Defending Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Finding a Good Offense


by Jonathan Pilley (@omnicomic)

When Marvel announced Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a while back, there was some trepidation on the part of fans. Sure, Marvel was making movies that were surprisingly good and enjoyable to watch, but how could they translate that success to the small screen? Then, the news was announced that Joss Whedon would oversee the show’s creation and nerds felt a little bit better about the prospect. The first episode debuted a few weeks ago, brought back Agent Coulson from the dead and introduced viewers to a new cast of characters running around in the Marvel universe.

Since the premiere episode though, things haven’t been quite as rosy. The first episode was seen by 12.4 million viewers; a number that has since dropped down to 7.1 million as of the most recent episode. The show’s rating among the 18-49 demographic has fallen just as precipitously, starting at 4.7 and then hitting 3.3, 2.9, 2.8 and 2.6 for each subsequent episode. The show definitely has potential, but the big question is why the drop? And what can the show do to turn things around and start going back up instead of down?

First off, the show was released to immeasurable hype. The Avengers is still fresh in everyone’s mind when it comes to superhero movies despite its release in 2012 and the House of M(ickey Mouse) is definitely riding a wave of popularity likely unheard of for them. It’s wholly possible that the first episode garnered so many views based on sheer hype alone. Sure there, were likely a lot of viewers tuning in who were genuinely excited that there was a Marvel show by Whedon. It’s also likely a lot of viewers heard “Avengers” and wanted to tune in based on that. The ratings could be leveling out a bit, where the more hardcore comic book and Marvel fans are sticking around for the series at this point and the more casual fans are tuning out.

Secondly, the big draw to the show is its existence within the Marvel universe. Seeing Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the second episode was a very pleasant surprise, lending some credibility to the team considering he’s their leader. Colbie Smulders as Maria Hill in the first episode also added some gravitas to the show, as she was really the only one who could appropriately re-introduce Agent Coulson to the viewers. The brand recognition of big characters is surely driving audiences to tune in, but Jackson’s appearance was a lot less publicized (read: none) than Smulders’ was. Those are the only two big-name characters to appear in the first five episodes, which is likely hurting its ratings as viewers stop tuning in expecting not to see them.

Third, the show is still trying to find its place in terms of what it wants to be. Right now, it feels somewhere between Heroes and Alias, a middle line that is difficult to straddle successfully. There are some instances where there are characters with superpowers that the team has to contend with and that represent their goal as a team: dealing with the mysteries of the world that the world might not be ready for. There are also many instances where the show relies on high-tech gadgetry and impressive combat skills to carry the episode. There’s a happy medium between the two where the show can find solid ground and become a show that’s more evenly reliant on each, without one or the other seeming to be the whole premise of the show in a given episode.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t so much need to be fixed as it needs to be tweaked. The story itself is pretty interesting, with the agents dealing with the more classified activities around the world. And the actors are pretty well cast for the most part, with each actor settling into their roles to create the cohesive (but dysfunctional) family unit. What she show should do is decide how much it wants to really “live” in the Marvel world. For instance, the show makes numerous references to New York (as in the alien invasion in New York from The Avengers), almost too many at times. It’s fine to use that as an anchoring point for the show, but after a while it just becomes a little annoying.

In the last episode, one of the characters name dropped Captain America/Steve Rogers as a reason for having a superhero/villain name. What the show really needs is for Chris Evans to make an appearance as Captain America, maybe in a new employee orientation video for instance. His presence in such a video would be relatively lighthearted and serve a story purpose (considering just about everyone on the team is new) while also further immersing the show in the Marvel universe. Kevin Spacey hit the nail on the head when he gave the great speech about the lines of acting being blurred across mediums and giving fans the content they want. This is a prime example of that, as Evans or any of the other actors should be more than willing to make a spot cameo that fit within the context of their character.

Agent Coulson was definitely a fan favorite in the Marvel films before his “death” in The Avengers. Considering this is all taking place in a comic book vacuum, it should’ve been assumed that he wouldn’t stay dead. It’s clear that there’s a lot more to Coulson’s revival than he (or anyone else) is letting on and the show should probably spend more time on that. There will likely be a plot twist that he’s a clone or maybe even an android (Vision anyone?), but Coulson himself seems to be in the dark about something regarding his comeback. His presence seems bigger than the other roles on the show for some reason and exploring more of his history might help alleviate that somewhat.

For every instance that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tries to distance itself from the movies, it offers another instance that brings them right back. That might be the show’s biggest problem in that it’s in an awkward limbo phase between acknowledging Marvel and being a spy show on its own. There’s potential for things to more evenly handle both aspects, which will help the show level out and become stronger overall. The pieces are in place for the show to be worth watching every week for both nerds and casual fans of Marvel movies. It’s just a matter of how much more of the Marvel universe the show incorporates from here on out.

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