[Opinion] - Where SHIELD Went Wrong

All pictures courtesy of Marvel Television Studios

Agents of SHIELD has finished it's first season, and against all the usual sense and logic displayed by networks, it has been picked up for a second by ABC. Despite being part of the greater Disney Family, and tying into the billion dollar juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the show's renewal was a bit of a surprise considering that the first season wasn't that good. Or, good at all. Yes, it managed a significant uplift at the back end of the run, when it had the catastrophic events of the Winter Soldier to draw inspiration from. But for the rest of it's run, it was the very opposite of appointment television.

Will season two be any better? We can hope. But the truth of the matter is, the show needs to undergo some stiff revisions, and to dramatically alter it's trajectory from a creative perspective. How things operated behind the scenes through the first season cannot be allowed to continue, or the second season will absolutely be the last. This is a show that should have been a guaranteed hit, but finished with less than half of the audience it started with, due entirely to mismanagement of resources, and I include story as a resource.

So, what can it do? After the jump, I run through some of the major issues of season one, that need to be improved upon. Spoilers for the entirety of season one, plus the Winter Solider, which if you haven't seen that by now I don't even know what you're doing here.

First off, yes, it is incredibly easy and a little mean spirited for me, an armchair jockey who isn't under the weekly pressure of putting together a million dollar television series, to criticise the people who are under those pressures. But I feel that these issues are ones that, even those under incredible pressure, should be able to recognise as flaws and can take steps to overcome. Certainly as a writer, I am able to look at what I produce and recognise the product's weaknesses. The people behind the scenes at AoS need to spend the summer taking a good hard look at what they've done and what went wrong, and not live in their overly defensive fantasy world where everything is hunky dory. SHIELD has been a sinking ship for a long time now, being kept afloat by occasional air pockets. These are potential lift rafts.

Wag The Dog

ABC released their fall schedule, and Agents of SHIELD will be getting a slight redesign purely from a scheduling perspective. First, it is moving to 9pm, which puts it out of the family friendly time zone, and pushes it in a slightly more mature location. Secondly, it'll be broken into two equal halves, to air in the fall and again in the spring, separated by the inaugural season of Agent Carter. This means that, thanks to Guardian's very nature and it's August release date, SHIELD will be the only Earth-based MCU material between now and the release of Age of Ultron next May. This is akin to the parents leaving the kids at home alone for the weekend: SHIELD has the opportunity to take the lead for once. This season, they were hamstrung by the book-ended releases of Thor 2 and The Winter Soldier, which meant anything that happened on the show had to fall in line with the events of those two films. Now, they have free reign for the better part of a year, to do what they want (within reason) and not have to be beholden to any exterior influence.

The biggest obstacle that the show faced this season was their inability to do anything of any great effect. According to the writers, the show was designed with the Winter Soldier twist in mind, meaning that the entire season has put in a creatively restrictive hold until the big boys could have their fun, and SHIELD could ride on their coat tails. Character introductions, universe expansion, even major player cameos all had to be vetted against the notion of what it would mean after Hydra revealed themselves. This coming season, they have a chance to undo all that damage. And the finale seemed to be setting up just that. With Fury presumed dead, Captain America on the run, American security operations compromised and Hydra a clear and present danger, Coulson and his handful of loyalists have been charged with reforming SHIELD from the ground up. This is the series' chance to do not only something impressive, but also something that has an effect on the MCU. So far, it has been a one way street, with the show having to deal with the fallout from the films. The films must begin to feel the effects of the series, and to do that, the series must do something effective.

And the fastest way to do that is to deal with Coulson's status. The new director of SHIELD cannot exist in a nether-region where half the world thinks he is dead. This season, a lot of jokes were made based on the fact that the entire Avengers team is still unaware of his survival (one assumes this extends to SHIELD agents like Black Widow, Cap and Hawkeye, whatever he's been up to). So, SHIELD's footprint in the cement of the Phase 2 MCU has to be dealing with Coulson as an active and visible high-ranking member of the community. The series, and the characters, can no longer afford to be coy.

Know Where You're Going

One of the ongoing issues I had with season one was, despite the writer's constant insistence that they were working off a plan, it never once felt that way. Everything felt reactionary, and worse, filler. The introduction of the Deathlok program, the Clairvoyant, the Centipede project, Ward secretly being Hydra, Skye's mysterious parentage, Coulson's survival. Each could have fulfilled a tight narrative arc on it's own. Instead, they were all artificially and detrimentally over extended over the length of the entire season, then dovetailed together into the Hydra reveal. And not all organically. Elements seemed to be added as they occurred to the writers (Garrett being the original Deathlok, Coulson's sudden psychic connection to the universe), rather than being the product of a well planned and well executed sequence of events. While room should always be left for improve and unintended consequences, if the insistence is going to be that the series is built around arcing narratives, those arcs can't be executed by the seat of the pants (or, if they aren't, can't be executed so clumsily that they seem so).

Part of the problem is the length. 22 episodes proved too much for the production team, who apparently believed that the story of the season needed to take place over all of that run time. Rightly, SHIELD should be a 13 episode run. In a different world, the series would have started at mid-season, and essentially consisted of just the material that covered the Guest House, the Hydra reveal and Coulson and Garrett's relationship. Sadly, ABC has green-lit a full second season. happily, they've forced the writers into a better arrangement by their scheduling. With two ten episode chunks, this will hopefully force the writers to consolidate their story telling, giving the isolated arcs more direction and streamlined restraint. Yes, events can have an effect on the greater whole, as they should, but that doesn't mean overextending a particular and limiting story over a gross number of episodes. The first and clearest job of the showrunners is to provide editorial direction to the writing staff, and part of that means creating a map for where and how the season will play out.

Focus On Character

To my mind, the greatest failure of the first season was the way the characters were treated. Or rather, ignored. the heart of any story, every good story, is the characters involved, but in SHIELD they were by and larger treated as secondary considerations. It took a half a dozen episodes for Coulson to feel like any kind of leader. Skye was treated as interesting despite never doing anything to earn that reputation. And Ward's reveal as a Hydra agent was severely muted because he hadn't been exposed to him as a person, even the lie of the person he was pretending to be. The writers seemed to be under the notion that simple exposure to characters over time was equal to character development. Instead, every week we had to follow the adventures of people we barely knew, had no idea what motivated them, and had to struggle to sympathise with.

Take, for instance, Coulson's fascination with antiques. In the pilot, he mentions appreciating the difference between "new and improved." This is a character trait. It should be one facet of his personality. This was introduced, mentioned a couple times in early episodes, then forgotten again until the end. No using this hobby to help define his outlook on life. No attempt to develop his personality otherwise. No need, apparently, to reveal the little things about him that makes him so ferociously loyal. Except for a couple huge events, most of these characters don't have pasts, apparently. Before they were on the show, they lived in isolation cells preventing them from having experiences. Lines of dialogue references prior events go a long way towards creating the illusion of a full and complete person, something that this series seemed aggressively against. It was enough that they were on the screen, the audience wouldn't worry about the rest, it seemed. Except, without interesting and engaging characters, the entire weight of the series fell on the plot, which we've already established was drawn out and lacking. So people abandoned the show.

I said that the character of Trip received more development than Coulson's entire team, and that holds true. The gradual way Trip was introduced, elaborated on, and without a grandiose moment of induction, became part of the team was the best thing the show did this year. Next season needs to start from scratch with these characters; needs to win us over by taking us back to square one and telling us why we should fall in love with them, not just assume that we will because they are there. And if they are going to insist that we find Skye interesting... no, you know what, give up on that. You burned that bridge. Start building others elsewhere.

Focus On Characters

One of the reasons that Joss Whedon's truncated Firefly reached the status is has is because of the immediate way the characters were introduced as fully developed, not just individually but as a group. Early on (maybe in the first or second episode) I realized that SHIELD was a poor, faded carbon copy of Firefly, with none of the nuance and affection. As a team based, presumable ensemble cast lead series, they did a piss poor job establishing these characters as a team. There was no camaraderie between any of them, no signs of adult relationships. Each character existed in a vacuum, and would occasionally intersect, like Venn diagrams. There was never a sense that these character worked together as a unit until the third or fourth to last episodes.

The hope is, out of sheer lack of resources, this will change in seasons two. With only the half dozen members of Couslon's team making up the entirety of SHIELD, the writers will be forced to bring them together, as the characters would be forced to consolidate their functioning in order to survive. Add to that the shared and somewhat demoralizing events of the first season, and hopefully this will create stronger emotional ties between the characters (if the writers are talented enough to create those emotional ties). Not every character has to like one another, but they do have to work together, and react to each other in emotionally honest ways. The easiest way to move the show in that direction would be to get rid of both the over the top, soap opera style teenage behaviours, and to develop characters in the longer term. Coulson's immediate forgiveness of May's betrayal this season stunk of the writers wanting to move on to the next thing. Events and actions should have lingering consequences. The series thus far has treated end credits as white wash.

Just Do Something, Dammit

I would never advocate for a characters death, just for the sake of a character's death. But someone on this show needs to die. Why? Because it would be the easiest way to create immediate reaction and emotional turmoil, which is where drama is bred. A character dying makes everything harder for the other characters. Some grieve, others repress their grief. Suddenly, an area of expertise is missed, and needed. People step up, people fall apart. People grow and become better people. And, from a production point of view, it trims the fat. The show, with all their disassociation in terms of characters, suffered from extreme bloat. Every week, I championed some form of definitive action, a statement that made SHIELD seem relevant, and willing to do something in it's own interest. And the show itself teased character death endlessly. Simmons fell out of a plane, Skye got shot, Fitz is now comatose. And every time the show had the opportunity to shake things up, they tripped over their own feet and fell hard on their face.

The easiest solution of the series moving into season two would be to clean house. Bring back the characters that were successful - Hill, Deathlok, Trip - reestablish (or, establish) the paradigm moving forward, create new relationships, and get rid of the factors that were dragging the series down. Do we care about Skye's parentage? Not particularly. Did Fitz' story arc come to a nice conclusion? Absolutely. So why should these elements pollute the series next year. This is the chance for a soft reboot, a phrase I hate, but of which the program is in desperate need of. Make Coulson and his team someone I can not only root for, but who seem important in the large scheme of things. Otherwise, what is the point of the series at all?
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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