Genrelogues Shaun and Jen’s new column about new and old SF/F television, film, and literature. This week, Shaun and Jen tackle the first four episodes of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., airing every Tuesday (8/7c) on ABC. Though we will try not to ruin whatever we’re talking about with a lot of detail, you should be warned that spoilers are inevitable. Read with care.
If you have any thoughts about the show or what we’ve got to say below, leave a comment!
Shaun: Since this is our first Genrelogue, I want to start off by talking about the issue of anticipation in relation to this particular product. There are a couple things I think are worth exploring here. First, the simple fact that this is another attempt on the part of Joss Whedon to successfully capture the genre TV market, which we all know he hasn’t been all that successful at in recent years (the early cancellation of Firefly, by many accounts a classic, and the poor showing of Dollhouse, which got off on a bad foot the second the studios nerfed his original beginning). Since his success with The Avengers, my guess is Marvel expects AoS to be their “in” to the TV market. And since they’re on a major network — ABC — they will have the benefit of a much larger audience than their competitor, DC, whose only major live-action show, Arrow, appears on the CW — which, though successful within that particular network, does not benefit from routine numbers in the double digits. So for me, the question here is whether Whedon and his team have succeeded or will succeed in making Marvel’s live-action universe good enough to warrant continuation not just of AoS, but of other TV-ready products as well. Given the right budget, they could probably pull off something like the X-Men (if not them, then a property with similarly “simple” graphic needs; Iron Man wouldn’t work simply because rendering the suit alone would cost too much).
So I’ll toss this question to you, Jen. Do you think the first showing of AoS is Whedon at his best and/or a solid gateway into live-action TV production for Marvel?
Jen: I’m not even sure what Joss Whedon at his best IS, much less whether or not AoS meets the challenge, so I will try to answer the second question. Marvel hasn’t exactly had a stellar track record in terms of their television offerings. Though The Incredible Hulk ran in the late-70’s for a reasonable five seasons, their only other live-action show was Blade: The Series, and it sucked. So in that sense, this is a rousing success already. It doesn’t completely suck. That said, they’re trying to present a mainstream (ABC) audience with a series that is as much about cheesy action sequences, superheroes, and cool tech as it is about a band of rag-tag characters. Modern mainstream audiences have, thus far, not sustained a superhero genre series. Will they throw down money for a few giant action films each summer? Sure, but those only require a two hour attention span. They also require A LOT of action to draw in the non-geeks of the world. Thus far, AoS has a few decent action sequences, but most of the show is the not-particularly-attention-keeping interaction between five boring characters, plus Agent Coulson. Seriously, “The Cavalry” kicks ass, but Ming-Na Wen constantly looks like she’s questioning her decision to join the cast. Fitz-Simmons are adorably charming, but a dead-end in terms of plot. Meanwhile, all the character ‘development’ and most of the dialogue has been between Ward and Skye, and they both make me want to shoot myself. Granted, maybe I’m giving the mainstream audience too much credit, and the Ward/Skye interplay might very well be exactly what people want, but if I have to watch one more moment of sexual tension between those two, I might vomit.
S: That’s something I’ve noticed too. One of my problems with AoS is the fact that it tries to present what seems to me like a typical Whedon character model, but within a setting where that’s not exactly sensible. In Firefly, for example, we’re also given a ragtag group of characters with varying backgrounds, subplots, and so on. They don’t always “work” as a team, but they don’t have to precisely because Mal’s ship isn’t the proper space for perfection. Nobody would believe it. In AoS, we have the same basic idea, though there is a noticeable absence of character background (we know so little about anyone by episode 4, and what little we do know doesn’t seem to matter much). But this is supposed to be set in a rather hardcore agency of spies, military personnel, scientists, and so on, such that the ragtag-ness quickly feels like rejects-that-nobody-wants-to-fire-ness. It just doesn’t work the same way as it does in something like Firefly because the setting doesn’t allow for it. These people have no business being on the same team, and as you so aptly note, Ming-na seems strangely aware of this fact. When Coulson’s character says something quirky, at least we know he’s also a good agent; his Captain America collectible cards and what not are a silly thing that defines him outside of his work, but he never shows us he’s not competent at what he does. If anything, Coulson is one of the most accomplished S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, surrounded by equally accomplished folks like Nick Fury and Maria Hill and Black Widow and Hawkeye. But here, he’s surrounded by two adorably dorky scientists who have no experience in the field, an operative who had a horrible previous experience and wishes to avoid combat, an operative who has never worked in a group, and a hacker who no more than fifteen minutes before getting sucked into Coulson’s vortex was out to damage S.H.I.E.L.D. (not to mention the weird thing where she’s still part of the hacker group, yet the series has yet to make much of a big deal about this, despite the fact that, yeah, she’s actually probably betraying them all in some small way).
Basically, there’s something about the structure of the group that rubs me the wrong way, and I don’t know how they expect to fix it by the end of the season. And I’m not sure why they’ve gone this direction when clearly they needed something that incorporated the action and strength found in the non-powered characters of The Avengers. Seriously. Black Widow kicks ass. Hawkeye kicks ass. Neither of them have powers. And they are funny together…while still kicking ass at what they do. So…what happened?
J: Totally! And the problem with *this* particular rag-tag group is this: none of them are particularly interesting. The entire second episode is about them working in sync, regardless of their incompatibility. But it was so BORING! I will, however, have to disagree on one point. I think the “rejects-that-nobody-wants-to-fire-ness” is deliberate. Even if Coulson is, presumably, a formerly skilled agent, he’s also walking around in a cloned body (that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it), which may or may not be very well proven. S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t very well put him into permanent retirement, so they have to give him the rejects that hopefully won’t cause too much trouble. That’s the set-up as *I* see it. They’re not so dysfunctional that they’re going to be a liability, but they’re dysfunctional enough that nobody wants to keep them around on their team either. So we’re stuck with an hour-long genre sitcom. Frankly, I just don’t see it working out long term. Especially not when you consider it’s up against both NCIS and the CW’s newest Vampire show The Originals, one of which is a hell of a lot smarter and another of which is a hell of a lot sexier (and I’m choosing to ignore the massive following that The Biggest Loser has, assuming that people that watch reality television wouldn’t watch a scripted series anyway). COULD they have gone with something amazing a la the un-powered, but still kick ass Avengers? Totally! The Cavalry fits that bill, after all. Sadly, they didn’t and so now we’re stuck with this drivel. And if that means I can’t have Coulson in my Avengers movies now, I’m going to be PISSED.
S: Except they are dysfunctional enough that they are a liability. Case in point: episode #3, wherein they infiltrate Ian Quinn’s compound to rescue Dr. Hall (who was kidnapped by Quinn to help finish some super science research). Since Quinn lives in Malta, which, according to this universe, says agencies like S.H.I.E.L.D. have no authority within their borders, the fact that this ragtag group of misfits sends an untrained “operative” in to open the defenses for a special ops mission means they have every chance of causing a lot of trouble. So it seems to me that there’s something fundamentally off with this group’s construction. And, yes, you’re right: a great deal of this is quite dull, in no small part because half of each episode is spent babbling about nonsense technology and general infodumping. There is very little character development (more like character display), and whatever overarching narrative they want us to think is there just isn’t. Frankly, this isn’t even Whedon’s best writing work. He’s handled ensemble casts better elsewhere. Maybe it’s the characters or its the restrictions for the medium (less flashy action because the studio isn’t fronting a bazillion bucks for this thing) or it’s something else entirely.
In a way, I feel like this is a missed opportunity. There’s one thing DC is about to do that Marvel hasn’t: use its TV property to set up other characters or narratives that will either appear in their own shows OR in the films. Since Marvel dominates in the film department, it seems to me that AoS should have been the show to visualize all the stuff S.H.I.E.L.D. is doing that the Avengers and other superheroes aren’t. After all, Captain America can’t be everywhere at once. And there are all sorts of things that have already been set up in the films. AIM, for example, is one of the major troublemaker groups/corporations/agencies in the Marvel comics, and it’s something that was set up in Iron Man 3. Why aren’t we talking about cells of AIM scientists and super soldiers and crazy new weaponry made from alien tech or plain old smart people? And you could use that to set up a much larger narrative, which would then get its epic climax not in the series (though you’d have to have some sort of climax, obviously), but in one of the upcoming Marvel films. The crossover potential is enormous…but that’s not what it seems they’re doing.
But since we’ve been enormously critical up to this point, why don’t we shift to some things we actually think they’re doing right. For me, the one thing they’ve done well, when they do it, is show some pretty cool high-tech weaponry and choreograph some pretty neat fight scenes. I feel like Ming-na could (and maybe should) be the star of this show based on what we already know about her. The music is also quite good. What say you?
J: The highlight of the series has been Cobie Smulders showing up as Agent Hill in Episode 1 and Samuel L. Jackson doing a stint as Colonel Fury in Episode 2 (best writing of first 4 episodes, btw, makes me think that it’s the only one that Whedon wrote himself). I don’t hate the special effects, yet, and I want the show to just evolve into a Coulson/Cavalry/Fitz-Simmons vehicle where they travel the world being kick ass and adorable. THAT might be worth watching.
S: Agreed. And my last thought will be this: I am happy there are a heck of a lot of women on this show, and they all have specialized skills that more or less make them useful (they’re not just pretty faces). And, really, I just want more of Ming-na kicking people in the face…they should just have an entire episode of her going crazy feet and fists on evil people. That would be awesome.