What's Wrong With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. And How to Fix It
I started the fall television season excited about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. As each week's episode plods on, my excitement has dulled and my interest has waned. I get more excited about new episodes of almost every other show I watch (I haven't even bothered to check if this week's episode was new yet). Agents has a metric ton of potential, and so far it has lived up to almost none of it. Here are some of the problems I see and a few suggestions to fix them.
What's the Mission?
Maybe I missed a plot point somewhere, but what's the reason behind this special team? They're flown all over the place, seemingly on Coulson's whim. Are they investigating powerful objects? Check! Are they searching for missing people? Check! Are they playing detective on bizarre circumstances? Check! What's their mission, though? The X-Men are champions of mutantkind, working to further mutants while attempting to maintain a peaceful relationship between mutants and humans. The Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (think Hellboy) investigates and protects the world from the occult, paranormal, and supernatural. Why does S.H.I.E.L.D. exist?
How to fix it:
- Give S.H.I.E.L.D. a mission statement. Make it clear and repeat it (paraphrasing) from time to time.
- Tie the missions together with a theme. Look at Warehouse 13 or Eureka. Look at Arrow. Those characters and teams have clear motivation for *why* they're doing what they do. And that motivation helps me to care about it, too.
I Don't Care About the Characters
Aside from Agent Coulson (who comes into the show with history and character already developed), I honestly couldn't care less about the other characters. I can't even remember their names half the time. There's Agent Handsome, Cute Hacker, The Ninja, and FitzSimmons (oh good, I remember their names, but not which is which). There have been a couple minor dalliances with these characters' past lives, but not nearly enough to make them less two-dimensional.
How to fix it:
- Explore their individual pasts. Flashbacks are an established trope now - use them and abuse them to give us reasons to care about these characters. Why did Cute Hacker start/join/whatever the Rising Tide? Why leave it so easily for S.H.I.E.L.D.? Why did The Ninja want a desk job? (This was touched on recently, but more as a running joke in the episode than as a real insight into her character. If you want to build the character, show, don't tell.)
- Let a character take the helm for a full episode. What happens when Agent Handsome has to outwit an opponent? How would Cute Hacker get out of a physically dangerous situation? I love Agent Coulson, but let the guy take a break.
- Put them in real danger. Want an idea of real danger? Watch Out of Gas or War Stories from Firefly.
- Mix up some chemistry. There's almost no emotional connection between characters - oh sure, there was a hint of something between Agent Handsome and The Ninja. But it lacked a real spark. And drama? Forget about it ...
- Most of all, say their names and give me a reason to remember them.
Where's the Mystery?
Joss Whedon is usually a master of mystery. Much of the disappointment around the cancellation of Firefly is that so many mysteries remain unsolved (unless you read some of the comics). Agents is ostensibly a show all about mysteries - they're supposed to track down and contain powerful objects and beings, right? Is that their mission? Ugh, maybe the mystery is their mission ...
The only ongoing mystery is what really happened in Tahiti. And while that's ... something ... there's only so much that it leaves to the imagination.
How to fix it:
- Introduce minor or side characters whose roles/pasts are cloaked. You screwed the pooch with the professor in the Thor tie-in episode. He could have been much more interesting if we didn't have his past and motivations almost completely wrapped up by the end of the episode.
- While exploring the primary characters in more depth, leave intriguing clues and details unexplained for later teases.
There's Little to No Broader Narrative Arc
Buffy was one of the first shows that really nailed the season arc. Sure, not every episode focused on the Big Bad, but the beginning of a season set up some of the danger and mystery, then the Big Bad disappeared for a bit (making occasional appearances as both a reminder and threat), and the season culminated with a showdown. It's formulaic, but effective. The season arc stuff I've seen in Agents so far either isn't very compelling or it's too hidden. Yes, I've noticed the Centipede Extremis thread, but a) it doesn't feel particularly threatening and b) it's only lightly touched on at all.
How to fix it:
- If Centipede is the broader arc, it should have gotten more screen time. The people in charge should feel like a bigger, looming threat (instead of barely getting away).
- Don't let every episode feel like a completely wrapped up entity. Let threads dangle and pick them up again later.
Where's the Spectacle?
I understand that a television show has a very different budget from a movie. Really, I get it. But with the full weight of Marvel, Disney, and ABC behind this project, you should be able to spend a little more on special effects and location shoots. I understand that as they're primarily flying around the world, there will be *some* time spent in the plane. But that's also a cheap copout when the other locations are completely boring and could take place anywhere.
How to fix it:
- Film scenes of Agents on-set with the rest of the upcoming Avengers movies. Get freakin' Iron Man, Cap, or Thor in the background of a scene. Hell, even showing some realistic damage from Thor 2 in the Thor tie-in episode would have been good. (No, a messy room is not the same.)
- S.H.I.E.L.D. has a helicarrier! Surely you can find a few minutes to refuel on it sometime ...
- While you're globetrotting, get off the goddamn plane and go to a place with real character that doesn't look like a set or a generic city.
- Honestly, fix the lighting. Look at other shows in similar genres - the lighting in Agents feels more like a sitcom and less like an action movie. Lighting sets a mood, and in this case, it's flat.
There's Potential Without Focus
Like every nerd out there, I desperately want this show to be good. The Marvel universe, even the non-superpowered S.H.I.E.L.D. veneer, has so much backstory and potential. But at this point, that's still all it is: potential. Give the Agents a clear mission. Give them character and depth. Give me some mystery to gnaw on and some sense of continuing danger. Most of all, tie these small stories together and give them a broader scope outside of their narrow television world.
Oh, and if you could find some time to let Joss Whedon focus on this instead of his many other exciting projects, that might go a long way toward fixing these ...