Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns this week with its first new episode since it dropped the bombshell that Skye might not be from this world. It's true that I've spent my fair share of time harping on what S.H.I.E.L.D. has done wrong in the first half of its debut season, but to be fair, it's also done quite a bit right. And now that we're about halfway through, we thought now would be a good time to compile a mid-season report card of sorts. Here's what the show's doing right, and here's what it needs to work on going forward.
3 THINGS S.H.I.E.L.D. IS DOING RIGHT
The Geek is one of the most common character archetypes in television and movies. Geeks are present in several genres, but they're probably most prevalent in procedurals that involve even the slightest bit of science-ing. Skye and Coulson might be the de facto leads of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s rag-tag group, but FitzSimmons are the glue that holds everyone together, and there's a very good reason for that. Geek characters are, by definition, eccentric and brilliant, and they're often used as comic relief. But they're also usually sequestered in a lab, tasked with solving various problems while tucked safely behind their tests and theories. They usually have no "field" training, so if and when they're removed from the lab environment, things generally go one of two ways: Either they become fish out of water, infusing some humor into just about any scene—like when Fitz accompanied Agent Ward on a mission in "The Hub," and his lack of field smarts brought a certain lightheartedness to what was supposed to be a dangerous situation—or they serve as the helpless victim who must be saved by the properly trained agents. But no matter what, geek characters typically play on viewers' emotions and serve as an audience gateway into a show's world. S.H.I.E.L.D. has used FitzSimmons quite successfully to add emotion and humor, and they're the show's most naturally developed characters by far.
S.H.I.E.L.D. is a series based in the realm of comic books, and while it certainly doesn't have to be funny—some comics simply aren't built that way—it sure helps that it knows how to tell a joke. The only downfall to using humor in a series like this one is that humor is very subjective. There will always be viewers who don't find something funny, but if S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't want to go dark and dramatic (which is actually something I'd support), mixing in some funny moments is the next best thing. I find FitzSimmons to be the series' most amusing characters because of their natural tendency to bicker, but Skye is equally likely to be quick with a sarcastic quip. And the jokes really fly when two characters who aren't usually paired together share in a scene, like Skye and Simmons or Ward and Fitz. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s running joke about Simmons being a horrible liar when she's trying to go undercover is a simple one, but the contrast of Simmons' good girl nature and Skye's disregard for authority make them a great team.
3. Integrating known comic characters like Graviton, Blizzard, etc.
A TV show is only as strong as its characters, and while I get that S.H.I.E.L.D.'s entire premise is that it's a more accessible, "common man" comic series, it still needs recognizable heroes and villains to succeed. And even though the members of Coulson's special team have yet to fight any real, true villains (outside of the Centipede storyline; I'll get to that in a moment), S.H.I.E.L.D. has already told the origin stories of a few Marvel villains, and we're confident there are more to come. Sure, they have yet to amount to anything more than just a run-of-the-mill standalone threat, but they at least hint at possible future dangers, all while letting us see the role S.H.I.E.L.D. sometimes plays in the creation of the villains they might face in the future. And if nothing else, they help to expand the Marvel Universe so our S.H.I.E.L.D. team feels more grounded in the comic book world.
3 THINGS S.H.I.E.L.D. IS DOING WRONG
1. Danger? What danger?
Perhaps the series' biggest problem is its lack of any real stakes. During any given episode, we know that everything will be okay by the end of the hour, because that's just the type of series S.H.I.E.L.D. is, but how are we supposed to be invested in a storyline that doesn't make our hearts race? How are we supposed to care about a character's struggles if the answer always involves a last-minute save by the rest of the team? S.H.I.E.L.D.'s best episode to date is probably "F.Z.Z.T" because it put Simmons' life on the line as a result of the Chitauri virus, and despite the fact that we knew she probably wouldn't die, the episode manipulated our emotions by erasing all other options and making it seem like there really was no way out. That's the kind of story that makes viewers care about characters; that's the kind of story that makes us want to stick around to see the outcome of the third act each week. If S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't incorporate danger that feels believable, the series will be no different than a Saturday-morning kids' show. As viewers, we need to experience some anxiety so we don't feel like we're watching a show aimed exclusively at eight-year-olds.
2. Flat characters
In S.H.I.E.L.D.'s defense, it has attempted to flesh out its core group of characters. But that's where the defending ends, because most of those attempts have been pretty halfhearted, and some of them have seemingly disappeared immediately, like Ward's jerky brothers in "The Well." Doling out tiny snippets of information regarding his life hasn't made his past any more compelling, especially because his past appears to be cliched and boring. Elsewhere in the group, the traumatic mission that left Agent May stunted and eternally pissed off is still too vague and mysterious to qualify as interesting. And all we know about what really happened to Coulson is that he had his brain rewired. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s more recent attempts to add some shading to Skye and to break her "outsider" mold are a good start, but she still needs work as a character. Of course, Skye may be on the up and up with the big reveal that she was an 0-8-4, but based on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s past transgressions, I'm worried Skye's past won't even come up again for weeks. So far, the only progress that feels real has come from the show's subtle hints toward FitzSimmons' history, but even then, we still don't know all that much about them.
Probably my biggest complaint about S.H.I.E.L.D. has to do with its treatment of its serialized storylines. I'll gladly acknowledge the fact that the series is in its first season, and that it needed time to establish itself before diving into heavy mythology—especially for the non-comics people in the audience. But the time has come for S.H.I.E.L.D. to improve the connections between its standalone installments and those that tackle ongoing plot threads. The reason why the episodes featuring Centipede and other overarching plots tend to be better than the one-offs is that they feel more important, like a piece of a puzzle that actually matters—basically, they're the edge pieces, the ones that frame everything that takes place in middle. Having one Centipede episode for every four or five filler episodes stunts the story progression kills the show's forward momentum. Now that we're entering the second half of the season, S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to make a real effort to weave ongoing plot threads into each episode, regardless of whether or not the A-story focuses on Centipede and the use of Extremis. It'll help the storylines mesh, and keep things moving forward.
WHAT S.H.I.E.L.D. CAN DO TO IMPROVE GOING FORWARD
For starters, the show needs to right its three biggest wrongs by raising the stakes, letting the characters grow, and striking a better balance between the standalone and overarching plots. Now's the time to ramp up the action and embrace the darker, more dangerous storylines that keep viewers engaged.
I'd also ask that the series follow up on Skye's personal story arc in a real way, because the reveal that she was an 0-8-4 definitely has potential to lead to something big. It was an interesting play for the series to call, and the true test of its success rests on where the writers choose to go next. If it's dropped just as quickly as some of the "mysterious" character developments that litter Ward and May's backgrounds, then it'll have been a perfectly good waste of time. But if the series runs with it, it has the possibility to make Skye much, much more interesting.
And finally, I want to see S.H.I.E.L.D. just embrace its comic book nature. I know the series is supposed to focus on a team tackling non-super-powered threats, but the fact of the matter is this: If you want to be a comic book series, you need to embrace some comic book elements. It doesn't matter what the writers want at this point, they need to pay attention to the reaction from the fans and adapt in a way that will keep people tuning in. Thankfully, with the impending introduction of Deathlok and appearance of Sif, who's crossing over to hunt down Lorelei, I believe S.H.I.E.L.D.'s writers and producers are at least making an attempt to rectify its problems, and that leaves me feeling pretty positive about the second half of the season.
What do you think S.H.I.E.L.D. has done well so far? What do you think the show needs to fix going forward?
AIRED ON 12/9/2014
Season 2 : Episode 10