The Struggles of SHIELD

[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]

[Article]

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.


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12 thoughts on “The Struggles of SHIELD”

  1. [Note: Freudian Vampire posted this comment on May 18, 2014.]

    Meh. You make a solid case for why that mediocrity may be beneficial to the show in the long run, but judged on its own merits those first ten episodes are still the most abysmal television I’ve ever had the misfortune to suffer through.

    Although no piece of fiction can exist in a vacuum and everything and anything can be affected by outside influences, I firmly believe that in order to evaluate and critique a series properly one must view it as an art form. This article seems to describe the first half-season as a smart business strategy, and perhaps that is true, but regardless of how this may help the show further down the line, everything from the pilot to Coulson’s capture sucked. Badly.

    Perhaps, when looking back over the show after it ends (or is cancelled, as is more likely), we will come to the conclusion that for all its faults season 1 was necessary to give us the glory of 2, 3 and so on, and that the series as a whole is better for it. That is, in a way, my view of Buffy‘s first season – that despite the cheese and production values it is necessary to the fluency of the series, and that to skip it would be detrimental to the whole experience. For that, I am glad it is there. But, looked at on it’s own, it’s still a mediocre season of television. And Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D was a thousand times worse than Buffy‘s first season ever was (I have cleansed the horrors of “I Robot, You Jane” from my mind).

    As an academic exercise I very much enjoyed this article; if, however, it was meant to be a defense or explanation of the quality of the first ten episodes, I must strongly disagree. But it is an interesting read, regardless.

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  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on May 18, 2014.]

    I certainly don’t think the badness of the early episodes was intentional, and were I critiquing them, they would likely receive very low scores. But I’m trying to put the show in perspective here, particularly in the greater context of fan-based television.

    Buffy the Vampire Slayer, due to its title, concept, and terrible source material (the 1992 movie), barely generated any attention at the time of its premiere. And yet the first time I watched Season One, my reaction was “This isn’t so bad.” It was no masterpiece, to be sure, and it paled greatly when I reached the later seasons. But it wasn’t nearly as bad as my fears had led me to believe it would be.

    Agents of SHIELD came from the opposite perspective, as it was a show everyone was excited for, so that when it initially failed to deliver, the sting hurt significantly more than it did for the first season of Buffy.

    Now, I won’t argue that, in terms of pure quality, Season One of Buffy was a good deal better than the early SHIELD episodes. But while mediocre, I didn’t quite hate those early episodes. Though I try not to, I’ve watched a lot of bad television during my life, and SHIELD was far from the worst.

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  3. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on May 18, 2014.]

    If those first ten episodes were the worst television you’ve ever seen, then you haven’t watched much TV. They were thoroughly mediocre, but they were never outright -bad-.

    Honestly, they didn’t try anywhere near hard enough for it to be awful.

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  4. [Note: Freudian Vampire posted this comment on May 18, 2014.]

    Clearly I am better at avoiding bad television than most, then. You can call it book by cover if you like, but I find that I can generally judge the quality of acting and writing in minutes if not seconds, and if unimpressed I change the channel. Perhaps this means there are some great gems I’m missing out on (if I happened to flick on to Buffy in the middle of “The Puppet Show” I imagine I’d have passed it over as corny and childish) but at the same time it’s saved me wasting my time with rubbish like The Tomorrow People and The Only Way is Essex.

    Despite my loathing of those first episodes, I do think the show improved considerably following the Hydra reveal. I still think it’s renewal is a real insult to the likes of firefly and Freaks & Geeks, but I’m not so sickened that I won’t tune in next year.

    Wow, are these posts making me sound cynical and bitter or what? I swear, I do actually say positive things occasionally. Promise.

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  5. [Note: Sam L posted this comment on May 18, 2014.]

    Jeremy G[/b], your enthusiasm for the show is genuinely infectious. You did a really great job of conveying your own discovery process — I truly feel the joy you had in discovering the show getting better as it progressed over the season.

    However, reading your article was a far more engrossing and enjoyable and experience for me than watching Season One of The Agents of Shield. I think your argument that Joss Whedon intentionally made the first several episodes mediocre to soften expectations for the show’s eventual improvement makes sense. I’d occasionally entertained the notion myself while watching the show this year, and so I can buy that he might have planned it this way as a business decision. Unfortunately, that’s what made my disappointment feel even more crushing. No one should ever aim for mediocrity right out of the gate, but ESPECIALLY not someone who created one of the most original, wildly inventive, and powerful television series of all time.

    The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer looks badly dated and just-on-the-good-side-of-mediocre now, but that’s only because what the show ultimately blossomed into surpassed even its most ardent fans’ greatest expectations. I watched that show from Day One, and I can tell you that when it premiered in 1997, there was nothing on the air like it–it was a gothic horror/comedy/high school drama that mixed incisive depictions of teenage angst with high school-as-hell metaphors and a healthy dose of sarcastic wit… and a little harlequin romance as icing on the cake, instead of taking up the center. Whatever mediocrities it displayed during Season One and the first half of Season Two were not intentional — they were the failures of aiming for art and missing. The mainstream didn’t get it, but critics and teenagers (the series’ target audience) responded to it because addressed their sensibilities without pandering (or condescending) to them. When the show finally did achieve true greatness, it just kept giving us pearls for the rest of the season. Nothing that happened this year on SHIELD can compare to what happened between “Surprise” and “Becoming: Part Two”. It may seem unfair to compare a run of episodes from any series to that, but unfortunately, that is what Joss Whedon blessed us with, so we have to. The characters on SHIELD after one season have scarcely the depth and uniqueness that those on Buffy gave us, and Whedon had 20x the budget and studio backing this time around.

    I think your criticisms of Lost and Heroes are right on the money — their first seasons were fantastic (especially Lost), but quickly caved by trying to do too many things at once. Lost occasionally gave us grace notes, like the wonderful performances of Terry O’Quinn and Michael Emerson; but Heroes, alas, became a lost cause all too quickly.

    However, those shows committed their own sins, and I do not necessarily believe that aiming too high out of the gate is a path to disaster that should be countered by merely aiming for the middle and then promising diamonds down the road. BTVS also pandered to its fan base many times down its path, but managed to give the viewers just enough of what we wanted, sometimes, without ever completely sacrificing its integrity.

    I believe that aiming for temporary mediocrity while pursuing a goal of ultimate greatness is never justified. If something disappoints, it should only do so because it aimed for greatness but just never fully captured the zeitgeist. That might sound cruel, but it’s better to achieve success by capturing the attention who recognize and champion your vision for the art that it is, rather than pandering to a lower common denominator that becomes more popular. I know Joss Whedon used to live by the mantra of giving people what they need, not what they want. However, this isn’t the first time that a genius who created a work of art on a shoestring budget becomes popular and gets the money and backing he didn’t have when he was a starving artist… and creates something more generically entertaining that makes more money, but isn’t the masterpiece that his earlier work was. It won’t be the last time, either.

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  6. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on May 18, 2014.]

    It’s unfair to compare AoS to anything from the second half of Buffy S2. Buffy’s 22nd episode was “What’s My Line, Part Two,” which is far worse than Turn, Turn, Turn or The Beginning of the End, despite Buffy not having it to comply with a studio mandated holding pattern for its first 16 episodes.

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  7. [Note: Kyle posted this comment on May 18, 2014.]

    With the exception of Firefly, all Whedon shows tended to have a rather slow start. This was exemplified by the entirety of Buffy’s first season and a smattering of mediocre episodes in the first half of its second season. Angel also had a rather rough start in its first season. Many of its episodes failed to hold my attention, as they were slow paced and all around uninteresting. The first two thirds of Dollhouse’s first season were kind of boring as well.

    However, what I saw of the openings of those three series were many standalone episodes. While one might think of a standalone episode as a flawed piece of work a majority of the time due to it’s insignificance in relation to it’s corresponding series as a whole, I believe that they are essential to the success and re-watch-ability of any T.V. show. Not only that, but when a writer is able to utilize primarily standalone episodes at the beginning of his/her series, if he/she is smart, he/she can use that standalone composition as an appropriate foundation for the rest of the series. I will elaborate on that further, but first let me take a moment to explain my first point.

    When I go back to re-watch a series or any episode of a series, what keeps me coming back is its standalone episodes. As I said in a previous comment, I value variety in a T.V. show more than almost any other quality (this is, of course, excepting character development and thematic focus). Why? Because it allows me to re-watch an episode or a series without end. This variety can only really be achieved through standalone episodes, in my opinion. I appreciate Whedon’s shows a lot mainly due to their sheer variety and, frankly, superb standalone episodes.

    Now, regarding what I said of the importance of standalone episodes at the beginning of a series. If a show runner is really smart, he/she can use standalone episodes as an effective way of introducing a new show. Why? Well, if the writer/show runner is smart enough, he/she can subtly inject small, but important, doses of character development, and if he/she is a genius (like Whedon), the show runner can add a delicate touch of thematic focus and expression to top it off.

    The first season and the second season, especially, of Buffy did this very well, and it paid off immensely. The show ran for seven seasons, maintaining a quality from the second half of its second season that I believe to be unmatched by any other T.V. series I have ever seen. Angel set itself up even better than Buffy did. It’s first season (largely comprised of standalone episodes), although scattered with a bunch of very mediocre episodes, was very well written and thought out, and, as a result, we got the vast payoff of season two. Dollhouse’s first two thirds of its first season did the same thing as well (though not as well as Buffy or Angel did, imho).

    While a mediocre, largely standalone-episode beginning for any T.V. series can be tedious to watch, the return can be well worth it if not only given patience but also a smart show runner who knows what he/she is doing.

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  8. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on May 18, 2014.]

    I agree it’s extremely difficult not to have our expectations raised when one of our favorite writers announces a new project. And it becomes even more disappointing than usual if said project fails. Still, I did try to cut the show some slack in this department from the beginning, since Joss didn’t really have much to do with the show outside of co-writing the pilot.

    If SHIELD had a mediocre opening, then the blame falls squarely on its own shoulders. But while I think the early episodes deserved criticism, the backlash they received was in part the byproduct of all the hype that it was going to be an amazing show. But – whether unintentionally or not – the show has handled its hype not by attempting to match it (which other shows have tried and ultimately failed to do), but by undercutting it.

    SHIELD‘s legacy is nowhere near determined. But as of this moment, it’s in a better, more flexible place than other shows which premiered in its same position.

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  9. [Note: Thompson posted this comment on May 20, 2014.]

    That’s interesting. I haven’t seen SHIELD, mostly because of reviews like those above, so anything I say is pure outsider speculation. But could it be possible that the comic-book style superhero story doesn’t belong on TV? There are plenty of fantasy and science fiction shows on TV, but none of them have tried to have that polished Marvel feel to them. It seems like they tried to continue that for the small screen but changed the story into a typical network television channel drama. If they were going to do a show like that, perhaps it would be better served on a cable or subscription channel where they can let the writers aim high with the characters from the beginning.

    But as I said, I haven’t seen it so I could be way off. Ironically, reading this article actually made me want to watch the show more. I hope it finds its footing the way Whedon shows seem to do.

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  10. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on May 22, 2014.]

    I’d say the issue is more that it was part of an outside continuity that it had to follow, which essentially hamstrung the show until the 17th episode.

    After all, Arrow is a superhero show on network television, and it’s pretty awesome.

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  11. [Note: Zach posted this comment on October 14, 2014.]

    Eh, Joss Whedon is not the showrunner of Agents of Shield, he wrote the first episode, than handed it to his brother and sister, for those of you who are attributing the successes/failures of the show to him.

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