So it had to happen. You knew I had to say something about it, being the little Marvel-head that I am. Yet I have waited on making comment about Agents of SHIELD for a couple of weeks now. There’s been plenty of internet column inches being devoted to discussions about the show since it went on the air three weeks ago. I tuned in with lots of other Marvel fans to get a look at the Agent Coulson-fueled goodness. And yet, like some, I came away feeling a little let down. The first episode was fun but left me looking for a little something more. “But wait,” I told myself, “it’s the first episode! Pilots always suffer from some problems. Let’s give it a couple of weeks and see how it goes.”
Third episode in, and I’m ready to make a few comments. This is going to be a bit of a breakdown, so here’s the short version in case you suffer from tl;dr syndrome:
Agents of SHIELD isn’t bad. It’s just bland as hell.
The Breakdown: Agents of SHIELD is trying to do something that few TV shows can do properly, which is capture film lightning in a television bottle. The creators were hoping to cash in on the success and excitement of The Avengers by giving fans a weekly tiny dose of what the blockbuster did in two hours. The problem with that expectation is just that: it sets up expectations that fans automatically brought into their viewing of the pilot. So right off the bat, the creators had this huge hurdle to jump in providing a quality, well-placed action-adventure superhero themed weekly television series.
You see where this is a big boatload of problems waiting to happen? Expectations, folks. It’s what kills what could be good projects dead in the water.
You can almost feel the producers straining against those expectations with the choices they’ve made for the show. Agents of SHIELD feels less like a Joss Whedon run at a super-spy in superhero-land adventure than a corporate slick-job on the Marvel franchise, a hand-held airbrushing of the nuances that made The Avengers and the Marvel films interesting. Gone are the engaging characters that come together to tell epic stories. Instead, we’re given a host of brand new characters that we are asked to root for, and then provided with very little reason to do so. The cast smacks of demographic-influenced creation, aimed at drawing in every age group and audience they can. And sadly, the main casting choices for that reason fall hopelessly and awfully short.
I’m talking about our two new main characters, Agent Ward and Skye.
Agent Ward: This cross between 007 and Captain America is meant to be the square-jawed eye candy that keeps the girls interested. Ward is supposed to evoke the brooding, slightly damaged almost anti-hero that has women swoon over James Bond or Wolverine, while stuffing him into a ‘serve the greater good’ SHIELD package. He’s the man who does the wrong things for the right reasons, the loner forced onto a team, finally given a chance to find a place he belongs… The cliches line up all in a row. Brett Dalton’s portrayal does just fine, honestly – I think he’s a halfway decent actor. The problem is he has nothing to grab onto. Agent Ward is a cut-out, a stand-in for all the tag-lines he’s meant to represent, and sadly brings little else to what should be a power-house action hero character. Jason Bourne or Hawkeye, this guy is not. Still, Ward isn’t the worst offender since, as a physical presence, he at least delivers the requisite butt-kicking action.
Skye: Probably the most disappointing of all the choices on the show is the character of Skye, played by Chloe Bennett. This brand new character is a mix of so many bad stereotypes that she barely seems coherent. She’s a homeless high school drop-out who lives in her van, yet dresses like she comes out of an Abercrombie and Fitch ad. She’s a self-taught computer genius who runs a conspiracy theory website from her van, yet she is instantly respected by people like secret government agents and Fortune 500 moguls when she appears out of nowhere after cracking their security systems. She speaks the slick ‘isn’t that what kids sound like these days?’ lingo expected of a hip twenty-something as written by Hollywood writers, all hopped up on caffeine and full of buzz words, turning her into the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope in action. Except this is worse: she’s the Action Barbie version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. See Action Manic Pixie hack computers to find anything, anywhere, all the time! See her try and help on any mission, then fling herself into situations she’s completely overmatched in and survive by batting her eyes and whining some classic, chirpy dialogue before being rescued by Agent Ward!
The obvious story arch here is that the show wants us to get deeper into the plot with Skye, but it is hard to feel anything for a character that gives us so little reason to care about her. Bennett breezes through her lines (as flat and badly written as they are) with zero passion and offers little to no emotional depth in any of her scenes. I’ve seen more reaction from people who get the wrong order at Starbucks than Skye shows when she’s being held at gunpoint. At the end of every episode so far, I have yet to feel at all impacted by Skye’s participation in the storyline and find her performance, and her character as written, unbelievable and completely shallow. And if she’s supposed to be what anchors me into the show as the ‘new girl’ entry character, then we’re in trouble.
But what about the show’s real anchor? What about the reason a lot of us showed up to this shindig to begin with?
Agent Coulson: Oh Agent Coulson. You went from working with the Avengers to effectively picking up SHIELD’s dry cleaning. I adore Clark Gregg and the character of Agent Coulson more than I ever thought I would. It was because of him that I was excited to pick up this show. And it is because of him that I stick through Skye’s awful performances and the hammy dialogue. Gregg brings his usual clippy, cheerful, nuanced performance to a show that desperately needs it and keeps me wanting more. Yet watching him play Coulson next to Ward and Skye feels like watching the character from a beloved franchise running lines with a couple of badly prepared cosplayers. (And that’s no knock at cosplayers, by the way, I know some who would blow Ward and Skye clear out of the WATER). The show gives Coulson so little room to BE Coulson and then tries to keep him only in the realm of the pithy commentary guy. When the producers decided to spin off a side character like Coulson, they had to understand that would require them to provide him with more depth. And yet the first few episodes have seemed as though they were rushing him out of scenes to give time to the new characters, or else missing key opportunities to let Gregg’s awesome performances shine. Plus the places where they tried to include more about his backstory (ahem, forcing a south american ex-love interest) feel awkward and strange. Instead of letting his character feel real, the show seems intent on turning Coulson into a marionette version of himself, yanked on the strings of plot necessity and uneven writing.
So is there anything good to the cast? How about the good possibility space that exists in three of the new characters put on the show: Melinda May, Fitz and Simmons.
Melinda May starts off looking like your typical ‘strong woman’ character. She’s coded that way in her very outfits – precise hair, aviator shades, tight leather SHIELD gear. She’s the Black Widow/ Agent Romanov knock-off right? Yet there’s a nuance to Ming-Na Wen’s performance and to hints in the pilot that talk about what might make May an interesting character. (Too bad that most of that is blown to smithereens in the next two episodes due to mishandling of the dialogue, but I won’t spoil it all). May is meant to be the stoic with a haunted past, staying away from violence for perhaps a good reason. There’s so much possibility space there that is being hopelessly wasted from episode to episode leaving her as effectively the chauffeur of the team.
Equally wasted are Fitz and Simmons, the comedy tech duo of the team. Meant to round out the somber, often wooden cast, these two are the warm cuddly center of the show that are left to wallow in their little hole far too often. Their witty banter is far too insular and too reliant on one another and we hardly know anything about either of these bright faces after three episodes of their back and forth. These are two nerds who clearly have spent a lot of time together, but their interplay leaves little room for anyone else to get in on the jokes. Their dialogue often feels like listening to two best friends gab about stories nobody knows about, and while that can be charming for a while, it gets oblique and grating. Both are cheerful as two little fresh-faced chipmunks in a Kaylee and Simon from Firefly sort of way, but neither can reach the cardboard cut-outs of Ward or Skye and barely get air-time with Coulson or May. So in the end, their empathetic and empathic characters, meant to soften the others and give us comedy relief, are left languishing in the hold of the ship like forgotten little toys – all wound up with nowhere to go.
And what about the show itself? The adventures! The excitement! The missions to see superheroes from the perspective of the humans of the Marvel Universe?
I’ll just ask this: WHAT SUPER HEROES?
The show has shown us, in three weeks: a man made super by technology (and then quickly hurried off screen), a piece of ancient tech that everyone fights over, and then a science experiment gone horribly wrong. Each time the characters at the heart of the adventure are hopelessly wooden and the actual problems feel far removed from the actual Marvel universe. For a show that promised engagement into a super-hero setting, we sure seem to be short a few superheroes, now aren’t we? Sure, it’s only three episodes in, and the first episode delivered a man that saved lives. Yet immediately that character disappeared off the face of the planet and we’re back to a ‘problem of the week’ formula that feels hackneyed and sadly outdated. The threads that may tie the plots together (the laughable ‘Rising Tide’ website of Skye’s, the shadowy organization behind the science experiments) feels far too weak to hold together a Monster of the Week premise, and I’m left feeling a little like I’m getting hit with a bait and switch. I didn’t sign on to watch secret government agents run around the world effectively picking up the dry-cleaning. I came here to see action, adventure, and super powered craziness. I came here to see heroes and villains clash with the world at stake.
And there we go with expectations again. Because that’s the biggest problem.
I do feel like I got a little bait and switched, despite trying to keep my expectations down. Instead of a human face on the super-human world, I got white-washed twenty-something cardboard cut-out characters hitting me with campy dialogue. Instead of humans dealing with things far beyond their ken, I’ve got chirpy ads for toothpaste tossing buzz word dialogue before solving every problem neatly and without seemingly much emotion or danger.
Where is the immediate danger? Where is the tension of the threat? Where is the emotional payoff?
Where is the humbling feeling of being presented with power so much larger and grander than mankind?
I’m going to stick around and watch some more, if only for the sake of Agent Coulson and whatever little drop-ins they keep giving to keep my inner Marvel nerd heart alive. However you cannot keep audiences happy with pithy one-liners and guest-star nerd fan service. Eventually the writers will have to fish or cut bait to make these characters into actual people or they’re going to lose even more viewers than they already have. And I don’t want to see this show go down. I’m not nerd-raging or shouting from the rooftops like some beligerent Comic Book Guy. I want this show to succeed. But I’d like it if they tried a little less to be the shiny, Photoshopped, Disney version of Marvel that appeals to everyone and instead focused on telling a good story. This isn’t Once Upon A Time, ABC, this is a damn superhero show, and I want some action and adventure and tension and suspense and edge to that. Or else not even Agent Coulson can save you from yourself.