If you’re a frequent visitor to Critically Touched, you’re most likely a fan of Joss Whedon. And if you’re a fan of Joss Whedon, you’ve most likely heard of Agents of SHIELD, a show which debuted last fall as a joint production of Marvel Comics and Whedon’s company, Mutant Enemy. SHIELD, helmed by Joss’ brother Jed Whedon, and his wife Maurissa Tancharoen, is an offshoot of the incredibly popular Marvel film franchise, which has in recent years made blockbusters out of the likes of Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.
Before its premiere last September, SHIELD generated more buzz than most shows could ever dream of. Between Whedon’s involvement and the tie-ins to Marvel Comics, it seemed as though this series couldn’t miss. But then SHIELD premiered… and it missed. Badly. The opening episodes were mediocre, filled with stock characters and forgettable plots. Production values may have been high, and Clark Gregg gave a standout performance as Agent Phil Coulson, but these details mattered little in the face of the pedestrian writing.
But as SHIELD progressed – particularly, around the time it entered the second half of its first season – it began to get better. Stories became more serialized, plots became more engrossing, and characters began to develop nuance. The show hit a creative stride in the home stretch, beginning with “Turn, Turn, Turn”, and sustained the momentum for the rest of the season. The finale, which aired last week, did a great many things right, mixing action, intrigue, humor, and emotion in the classic Whedon tradition.
By now, you’ve probably seen many articles popping up around the Internet about the finale, and how it represents how far the show has come. Many will praise the strengths of the season’s second half, in light of the missteps of the first.
But I’m not here to focus on the second half of Season One of SHIELD. I’m here to focus on the first. Specifically, I’d like to make the case that, while the early episodes of SHIELD were mediocre, that mediocrity was necessary.
Let’s take it from the top. Agents of SHIELD was the most widely anticipated show on television during the summer of 2013. Whedon fans and Marvel fans alike were counting the days until the show’s premiere. (Speaking as a fan of both Whedon and Marvel, I was counting the hours.)
Publicity is important for any show that wishes to succeed. But Agents of SHIELD was not receiving genuine publicity – it was generating hype. And hype is a tricky beast when it comes to television. It involuntarily raises people’s expectations before the show premieres, making them not only yearn for an excellent show, but expect it. And this can often do said show more harm than good.
Looking back over the last decade, we can find several shows which were widely publicized before their premieres, but failed to last more than a single season. Invasion, My Own Worst Enemy, FlashForward, The Event. In each heavily-promoted case, network executives expected a hit – in each case, they got a belly-flop.
Notice a pattern among those shows? All of them focused on mysteries, conspiracies, and other aspects with built-in intrigue. All of them were designed to generate hype – and in essence, that crippled them from the start. These publicity raised people’s expectations way too high… and when the respective series didn’t meet them, they were quickly shown the door.
Most tellingly, these shows were all at least partially inspired by the massive popularity of the mother of all hyped shows.
Ten years ago, Lost, that nutty show about plane-crash survivors marooned on a desert island, generated more pre-premiere hype than any other series at the time. Months before the show debuted, webpages were popping up everywhere, purely in speculation of the widely publicized show. Lost, everyone anticipated, was going to be the greatest series ever!
I’ll be frank: The first season of Lost was actually really good. It featured strong characters, intriguing plots, and twists that made sense. Lost actually avoided the prospects of the hype, because instead of putting the main focus on suspense and intrigue, it began as a show about characters – relatable, human people struggling to survive.
Unfortunately, Lost couldn’t suppress its temptations to give into the fanbase for long. As the series progressed, it became more and more focused on the mysteries of the series, and less interested in the characters trying to unravel them. None of the show’s later seasons matched up to the first, a sad indication that the writers were unwilling to follow up on the human aspect of the series, and chose to play it safe by focusing on the aspects which had generated the hype in the first place. The decline in quality of Lost is an unfortunate example of how dangerous hype can be, even when a show initially manages to overcome its effects.
But Lost is not the worst offender when it comes to shows that inexorably fall victim to hype. No, that dubious honor lies with the NBC series Heroes. When that series premiered in the fall of 2006, publicity was so intense that the show’s tagline (“Save the cheerleader, save the world”) was actually written into the series itself. The first season of Heroes received rave reviews, and – in a first for a superhero-based series – it even garnered an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama. (Though it lost to The Sopranos.) Surely this show would go down in the books as one of network television’s great accomplishments, right?
Wrong. For one thing, even in that high-energy, highly entertaining first season, Heroes featured several story cheats and dues ex machina devices that disrupted its polished flow. The writers, apparently under the impression that comic book logic translates into television logic, tried to bring all the glitz and glam of the printed panel to the small screen on a TV budget, but the results were lukewarm at best. Worse, the season built up to a finale that was anticlimactic in every sense, sacrificing narrative logic in favor of some of the laziest writing to ever ooze its way onto my television screen. From there, the show went downhill, with a second season that featured a slow pace and a lack of clear direction. I quit watching around then, but the general consensus is that the series never recovered. Heroes has marked itself down as one of the biggest letdowns in TV history. (Though for some reason, NBC recently announced that it was resurrecting the show as a miniseries. What the what?)
Comic-book shows rarely work out, for the simple reason that comic books don’t directly translate into shows. Smallville was a banal, wheel-spinning series about Clark Kent’s life pre-Superman that locked itself into narrative stasis with its own promotional pitch (“No flights, no tights”), which guaranteed that he would not wear the costume until the final episode. In the meantime, the show unsuccessfully mixed comic book plots with soapy teen drama in a way that dulled the effects of both. What’s more, it stayed on the air for ten years, forcing the writers to continually drag out the plotlines until Clark could finally put on the cape and tights. The show was (clearly) a financial success, yet I continually find myself looking at it with disdain.
More recently, there was No Ordinary Family, an Incredibles knockoff about a family with superpowers. There were no costumes here, either, but the show featured a stronger debut than Smallville, mixing (somewhat) serialized storytelling with a distinct sense of fun. Unfortunately, the writing of the series left a lot to be desired, with clichéd dialogue and predictable twists encumbering some good performances. The season finale – which wound up, rather thankfully, as the series finale – was nothing short of a haphazard mess, throwing everything it could get its hands on at the viewer in an attempt at leaving a lasting impression.
The underlying problem of No Ordinary Family was the writing. This writing didn’t feel like that of a comic-book show – it felt like a comic book that just “happened” to be a TV show. Listen, I love comic books, but the lavish expanses of the printed genre do not mix with the objectives of primetime television. The more a comic book show tries to feel like a comic book, the more awkward its characters and stories will translate onscreen.
Oops… I seem to have strayed from my original topic. Better transition myself back on track. Um, No Ordinary Family starred Michael Chiklis, and Michael Chiklis also starred on The Shield, and speaking of shows about shields…
In its early episodes, Agents of SHIELD indulged a bit too much in comic book conventions. This, combined with the hype and overall mediocrity, should have braced it for a quick and painful network death.
But put SHIELD in perspective with some of these other shows. Compare it to Lost and Heroes, which raised the expectations of their viewers right off the bat, to the point that their respective drops in quality felt like abrupt gut-punches. Trying to meet already high expectations is a herculean task – but trying to sustain them is darn near impossible.
SHIELD premiered to high expectations – and with the weak quality of its early episodes, immediately lowered them. Yet despite this, fans of Whedon and the Marvel film franchise stuck with the show, hoping it would get better. And by the time it did get better, we welcomed it with open arms, relieved that the show we had placed so much hope in was finally starting to pay off.
Put simply, this could be SHIELD’s big break. It had a large fanbase even before its premiere, and although some fans jumped ship after the early misfires, many of them – including myself – have stayed on board… and recently, have even managed to coax the skeptics back with the promise that the show has gotten better. With the early episodes having lowered our expectations to the point where we no longer expect the show to be the best comic-book series on television, it actually has the chance – and the freedom – to become pretty darn good.
Still skeptical? Let’s turn back the clock a bit and compare SHIELD to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Before this show premiered in 1987, it was widely hyped and anticipated by Trekkers all around the globe. Even back in the pre-Internet era, the publicity surrounding the revival of the Trek franchise was nothing short of infectious. Hopes were high… but they were soon dashed, as the show’s opening season was widely criticized for its stock characterizations and plots.
But fans kept watching. Why? Because it was Star Trek, dammit! With their expectations lowered, fans clung to the show, hoping it would improve and be worthy of the Trek mantle. And as time went by, it did. Within a few years, many fans were calling TNG even better than the original Trek.
Again, I say, Agents of SHIELD needed a slow start, or else it would spend its entire run attempting to sustain the impossibly high expectations it had raised. Now the show has passed that early patch of roughness, and settled into a more agreeable action-adventure motif, we can enjoy it more comfortably, hoping that it won’t fall back into being a bad series while acknowledging that the show itself has “gotten better”. Agents of SHIELD now has the opportunity to earn a respectful place among both the Marvel film franchise and the Whedon television pantheon.
Just don’t spend the whole summer talking about how great Season Two is going to be.