Like loads of other fans of Marvel superheroes, I was initially pretty excited when they announced the Cinematic Universe’s spin-off TV show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Even the pilot looked pretty promising—you’ve got Agent Coulson, a fan-favorite character, putting together a crack team of misfits with a particular set of skills to save the world. It felt very Avengers-y, at least in theory. S.H.I.E.L.D. has all the elements of what makes a great geek-friendly show. It should be a runaway success, with a huge, ready-made fandom. True, it’s the number one show on ABC for the male 18–49 demographic on ABC and pulling in around 7 million viewers a week (about average). But it seems like there are just as many people watching because they think it’s good as there are people who wish it were good. Average viewers seem to like it well enough, but geeky viewers aren’t as impressed. Why?
Spoilers abound below the cut.
Structurally, S.H.I.E.L.D. is very similar to another of Joss Whedon’s shows: the wildly popular cult classic, Firefly. Both have some compelling world-building ideas: Firefly has cowboys in space, and S.H.I.E.L.D. lives in a world where superheroes are real. Both have big scary organizations in control: Firefly has the Alliance, while S.H.I.E.L.D. actually is the organization in control. Both shows have an ensemble cast filled with mostly the same archetypes. You’ve got your leader with a history of being in the line of fire (Captain Mal/Agent Coulson). You’ve got your expert pilot and first mate (Wash’s skills and Zoe’s demeanor in Melinda “The Calvary” May). There’s the hyper-masculine security man (Jayne/Grant Ward), and the girl with a mystery who causes problems (River/Skye). Finally, we’ve got the male-female duo with specialized knowledge in engineering and biology and loads of romantic tension (Kaylee and Simon/Fitz and Simmons). Both shows generally follow the “problem of the week” structure, while still advancing a season-long plot in the background. So why is Firefly still a beloved show over a decade after it was cancelled, while S.H.I.E.L.D. is getting mixed reviews?
In short, even though Firefly and S.H.I.E.L.D. have the same ingredients, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s execution is just… off. When you have an ensemble cast, you have to make every moment count to get the audience to really care about every single character. Shows like Supernatural have it a whole lot easier with just two primary characters. When you up that number to seven or eight, you can’t afford to have lazy dialogue or bland acting. S.H.I.E.L.D. has too many of those lazy and bland moments. Often, it seems like the scripts could have used another run through a Joss Whedon editing machine. Joss only helped write the pilot; his golden touch really could have helped the rest of the episodes. Whedon’s characters tend to have some kind of subversive depth within them. He takes a stock character, makes the character really good at being whatever that stock character is, and then adds something that’s the opposite.
We see this in Firefly—Kaylee’s the girly-girl who’s a genius mechanic, Jayne’s the gunslinger who’s really a big softie (and has a traditionally feminine name), Zoe’s the stoic, loyal first mate who defies her captain to marry her true love. How does this translate to S.H.I.E.L.D.? Grant’s the black-ops “gunslinger” with problems getting along with coworkers… because of a troubled past. Melinda’s the ace pilot and weapons expert… with a troubled past. Skye’s a hacker with zero field experience who somehow uses her bubbly-yet-edgy personality to get out of any situation… with a troubled, orphaned past. Sensing a theme?
While Firefly had interesting, complex characters, S.H.I.E.L.D. just piles on more and more tropes. Grant’s a man’s man with bad social skills. Melinda needs to be saved from the demons of her past. Skye smells like a Mary Sue: she’s good at almost everything she tries, it’s hinted that she’s got a secret extra-special back story, and she never has to deal with any real consequences for her actions (get slapped with an anti-hacking bracelet? No problem, bully Simmons into doing stuff for you!). To be fair, that vibe also probably comes from the fact that Skye’s the person newest to S.H.I.E.L.D., so she’s the closest thing we have to an audience surrogate. But overall, it’s just not that interesting.
Furthermore, it’s unclear who we’re supposed to be rooting for. While Firefly has Mal’s crew fighting against the Alliance, S.H.I.E L.D. is the Alliance. The pilot sets up a great dichotomy between the “hacktivist” group the Rising Tide, fighting for freedom of information and publicizing the truth about superheroes, and S.H.I.E.L.D., an organization working to keep as much superhero stuff under wraps as possible, Men in Black style. We even have a principle character from the Rising Tide, Skye, in conflict with Coulson’s team. At first it looks like the show is going to deal with questions about freedom versus safety, with all kinds of moral ambiguity. But then Skye joins up with Coulson’s team at the end of the episode, and pretty much stays with them. Occasionally we see her toying with her loyalties, wondering if she’ll be a mole against the team—but nope, any of those internal conflicts are solved by the end of the episode.
Rooting for Coulson becomes the same as rooting for S.H.I.E.L.D.; it’s not until episode seven, “The Hub,” that we see much of the organization outside of his team. It should have been a great conflict for the audience—how do we root for a team which represents a shady and powerful organization inflicting its will on the people without their consent? But when we finally do see more of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s inner workings, it’s clear that Coulson’s team is more like the rebellious black sheep of the S.H.I.E.L.D. family. What could have been a great theme is, for the most part, dropped from the show… at least so far. Maybe we’re moving in a “Coulson’s scrappy team of underdogs against the big bad S.H.I.E.L.D.” direction. But for me, personally, I’d much rather have my science fiction deal with more philosophical questions than whether or not David can beat Goliath.
Plot-wise, the team is pretty much saving the world every week, but it doesn’t make me care if everything works out. It tells me there’s a lot to lose, but it doesn’t really show us what that is. It’s a classic case of telling, not showing. For such high stakes, there’s hardly any buildup. Firefly circumvented this by lowering the stakes. Sure, pulling a successful heist was the difference between having a comfortable paycheck and being stranded in the middle of space with a finite supply of oxygen—but that’s hardly saving the world kind of stuff. However, it did make a difference to the characters, and it made us care about them more. Saving the world is almost always best used when it’s a season finale, after lots of buildup. The difference being, again, a lack of any buildup of dramatic tension.
S.H.I.E.L.D.’s episode 6, “F.Z.Z.T.,” actually did a pretty good job with dramatic tension. Simmons gets infected with a fatal alien virus, and Coulson ignores an order to chuck her out the back of his super plane to save the rest of the team. With Simmons quarantined in her lab, Coulson challenges her to find a cure before time runs out. Fitz enters the lab, risking exposure himself in order to help her. When it looks like none of their attempted cures are going to work, Simmons knocks out Fitz and gets ready to throw herself out the plane in order to save the rest of the team from exposure. When he comes to, just in time to see Simmons jump, Fitz (in some of the more convincing acting of the season) screams, panics, and grabs a parachute to try and save her. By that time, the rest of the team figures out what’s going on and Grant (the hyper-masculine security guy) grabs the parachute from him and jumps after Simmons. Simmons is saved, and has a great quiet moment with Fitz after learning that he was the first who tried to save her. What makes this episode different is that we’ve got high stakes for the characters (not necessarily the world), some believable acting, and building dramatic tension.
One of the problems with geeky shows is that they’re a big risk for networks. They can sometimes be expensive, and often bear the stigma of only catering to a niche audience (although I’m sure we’d all agree that elements of geekdom are becoming mainstream). Firefly‘s episodes were aired out of order, the network execs had virtually no confidence in Whedon’s vision, and eventually cancelled it. ABC may be tempted to play it safe with S.H.I.E.L.D., encouraging “tried and true” (read: bland) ideas over innovative and complicated ones.
But that’s the problem—at its core, science fiction is all about pushing the envelope, diving headfirst into experimental ideas and seeing what happens. To write a successful television show, you need a pretty standard list of “ingredients”: complex characters, compelling dialogue, humor, dramatic tension, a sturdy plot. It’s a lot like baking a cake. If two people try to bake a chocolate cake, but one doesn’t pay attention to how much of each ingredient is going into the bowl or how long they bake it, it’s going to taste terrible… even if it’s still identifiable as cake. Maybe the particular recipe was bad, or maybe there wasn’t enough attention paid to the details. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s recipe seems pretty good, but if they want their product to be gobbled up by viewers, the writers are going to have to pay more attention to the details.