What’s Wrong With ABC’s “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.”?
The Marvel espionage drama bears a lot of similarities to the early run of Fox’s now-departed Fringe — and not necessarily in good ways.
After what I thought was an enjoyable pilot episode (save for that unfortunate opening sequence), I've found the subsequent episodes of ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the television spinoff from Marvel's cinematic universe, to be rather lackluster.
That shouldn't be the case, particularly given the participation of the Whedons behind the scenes and the fact that the show's writers have an entire universe of pre-existing Marvel material from which to draw inspiration. Yet, for the most part, these first few episodes have bordered on being depressingly dull, static installments that haven't advanced the character development or loaded in an overarching plot or mythology that could amp up the tension a bit.
Tuesday's episode ("Eye Spy") was a step in the right direction, centering on a cybernetically enhanced former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent coerced into committing high-stakes crimes for her unseen puppet master. But the plot itself reminded me a little too much of Fox's Fringe, another series about a makeshift team investigating rogue scientists and the seemingly inexplicable and mysterious occurrences unfolding in an otherwise grounded world. Everything about this episode — from the red masked couriers in the opening sequence to the tease of a larger pattern of illicit scientific behavior — screamed Fringe, in fact. (Interestingly, former Fringe writer Monica Owusu-Breen is on the writing staff for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..)
But, like Fringe before it, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is plagued with some of the same issues the Fox drama faced in its early episodes. Despite the fact that we're only four episodes into the show, there hasn't been enough character development at work; the agents are largely still the same archetypes they were when the series began, and the audience has little knowledge of them besides for their names. (I still can't keep Fitz and Simmons straight, which is saying something, especially since they're different genders.)
There isn't yet a character who has moved beyond a half-finished sketch. Skye (Chloe Bennet) — clearly intended to serve as the audience's entry point to the narrative — is still shifty and paranoid and her motives can't fully be trusted, a head-scratching decision that makes her a bit of an unreliable narrator. Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) is blandly stoic. Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) are still largely interchangeably geeky scientists. (The potential first stirrings of a romantic triangle between Sky, Ward, and Fitz have been doused with cold water.) Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) is enigmatic to a fault. And the irksome drawing out of the eventual reveal that Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) is a Life Model Decoy (LMD) is a frustrating reminder of how producers seem to be drawing things out indefinitely. Why haven't we gotten to know these people better? Why haven't we seen their dynamic blossom in and out of the field? (On Joss Whedon's Firefly, which also featured a ragtag group of disparate individuals shoved into a flying metal hull, there was already a great sense of their interpersonal relationships at this point, as well as their individual foibles.)
Additionally complicating matters: What is this team's mission? Why did Coulson pick these specific people? We don't get any sense of why this team was drawn together or really, what they're meant to be doing, nor why their modus operandi is distinct and different to that of the larger S.H.I.E.L.D. entity. Which is a problem, really. I'm not sure why I should keep tuning in week after week when there isn't much in the way of narrative stakes to keep me invested; the characters don't alter and nor does the mission, which is so incredibly vague.
I had believed that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be a street-level look at the Marvel universe (well, as street-level as you can get when the team is flying around in a souped-up jet), but instead, it largely plays as a generic 1980s actioner where bad guys get their butts kicked on a weekly basis and everything reverts to the status quo at the end of the episode.
Yes, this week's episode left things dangling by not having the team apprehend the mastermind behind the plot involving Akela Amador (Pascale Armand) and the Englishman (Dominic Burgess), who — SPOILER ALERT! — ended up being as much a pawn as Amador. But the mad scientist plot has played out nearly every episode so far this season (with the exception of Episode 2, which was about a scientific artifact that everyone wanted to get their hands on). It feels tired, particularly when looked at through the prism of Fringe's The Pattern. Is every episode going to be about some power-mad scientist thwarting gravity or controlling pawns with cybernetic implants or whatever?
Yes, this is a procedural drama and clearly ABC and Marvel want to make it as accessible as possible for new viewers to discover the show each week (though the ratings wouldn't bear that belief out, however), but a lack of a concrete mythology is once again eroding any dramatic stakes here. Where is this team's Big Bad? What is it that is driving them, besides for a paycheck? (And even that would be interesting, if more mercenary.)
Fringe did eventually put aside its procedural bent to become far more mythology-driven, ramping up the stakes in the process and making us care deeply for Olivia, Peter, and Walter. While Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has already been picked up for a full season, the show's ultimate longevity depends on moving past formulaic cases of the week and towards an overarching storyline that pushes the characters to break out of their pigeonholes. It's not there yet, not by a longshot.