Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a resolutely okay TV show. It’s neither great nor terrible, neither inspired nor boring. This in itself is an accomplishment. SHIELD – let’s just call it SHIELD, okay? – sits at an uneven borderland between a wide variety of corporate realities. It’s an unprecedented in-continuity TV spinoff-sequel to the equally unprecedented Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s produced by Marvel Studios and airs on ABC, which are in turn both owned by Disney.
For ABC, SHIELD was a tantalizing prospect. It offered the possibility of a built-in fanbase, something which is hugely important in the new post-apocalyptic network economy. (This is the same network that greenlit Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.) For Marvel, SHIELD offered the possibility of extending its reach from the cinema into the living room. Before SHIELD debuted, rumors began circulating that Marvel was already considering a second TV spinoff, this one focusing on Captain America’s Agent Carter. Then SHIELD actually debuted to huge ratings, and the rumors got ambitious: Deadline claims Marvel is shopping a multi-spinoff package of five different projects, totaling 60 episodes. If that’s not true, it could be.
The business behind SHIELD is vastly more interesting and high-stakes than the actual SHIELD TV show. The series was constructed with the relatively low ambition of Not Being Terrible. It didn’t need to be great out of the gate: It just needed to work, to prove that people would watch a Marvel show even if it didn’t star Robert Downey or feature big digital effects.
And the SHIELD pilot overachieved like crazy. It featured charming characters, witty dialogue, and a few long-running mysteries that could theoretically take a season to solve. It got great ratings. Then the second episode aired and sent the gang to a Peruvian temple that looked recycled from the set of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. And Nick Fury made a cameo – a fun bit, but worrisome in the context of a long production cycle during which everyone attached to SHIELD tried to make it clear that the show would not be Cameo Theater.
Every episode since then has been better, but there’s a sense that SHIELD hasn’t quite found its footing. It’s been picked up for the complete first season, but the metrics are shifting against it: Ratings have fallen each week. The show is doing fine compared to, say, NBC. And it’s made just fine, too.
But “fine” isn’t good enough.
Listen, none of us really knew what to expect from SHIELD. It could have been a spot for Marvel’s bench team: The fifth-tier characters who won’t get a movie in the next decade, but who could feasibly motivate an hour of television. (Dr. Druid! Demolition Man! Morbius the Living Vampire! That was off the top of my head.) It would’ve been Once Upon a Time with Marvel superheroes – a feast for fanboys. Or it could’ve gone in the opposite direction: Specifically avoiding anything Marvel-y and being more of a straight-ahead spy thriller with a twist, like the Jim Steranko run on Nick Fury in the ’60s.
Instead, SHIELD is…well, mulch. It’s a show about characters who go everywhere and seem to have limitless resources, but their actual purpose isn’t particularly defined. (At least we know the NCIS people cover the Navy.) Characters make reference to the films constantly, but intermittently: Sometimes, the idea of people with superpowers is astonishing, and other times its commonplace. The show leverages its effects budget whenever it can – a man who can throw fire! – but then spends several scenes an episode on what appears to be a plane set leftover from Iron Man 3. Also, almost every character on the show is a roughly identical cutesy attractive wittybot. Also, I guess they live on a plane, and they’re just flying all the time?
I’m not saying SHIELD is bad. I’m just saying it could be much better. Recognizing that Marvel seems extremely anxious about taking any chances with the show, I’ve offered up a few suggestions with three tiers of radicalness: Soft Touch, Big Shift, and Full-Scale Reboot.
First Level: The Soft Touch
Reveal What Happened To Agent Coulson Immediately: The mystery of Coulson’s resurrection would be a central plotpoint of this season, if it were actually a mystery with clues pointing to some possible answer. But despite a nation of internet people desperate to freezeframe any possible clue towards Coulson being a Life Model Decoy/Prototype for Vision/The Human Incarnation of Mephisto’s Son Blackheart, the show hasn’t really done anything with Coulson’s true nature. People keep on mentioning it – how he’s different, how S.H.I.E.L.D. must have done something to him – but those are just empty teases.
This is a classic first-season-of-Fringe problem: By attempting to save up a “mystery” as an exciting revelation, the show has actually created an emptiness at its core. Season 1 of Fringe cycled around a mysterious revelation presented in such boring terms that it was often referred to as “the Pattern.” Eventually, the creators decided to end the first season with a revelation they’d been planning to save for years: That there was a parallel universe. This immediately raised the show’s game.
The recently-concluded Breaking Bad is another great example of get-to-the-point storytelling: Think how shocked everyone was when Walt confronted Hank in the very first episode of the final season, and think how much more exciting – how unexpected – that made what came next. So sooner we know what Coulson is, the sooner we can get to know just who Coulson is.
Cut Down on the Touchscreen Storytelling: SHIELD seems at times like an attempt to create a network procedural set in the Marvel universe. This is not a bad idea – though it’s not particularly interesting – but could it at least stop being a lazy network procedural? Nearly every episode has several scenes where the cast members stare at various screens while solving things, often while tapping on tablets so that megacomputers can solve everything for them. On this week’s episode, the climactic action scene actually involved someone using a touchscreen that looked like the Fox News deck to save the good guys. This was the climactic action scene: Fingers crawling across a screen.
Even straightforward network procedurals are starting to move away from PowerPoint Mysteries – see Elementary, an old-school procedural built on chemistry between the leads. SHIELD comes from a line of ridiculously vivid comics by Steranko. I’m not saying the show needs to go Full Steranko – I’m not sure any non-animated TV show could, although American Horror Story comes closest. But anytime there’s a long scene of characters staring into a screen, SHIELD cheapens itself.
Stop Referencing The Avengers: The first episode of SHIELD argued that the show was taking place in a world in transition. Aliens just attacked New York; gods walked among us; somewhere in space, the galaxy is being guarded. Fair enough. But the show started off dangerously using its movie franchise as a crutch. The first two episodes rotated around concepts introduced in the movies: Extremis and the Tesseract. Extremis reappeared this past week.
This wouldn’t even be so bad, but for the simple truth about the Marvel moves: Their Macguffins are pretty boring. The Marvel movies tend to focus on a vaguely-defined ultra-powerful thing that can do everything in thingness, and people want it. The Tesseract was at the center of Captain America and The Avengers, and it can do things like vaporize people and open wormholes and control people and stuff. Extremis makes people go kablooey. In the film, these plot points didn’t really matter: Marvel’s movies are much more about sharp blockbuster characterization. But in TV form, the weird dependence on these plot points is a net negative for the whole Marvel onscreen experiment. Ideally, you want SHIELD to be proof that there are a million stories in the Marvel universe. At this point, most of those stories involve Extremis.
The Second Tier: The Big Shift
Limit the SHIELD task force’s Resources: The show’s cast regularly leaps continents and has a vast assortment of weaponry and computers. They fired something into space a few episodes ago. On this week’s episode, they punished a couple people by forcing them to wear bracelets. And what does that bracelet do? “Whatever we want it to do.”
Genre TV auteur Ronald D. Moore famously left Star Trek: Voyager after the show opted to go in a much less interesting direction than its stated concept. It was supposed to be a new kind of Star Trek, about a ship out on the brink with limited resources; but just like on old-school Trek, the ship was always repaired each week and never ran out of food or identical uniforms. Moore went on to make his new Battlestar Galactica, which made high drama out of all those supposedly boring things that Voyager avoided in favor of lame aliens and more Borg.
I’m not saying SHIELD should go full-BSG. (I’m not sure the number-crunchers at Marvel could handle BSG’s ratings.) But it’s a demonstration of a basic rule of narrative: Limitations on Characters are interesting. What if Coulson’s SHIELD team lost its funding – not so much that they couldn’t still have fun adventures, but just enough to actually make you question if they could pull off those adventures? Remember how much fun it was in Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol when none of the IMF’s wacky futuristic gadgets worked anymore?
But Also, Stop Limiting the Narrative Resources: The show has a stated no-magic policy. One character claims there’s no such thing as telepathy or precognition. You can always feel the show straining to not address anything that might affect the movies down the line, so what you’re left with are ninth-level randos (ooohh, Graviton!) who don’t even get the chance to make a serious mark (Graviton was just there to prevent the power of Graviton from doing anything Graviton-like, and the episode ended with a tease that Graviton might become Graviton, someday.) The feeling of long-term franchise curation runs throughout SHIELD, the need to keep things in continuity.
I say throw off the shackles of continuity. Use SHIELD as an opportunity to explore. Five episodes in, the show has defaulted to an evil-science aesthetic, when it’s not defaulting even further to ’90s techno-thriller tomfoolery. This show could be the American light-touch answer to Doctor Who: A show that explores radically different situations each week, with radically different styles. One week could be a monster; one week could be a myth reborn; one week could be a time traveler. Look at X-Files: You think those writers ever worried about the likelihood of ghosts and monsters and stretch-men and Flukemen existing in the same world as aliens? Of course not! It’s ridiculous, except for the fact that X-Files was a brilliant show that was funny and scary and always unexpected, whereas SHIELD just had an episode about a man who can make fire out of his hands.
Start Killing People: The fact that this is only a “second tier” shift is indicative of two things. First, when it comes to character deaths on TV thrillers, the goalposts have moved. The Walking Dead kills minor characters every week and major characters at least twice a season. Second, if any member of the SHIELD cast died next week, the most interesting thing we could say about their character is, “Oh, yeah, they’re the character that died on SHIELD.”
The characters are all very cute and deathly boring, but the simplest way to fix that is to raise the stakes. Follow the Walking Dead model: Cycle out old characters, cycle in new ones. And you can start in-house. Last week’s episode focused on a former protége of Coulson’s gone rogue named Akela Amadour: She left a bigger impression than any of the show’s actual stars, like the guy with the accent and the girl who does computers.
Third Tier: Total Reboot
Bring in the C-List Heroes: Graviton, Shmavitron, let’s see Iron Fist! It’s a commonly accepted fact that Marvel is currently developing roughly three dozen movies based on characters deep in their roster. But Marvel has a deep roster. And let’s just say – for the sake of argument and awesomeness – that Marvel is hard at work on developing Iron Fist, a B-lister at best, into a franchise; that they’re planning an Immortal Iron Fist movie (directed by Justin lin). Let’s even say, for the sake of franchise curation, they don’t want to use Shang-Chi – a proud C-Lister – because they’re saving that up for an Iron Fist sequel.
Fine. There are still tons of potentially fun characters further down the Marvel ranks, who are currently doing nothing except being more exciting than anything Skye has done this entire season of SHIELD. Yeesh, even a character like Black Knight – wields a swords, is a Knight – has some potential. Turning SHIELD into the low-cost Superhero Theater would instantly heighten the engagement level of SHIELD fans, and create an immediate day-after talking point: What hero/villain did they feature? Did they do them justice?
Initiate the Thunderbolts Initiative: One of the great surprises in comic book history came in 1997, in Thunderbolts #1. Marvel had been pitching the series as a new superteam book, with characters like Techno, Atlas, Songbird, and Meteorite, who all had vague powers out of the Bland Hero Handbook. So far so boring…until the last page, where it turned out that the heroes were actually longtime supervillains the Masters of Evil in disguise.
Sounds cool, right? Now, so far this season, the only real character arc has been reserved for Skye, the outsider who is slowly learning to like being on the inside. None of this has really made sense, since Skye’s “hacktivism” is vaguely defined and since Marvel won’t really let SHIELD seem even remotely as nefarious as Skye’s hacktivist conspiracy theorists seem to think, and also because “hacktivism” is the worst word ever invented. But imagine if Skye finally and completely declares herself for SHIELD – maybe even smooches her obvious will-the-won’t-they partner Ward – only to discover that SHIELD really is up to no good?
It need not even be all of SHIELD. Maybe it turns out that the task force has been gathering information for a rogue element of SHIELD – possibly the same element that looks to be causing problems in The Winter Soldier? But if you’re going to go Full Thunderbolts, you need to commit. You know Fitz and Simmons, those charmers with the accent who don’t know their way around a gun? Turns out they’re Russian orphans raised in the gulag who could kill you before breakfast and then have you for breakfast. Or how about Ward and Melinda May, those gruff-but-lovable enforcers who are just doing their job? Turns out they actually turned against SHIELD years ago, and they’ve been secretly using the task force’s infinite funding to build up a powerful force.
Obviously, they couldn’t take over the world – Avengers 2 is coming! But maybe they could seize a small country – perhaps an English-speaking European nation, like Symkaria, which also means you could add in Silver Sable, who is pretty boring but not nearly as boring as Graviton. Since SHIELD has flirted with 9/11 allegory – all that talk about “New York,” how the alien attack “changed everything” – you could make Symkaria into a running mid-00s geopolitical allegory, as our different SHIELD agents work all sides attempting to create a utopia and undercut SHIELD at all costs.
These are my ideas, but I’m intrigued. What would you do to change SHIELD? Do you like it just the way it is? Am I being too hard on the show after five episodes? If anything, given everything the show has going for it, is it possible that we should expect more from SHIELD?