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Monday, April 7, 2014

Did Marvel's AGENTS OF SHIELD Just Become Worth Watching?

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was, to me, one of the biggest disappointments of last fall.  I'm not alone there, I think - the show has shed a great many viewers over its past 16 episodes and lost most of what critical goodwill it might have had within its first month on the air.

But between the enormous changes heralded by Captain America: The Winter Soldier and last week's genuinely good episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., has ABC's disappointing spy drama finally begun to live up to its initial potential?  

"End of the Beginning" isn't the first good episode of Agents of SHIELD - that would be the laboriously-named "T.R.A.C.K.S."  But it is the episode that most capitalized on the various running plots of the series, and the first episode that introduced genuine tension into the proceedings.  

The first 12 episodes found its characters arguing that they should "trust the system," and no one was more of a Company Man than Clark Gregg's Agent Phil Coulson.  Indeed, the show's earliest conflict found two outsiders - unstable super soldier Mike Peterson and hacker conspiracy theorist Skye - inducted into SHIELD and forced to confront and adapt to the secretive nature of SHIELD.  It was an organization that, despite all the awful things it did, was often treated as near-deific in its nobility and necessity.  These episodes, to put it lightly, Don't Work.  Often focusing on Case of the Week shenanigans, the series squandered momentum making an argument it never really believed and focused more on lighthearted adventures than it did on developing its cast and finding rapport between them.

There were moments where that facade cracked.  In the solid-but-unspectacular "The Hub," the episode that introduced Saffron Burrows' Victoria Hand, two members of Coulson's team were sent on a suicide mission without extraction... and without telling Coulson what was being done to them.  They were betrayed by the system, but there was no weight to the moment, and all was immediately forgiven.  Similarly, "Seeds" found the group investigating a murder at the hyper-competitive SHIELD Academy - more cracks, just as easily swept under the rug.

It wasn't until "End of the Beginning" that the series finally began to examine those cracks.  It was everything the earlier episodes weren't - tense, character-driven, morally questionable. Hinging on the hunt for the Clairvoyent, a very lightly running plot since episode 5, the episode finds the team facing down against Deathlok and getting closer than ever before (... this is the first time they've actually really tried) to discovering the Clairvoyent's identity.  While it does build off previous episodes, "The Hub" and the run from "T.R.A.C.K.S." through "Yes Men" in particular, there is little connective tissue between its arguments and the episodes that came before.  It ties in better as a sort of prequel to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which introduced some spectacular changes to the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

For all that, Agents of SHIELD is not yet a terribly good show - but it is getting there.  The Agents repeatedly do awful things to prisoners in their care without a second thought, and are treated like heroes for it, less nuance than even 24 had.  The series is still trying to justify the cast-overlap - Skye only recently found a purpose on the show that is relatively distinct from Fitz & Simmons, and Ward still has no reason to exist.  Episodes spent 'tying in' (I use the term loosely) to Thor: The Dark World would have been better served forging bonds between these characters and clarifying their beliefs about SHIELD.

But it is getting there - finally.  In a particularly illuminating interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, Jeph Loeb and Clark Gregg had the following to say:

"But there are still people online who go, ‘We don’t understand why Iron Man isn’t on the show!’ " said executive producer Jeph Loeb. "You know what? He’s not. I love Robert [Downey Jr.] — not coming by anytime soon."

The producers, writers and cast all insist that the slow build "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." went through in its first dozen episodes was necessary to build toward what Loeb described as "the incredible momentum and urgency of what’s going to happen."

Gregg compared it to eating "the healthy stuff first" and saving "the dessert" for later. "We’re deep in dessert right now."
Ignoring the ridiculous strawman assertation Loeb makes at first - no one, and I mean no one, seriously expected Iron Man to show up; a well-made show sells itself - what has plagued Marvel's Agents of SHIELD is one of the classic fallacies of serialized storytelling.  Whether it is comics or television, you can't just have an excellent endgame, you have to have excellent chapters - and that's where SHIELD so consistently fails.  The 'healthy stuff' can and should taste good; no reasonably human being would expect another to sit through 10+ hours of a total slog trusting that these creators know what they're doing in the long run.

But after a month of episodes that ranged from decent to downright good, it looks like ABC's show may finally have found its voice.  Hopefully, it means they've learned from the mistakes that so plagued the first dozen episodes of the show.  Marvel Studios films, though flawed, typically have excellent writing.  The films are rigorously controlled, which makes the failure of the first dozen SHIELD episodes all the more puzzling.  Have the show's writers finally learned their lessons?  Are they merely riding high off the ideas of the superior films?  Or, worse yet, is the show hamstrung by the films, stuck in a holding pattern until the more important (and more profitable) films introduce the real stories?

So if you're interested in giving Agents of SHIELD another shot, you can jump back on with last week's episode, "End of the Beginning," or with "T.R.A.C.K.S." where the show's serious improvement really began.  It finally found a way to tell reasonably tense, character-driven stories - also known as 'spy fiction 101' - and to use the Marvel Universe without being beholden to its bigger budgets and brighter stars.  While it still isn't essential viewing, it is finally becoming one that shows genuine potential, that shows a reason to get mildly excited at the possibility of a second season.

Or you could just get excited at the possibility of Marvel's upcoming Netflix shows... though the continued involvement of Jeph Loeb (Heroes, Ultimates 3) is cause to be concerned.
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