Thursday, May 15, 2014

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s first season was better than it was given credit for

When I wrote about the pilot of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. last September, I said that it was a solid debut and a fun introduction to the world adjacent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The characters were a little bit broad, but that -- and many of the other rough elements -- were to be expected when you only had the pilot to go on.  There was a give and take to the pilot; it showed the limitations of what the budget could achieve, but also the interesting stories that could be told from the show's point of view.  For the most part, critics and audiences alike felt similarly about the pilot, but more and more complaints began to flood in during the following weeks.  With the high expectations and even higher budget that came with the show, it was bound to leave some disappointed, but the gripes went beyond the level of mild annoyance.  These alleged problems were deeply ingrained within the show's foundation, from the lame characters, to the cheesy dialogue, to the cheap-looking action.

Reading these complaints every week made me feel like I was on an island, since I was generally enjoying the show.  I never really understood the ambivalence that people had about the characters.  Back in my review of the pilot, I noted that Skye's effervescent presence made her a good entry point into the show, which is what made all of the internet vitriol towards her even more baffling.  Some of it I could understand -- after all, there was no logical reason for the team to keep her around in the first few episodes -- but most of it seemed very nitpicky and sexist ("Why does she have great hair?  She's a hacker!").  Aside from some difficulties understanding their accents, people were okay with Fitz and Simmons, the best characters from the beginning.  Their rapport was entertaining and Whedon-esque, making them the kind of funny and lively people who were easy to root for.  I found Agent Ward to be as much of a blank slate as everybody else did at first, but I warmed up to him once they fit some moments of levity into his grizzled persona.  Plus, Brett Dalton is much better than previous Whedon planks like Marc Blucas or David Boreanaz.  If anything, Agent May was the one weak link of the team.  People were willing to overlook it because she kicked butt in the first few weeks, but she's bland -- a fact not helped by Ming Na-Wen's one note acting.

Eventually, the show became this thing that the internet just enjoyed hating.  It seemed like everything the show did, no matter how small and inconsequential, was subject to harsh criticism and caviling.  Even things that would get a pass on other shows got ripped apart when they appeared in this show.  People liked to shout "Arrow is better!" when complaining about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., since they're both comic book shows and the two of them exist on opposite sides of the Marvel vs. DC battle.  While I don't watch the former, I do recall people being pretty displeased with it in its early days too; something that's been forgotten now that the show has gotten better.  With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., there existed this weird paradox of people being aware that Joss Whedon had minimal involvement in the show -- it's run by Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen, and Jeffrey Bell; all lieutenants of Joss -- but still holding it to the standard of his work.  (In the process, they've also elided over the fact that, with the exception of Firefly, all of his shows had major first season growing pains.)

The problems with the show didn't lie in the characters or the dialogue, but in its procedural elements.  From week to week in the early going, it was basically just NCIS but set in the Marvel universe.  There's nothing inherently wrong with that premise, and anybody who thought this show wasn't going to contain procedural elements is very naive, but the cases felt a little dull and formulaic for the first few weeks.  The problem was that the show was trying to serve too many masters.  Like Dollhouse, it was clear that the first few episodes were the network's vision, and in this case ABC strived to make Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a four-quadrant hit.  Unlike Dollhouse, which was able to cut loose once it didn't have to deal with network interference, this show is just too much of a financial investment for the excess cooks to ever leave the kitchen.  Plus, it existed in this weird middle ground in the Marvel universe.  It was never going to get the same amount of national exposure that the movies do, so the writers couldn't introduce a major plot point without effecting those films.  The result was a program that was stuck between its water-treading procedural structure and tiny bits of serialization, its family-friendly adventure leanings and darker undertones.

Even with the show's center being tugged at from all directions, it still managed to be solid and enjoyable.  It may not have been the deepest, most engrossing television, but it was a fun way to spend an hour.  When the show found a way for its case of the week to have a heavy character focus, it was at its strongest.  It's no surprise, then, that "F.Z.Z.T." was the first great episode.  It gave a spotlight to the show's best character (my darling Simmons!), had a real sense of danger and stakes, and delivered some emotional storytelling.  They followed things up with seventh episode "The Hub," another great episode that smartly expanded the world and introduced new characters into the mix, while also giving Simmons and Skye a fun team-up in the B-story.  These episodes didn't signify a complete leap for the show -- in fact, Thor: The Dark World aftermath episode "The Well" immediately followed "The Hub" and is one of the worst episodes of the season -- but it was an indication that the writers were slowly finding their footing.

If "F.Z.Z.T." was the first great episode, then "T.R.A.C.K.S.," the 13th episode of the season, was the first excellent one.  Because of the nature of the show's production cycle, the Marvel house style it was beholden to, and the fact that Joss Whedon wasn't really a part of the creative process, there didn't seem to be much room for the classic experimental Whedon episodes.  "T.R.A.C.K.S." was the first episode that felt like one, with its setup that plays out multiple times, but from different perspectives.  It's a fun gimmick on its own, but one that works even more because it's implanted in a propulsive, action-packed story.

There's this consensus that has developed around the idea of the show only becoming great due to the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  While episodes like "F.Z.Z.T.," "The Hub," "Seeds," and "T.R.A.C.K.S." put lie to that notion, there's no denying that the show received a major shot in the arm starting with "The End of the Beginning."  For the first time, it felt like a genuine spy show, full of intrigue and twists as a result of the unveiling of Hydra in The Winter Soldier.  Finally the show had themes, exploring loyalty and what it means to serve, particularly in the wake of the only structure you've ever known crumbling to the ground.  With danger, stakes, and darkness added to the proceedings, the characters became more interesting, the drama more real.  For example, Agent Ward's heel turn was just the thing the show needed to shake up the dynamics of the group.  But things became more interesting outside of the team too, as the show introduced villains like Agent Garrett (Bill Paxton) and reintroduced Deathlok (Whedon alum, August J. Richards) and Raina (Ruth Negga).  In the late stretch of the season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. became a close approximation of the original vision of the show that most people had in their heads when it was first announced.  It felt like an issue of a comic book translated to the small screen, full of banter that had spark and plotting that had a significant amount of zip to it.

This week's finale really embraced that comic book feel, with an appearance by Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury to top things off.  While it was fun, "Beginning of the End" wasn't necessarily the best episode of the final run.  It had some great scenes, but even some of those were undercut by one of the episode's main problems -- its adherence to the status quo.  Take the scene with Fitz and Simmons at the bottom of the ocean for instance.  It's the best scene of the episode, full of genuine heart and emotion, and backed by strong performances from Elizabeth Henstridge and Iain De Caestecker.  But then it reverses the impossible situation it sets up -- 90 foot swim to the surface, only one can survive -- by having them both make it out alive with relative ease.  Additionally, I'm not sure how I feel about Coulson becoming the director of S.H.I.E.L.D.  The appeal of this final stretch of episodes was that the team was stripped of all its power, and they became a ragtag bunch of outlaws instead of a superteam with unlimited resources.  The rebuilding of the agency could quickly return the show to its normal pre-Winter Soldier operations.  Things may seem different with the team because Ward has been imprisoned, but Agent Triplett essentially serves the same function, except he's a thousand times more boring than Ward ever was.

Even still, the finale leaves the show in a better place quality-wise than it was at the beginning of the season.  The real question going forward is whether every season will take on this same structure.  "End of the Beginning" and "Turn, Turn, Turn" made it very clear that the writers were handcuffed by having to wait for the events of The Winter Soldier to play out before they could take the story to interesting places.  Who's to say season two won't be held back by whatever is going to occur in The Avengers 2?  Fortunately, it seems like Whedon, Bell, and Tancharoen have a grasp on what made the first half of the season a bit shaky and have righted the ship, so maybe that won't matter as much next year.  The characters are there and the groundwork has been laid, so hopefully season two will continue the show's upward trajectory and become even better.

1 comment:

  1. Way behind on this. Will catch up eventually (The Americans comes first).