When geeks started rocking “Joss Whedon is My Master Now” tees and The Avengers grossed roughly one gajillion dollars worldwide, it was sort of assumed that the friendly, part-time feminist/full-time Nerd Lord who gave the world Buffy, Angel and the best lines from Toy Story was untouchable. The announcement was made for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. We were all were excited for a weekly ABC series that played in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and resurrected Agent Phil Coulson, wonderfully portrayed by frequent Mamet collaborator Clark Gregg. A procedural about S.H.I.E.L.D. agents from the Fanboy God responsible for Firefly? I think we were all lining up to trade in arms, legs and other expendable extremities for a slice of this particular pie. Well, we’re three episodes in, and audience response is mixed at best. Oh, the ratings are tasty, sure, but the palpable buzz has completely transformed from the anticipatory mouth frothing we all shared before the pilot aired. Why isn’t this as awesome as we expected? Why aren’t there more overt references to the comics? Why are there so many white people? Why isn’t this show the best thing ever!?
This is important, True Believers. ALL IS NOT LOST. Every single Joss Whedon show starts off not so great, except Firefly, a statistical anomaly so great it was cancelled before the end of its first season and tore a rip so jagged in the Fox space-time continuum that no science fiction show without Ichabod Crane could possibly fill it. We’ve got three episodes under our collective belts, you guys! It’s Christmas time, in the morning! We haven’t missed it! There is still hope!
What we’ve got on our hands is a solid B+, an enjoyable television series that asks for one hour of your time and delivers a fun product that entertains without offending and only treats you like a fraction of a fool with its leaps and bounds of logic and good taste. It’s like Alias minus all of that Rimbaldi crap, but with a side portion of “Hey, what if that random special guest black guy was Rocket Racer? Wouldn’t that be cool?”
In true fanboy, Buzzfeed style, I have compiled for the faint of heart, a (very) brief listicle on how to fix Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. We’re going to get through this, gang.
1) Respect Yourself, TV Series Based On Ridiculous Spy Comic From The 70s
The biggest criticism of Warner Bros. treatment of DC Comics source material in the media is that the WB seems decidedly ashamed of their comic book origins, with their obsession with hyper realism and gritty retellings, while Marvel basks in their four color beginnings. It’s a useful shorthand, one that is more honest than not, unless you take Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. into account, in which case heretofore unexplored levels of genre shame come into play. This series is the most closeted take on funny book storytelling since Arrow thought it was uber tough to have Oliver Queen live in Starling City. My chiefest criticism of this show is that it presents itself as this fun, comic book-y jaunt aimed at fans of the excellent Marvel movies, but in reality, it feels like such a milquetoast procedural that its competing with NCIS is like some cosmic joke, because let’s be frank, this show wants to be NCIS just with the occasional reference to “Tesseract energy” or “Extremis technology.” Oh, sure, they’ll throw out cutesy moments like Coulson brushing off accusations of losing his edge with one-liners like “I saw plenty of action with the Avengers!” Har har, Coulson. You certainly did! I’m so glad we got it on Blu-Ray/DVD combo-pack with optional digital download! Let’s relive those superior storytelling moments while reluctantly inflating your Nielsen ratings out of spite!
Yes, we’re all grateful for getting thrown the Graviton bone in this week’s episode, but we’d be just as content with characters actually born from the comics and plots based on legitimate Marvel minutiae, so we don’t have to subsist on throwaway easter eggs designed to arouse the most anal of ephemera obsessionists. Just ONE agent named Clay Quartermain or Jimmy Woo is literally all it would take. It’s not a deal breaker to use characters from the books, but if you insist on trading on the audience expectation that this is coming from the same lovable source material that gave us Iron Man, maybe having more in common with Jim Steranko than Paul Bellisario might not be the worst idea. It’s not like your core cast of “original” newbies is so superior to the agents we’ve already come to love.
2) A Character-Driven Action Series Might Want To Invest In Some Characters That Don’t Feel Like Obnoxious NPCs
As previously mentioned, Joss Whedon shows tend to have rocky starts. Buffy began as a creature of the week, afterschool special that didn’t hit its transcendent stride until the middle of season two, and Dollhouse began as the dumbest Fox show ever before evolving to one of Whedon’s most rich and thematically complex explorations of identity and morality. What kept viewers on board while those series found their respective footings was a capable cast of endearing performers, and likable, relatable characters for them to inhabit. The S.H.I.E.L.D. agents we are introduced to on this show are photogenic and seem to exist solely for the purpose of production stills, but they lack the belly fire and idiosyncratic charisma necessary to give believable credence to the Whedon clan’s particular brand of Manic Pixie One-Liner Deliverers.
Chiseled leading man Agent Ward is like the least interesting parts of Angel glued onto a Men’s Fitness cutout. Ming Na, the only notable cast member of color, provides a terse, reserved range of emotion that is refreshing as the legendary Agent May, but ultimately comes off as wooden as oak. Agents Hermione, Scotty from Star Trek and Anonymous Hacktivist From tumblr are nice sketches of humorous charm, but lack the depth and heart of any random assortment of Whedon supporting cast archetype they seem to haphazardly evoke. Clark Gregg’s performance as lovable agent Coulson is the singular glue that holds it all together. Gregg is a journeyman actor who has a history of doing a lot more with a lot less, and manages to keep the viewer hooked with his multi-faceted portrayal of a dubiously resurrected soldier still dedicated to the cause. For every stilted moment the writers want to shout in the corner of your ear blatant foreshadowing to the mysterious true nature of just how Coulson lives, Gregg takes a throwaway moment, like Coulson struggling to dismantle a handgun with the efficacy he once possessed, and imbues it with the sense of doubt, dread and worry we naturally feel in a universe where an alcoholic gets to walk around in a robot suit and a Norse God decides to protect us because he loves lattes.
Once the rest of the supporting cast is given some meatier material than vaguely expressed childhood abuse and run of the mill spy training to chew on, they, too, will be able to project the sense of mystery and excitement this show purports to offer in all of it’s prevalent ads and marketing.
The moral of the story, kids, is if you’re going to go out of your way to trade off the astronomical success of a movie as character-driven and spectacle-laden as The Avengers, don’t expect your audience to settle for CSI: 616. No amount of flying cars or Samuel L. Jackson cameos can make up for heart and soul. It’s still early days, and we’ve seen worse shows climb the mountain of heavy audience expectation to grab the brass ring of serialized storytelling excellence. Lesser acronyms have accomplished more, and they didn’t have nearly the zeitgeist momentum or creative talent fueling their engines. Let’s be patient and lean back for the ride, and hope Whedon provides.