Agents of SHIELD was the new fall TV show that premiered with the largest amount of hype and carrying the burden of the largest amount of expectations this past year, and to understand why that was the case, one needs to look no further than the Marvel in its title. Not only was this a show that was being based off of a series of Marvel comics that had decades of history behind it and legions of pre-existing fans, but it was also going to be taking place in the ongoing Marvel Movie Universe, which has been putting gigantic hit after gigantic hit in the world’s multiplex theaters.
Even more than that though, Agents of SHIELD was spinning right out of the events of The Avengers, which is one of the most successful movies ever made. It even had Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon attached to it as a producer and consultant, and a handful of his old cohorts from his TV days acting as showrunners and writers. This was probably the most sure-thing TV show that geek-types had ever seen.
A funny thing happened after the show debuted though. Turns out nobody really liked it all that much, and over the course of the following weeks it got discussed less and less here on the Internet, which is a communications platform that was basically created so that we could look at naked people and discuss things like Agents of SHIELD.
Part of the show’s initial failure definitely came from the sky-high expectations those who watched the pilot had for it. After the bombast of all the Marvel movies it was something of a jolt to suddenly be watching something Marvel-related that, instead of putting everything it had up on the screen, had to stretch its budget and storytelling out over the standard 22 episode order of a network TV show.
Big expectations even led to some impatience that saw people dropping the show before it had a chance to find its footing. Other than Firefly, which came out of the gate strong and stayed strong until its finish line, Joss Whedon shows have had a history of needing a handful of episodes to start getting good. They’re largely character-based works, they thrill audiences by establishing unique voices and subverting storytelling expectations, and they need time to establish a strong enough tone so that said tone can be subverted, and they need time to establish their characters strongly enough so that the viewer knows how they’re going to react to a certain situation and why. The standard opinion seems to be that it takes a Joss Whedon show until about Episode 6 to get good. At that point all of the kinks have been worked out and the viewer knows the characters well enough for Whedon and his writers to start putting them in unfamiliar situations in order to make sparks fly.
Perhaps not surprisingly, for those of us who had tempered expectations and who stuck with Agents of SHIELD, this seemed to be exactly the course that the show was taking. Though the pilot was a bit cluttered and the second episode was pretty abysmal, things started taking baby steps toward getting good over the course of the next few episodes, and when Episode 6 rolled around Agents of SHIELD—right on schedule—delivered the first truly engaging hour of television in its short run. If things continued improving along at that clip, there’s no question that viewers would have been fully into the show by the end of Season 1, and Season 2 would see a heavily-anticipated debut.
That’s not what happened at all though. In very untypical-of-Whedon fashion the improvements the show saw stalled out after Episode 6, and in some cases the show regressed. A lot of pundits have laid the blame on the cast, but I think that’s an unfair assessment to make. When the show first debuted, critics said that Chloe Bennet was just a pretty face and that her Skye character was going to be an annoyance, but over time she’s shown that she’s a strong enough actress to get the audience on her side when she’s put in danger or playing the underdog, and she’s shown a strong ear for delivering quirky dialogue. Initially Brett Dalton was derided as being a generically wooden hero guy, but in the few cases where his stoicism has been broken and he’s had a chance to get a little bit silly, he’s shown a strong enough sense of comic timing to make good material work. And Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge, they’ve been derided as being annoying and twee exposition machines, but when they were finally given a chance to do something substantial in Episode 6, it produced the highest heights the show has reached to date. No, the problem here isn’t the cast, the problem is the miserable writing the cast has been working with.
Once again, Joss Whedon shows have been known for the way they subvert storytelling expectations and for the strong dialogue that comes from their characters, and Agents of SHIELD has offered up absolutely zero of that. The paths these episode’s plots take can be mapped out by the viewer a mile ahead, and they absolutely reek of network notes asking for things to be dumbed down for Middle America. The dialogue is the kink of clunky, mindless crap that often includes phrases like “He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?” or “In English, please!” This garbage isn’t just not up to the standards of Whedon, it’s not up to the standards of today’s television, period.
And that mystery at the center of the season regarding how Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) came back to life? The most recent episode has finally shed some light on that, and it seems that the real heart of the story isn’t going to be the big reveal of what happened to him, but more the ongoing story of how the events affect Coulson as a character. That would be great and very Whedon if this show was any good at doing deep character stuff—but that’s where it often fails the most embarrassingly. Agents of SHIELD’s idea of building a character is having them tell the viewer exactly what they’re feeling and exactly what events led to them feeling this way, all while leftover music cues from Full House play over the soundtrack. It’s no wonder this show has gotten terrible reviews and has seen its ratings trending on a steady decline. If the people in charge are going to do something to salvage this show and keep it from being a black eye on the Marvel Movie Universe, they’re going to have to do it fast.
Luckily for showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen and their writing staff, it’s looking like they have an event coming up that might lead to lapsed viewers giving the show another chance. TV Guide has reported that, starting with the episode that airs on March 4th, acting veteran Bill Paxton will be joining the show playing a character that has at least a four episode arc. Paxton isn’t exactly an A-lister, but he is a household name, and over the course of his career he’s very sneakily become a genre legend due to his work in things like Aliens, Near Dark, and Tombstone. Plus, he’s playing a character who has a pretty lengthy history in the Marvel Comics Universe. So, all in all, his inclusion in the show could be just the sort of thing to convince viewers to check back in and see if there’s anything going on in this series that they might want to stick around for.
According to TV Guide’s story, Paxton will be joining the show as SHIELD Agent John Garrett, who comic fans will know as a gruff badass who’s been with the agency for a long time. Jed Whedon said of the character’s inclusion, “We wanted to bring in a rough-and-tumble former cohort of Agent Coulson with a little bit of attitude and cigar-smoking swagger,” to which Tancharoen added, “He is the type who wants to stay out in the field no matter how high-level he gets.” Finally, Whedon wrapped up the hype job by saying, “When Garrett got his promotion to Level 7, he refused to sit behind a desk and doesn’t like the formalities of SHIELD. He’s going to help Coulson solve some mysteries and is not afraid to rig an explosive or two.”
That last comment is telling, because longtime fans of the ‘SHIELD’ comics can tell you that bad experiences with explosions eventually lead to Garrett having most of his body replaced with cybernetic parts. Could it be the case that Paxton will be showing up for four episodes, get exploded in the last one, and then come back down the line as a badass half-robot, half-man killing machine? That sounds like the kind of storyline/character that could be popular with fans, and that could convince a lot of people to stick around and stay with the show for the long haul. In order for that to happen though, Whedon and Tancharoen will have had to have worked all of the clunkiness out of their show’s amateurish scripts by the time these Agent Garrett episodes were filmed. So let’s hope that was the case.
Bill Paxton isn’t a miracle worker. He can get me to watch your show again, but he alone can’t get me to stick around. Either Agents of SHIELD worked all of the cliches and cookie-cutter nonsense out of its scripts by the time these Paxton episodes were filmed, or it’s going to be—say it with me—game over, man. Game over.