costume was so bad.) And the show still relied on simplistic, by-the-numbers story-telling. There were not a lot of big surprises, and whenever the show started to build up some wow-our-heroes-are-really-in-jeopardy energy it would immediately under-cut it and take the safe, easy way out.
While the revelation of Hydra having corrupted S.H.I.E.L.D. from within was an exciting twist in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it was a story-line that didn’t make a huge amount of sense to me, after thinking about it for a while. In Cap, it seemed like the majority of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were in fact Hydra. How could that have been? What were any of these Hydra sleeper agents fighting for? Had they all really secretly been Nazis for a half-century? Were there no loyal S.H.I.E.L.D. agents remaining other than the main heroes of the film? And what did anyone expect to happen following the disbanding of S.H.I.E.L.D.? That the world’s bad-guys would all suddenly just behave?
I was hoping that the show would answer some of these questions, but disappointingly I found they dodged almost all of them. OK, we get some of Ward’s backstory and learned that he was with Hydra because of his personal connection with Garrett (which was a well-told bit of back-story in one of the final episodes, though also a disappointing softening of Ward’s betrayal because it seems he wasn’t really evil, just misled. If they try to reform this character in season two I am going to be in agony). Garrett meanwhile was only trying to find new ways to keep himself alive, and then in the last episode seemed to go totally insane, so we never got the insight into Hydra that I’d been hoping for. I got a little excited mid-season when the show started introducing some famous S.H.I.E.L.D. agents from the comics (like Victoria Hand) while also bringing into the story the notable S.H.I.E.L.D. agents we’d seen in small roles in the movies and DVD special features (like Jasper Sitwell and Felix Blake). But that excitement faded when they were all quickly killed off or written out, leaving the show’s main characters as apparently the only remaining good-guy S.H.I.E.L.D. agents on the planet. That just seemed too small, too simplistic to me.
Even before the Hydra revelations that spun the show on its axis, the show posed more questions about S.H.I.E.L.D. than it answered (and I don’t think this was intentional). I thought S.H.I.E.L.D. was a relatively small, secret organization. (Though the movies have been very confusing with whether the organization was secret or not. In Iron Man I thought the idea was that no one knew what S.H.I.E.L.D. was, but then in Thor the agents announced themselves to Jane Foster & friends as if they was supposed to know who they were.) But in the show it seemed like S.H.I.E.L.D. was everywhere, even having a huge academy of teenage wanna-be S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. So where then did all of these agents go following the Hydra twist? Were they ALL really Hydra? It just doesn’t quite track to me.
I’m getting bogged down in peripheral details, when really I should focus on the show’s central story-lines that never quite made sense or paid off in a satisfactory way. The show opened with the central mystery of how Agent Coulson survived being killed in The Avengers, but the gradual revelation of answers felt extremely anticlimactic to me. They cast Ron Glass (Shepherd Book!!) for a tiny scene in the pilot that was designed to pique our interest, but when we finally saw him again it was for a “huh?” scene of non-revelation. By the end of the first season, we never got an answer to the nature of Project T.A.H.I.T.I. and what it was all about, and the suggestion in one of the final episodes that patients of the project all went mad was, to me, just an annoying way to try to weaken Coulson’s character. And they made a huge deal in the final episodes about the bad guys stealing the Gravitonium (from one of the season’s initial episodes) from S.H.I.E.L.D., but nothing ever happened with that.
I’m really whaling on the show, and I feel badly about being so hard on it. I did last through the full first season, and there certainly were times when I enjoyed the show. There were moments that were cool, times when I felt like I got a glimpse of the show this could have been. I liked the more plot-heavy, interconnected final episodes. I liked the introduction of Agent Triplett. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t terrible, it’s just that it is so painfully mediocre. This is a show that should be much, much better. It’s a big-budget show that, for reasons that mystify me, looks cheaply made. And it’s a show with some great writers that is, week after week, poorly written.
I am super-excited for the newly announced Agent Carter show, and the idea of two S.H.I.E.L.D. shows next year, one telling the story of the agency’s formation in 1946, and one telling of it’s RE-formation in the present day, has the potential for a ton of coolness. But the writing has got to be better. They’ve got to be bolder and embrace the show’s Marvel Universe connections. Let’s see more well-known Marvel characters and settings. They’ve got to find a way to deepen these characters, to allow us to get to know them and care about them. I’m not yet ready to give up on this show, but I need them to do a lot better. Let’s see what next year brings.