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OH MAN. Inflammatory statement! But its true. Well, let me get this out of the way. It may not be your favorite, TV is art and art is subjective, but I do believe it’s the most solid TV Show of the bunch. The bunch being Arrow, The Flash, Constantine, and Gotham (though, we will be joined by Teen Titans, Supergirl, and maybe Superman’s Grandpa?).
But wait! I’ve never seen a complete Gotham episode! And I stopped watching Arrow half-way through the first season! How could I be qualified to make such a statement? Wouldn’t that, in fact, discredit my entire argument? Perhaps. To compensate for this, I won’t be comparing those entire productions to Agents of SHIELD, just the parts that can be taken by themselves. You’ll see.
So what makes a good comic book show? Is it the effects, the references, the shirtless work outs? Well they can certainly help, but that’s not a foundation to build a solid show on. You need great character work, you need engaging plots, and you need to make it fun to watch. Let me break it down:
A DISCLAIMER: Please to do not take this to mean that the other shows listed are not good (though, that’s one of the reasons I stopped watching Arrow). The Flash is a really charming show. It’s well done, there’s a sense of affection for the source material, and it’s driven by one really interesting mystery. I also think Constantine has a lot of positives and I’ll be sad to see it go. If I had to sum up my complaints with these shows, it’s that they seem more comic book than comic book show. I get into it later.
Character work is the backbone of any story and I think that Agents of SHIELD excels far beyond the others. Pretty much every character on SHIELD is nuanced, is interesting, is dynamic. Even when you compare them in their respective stages. SHIELD has had one and a half seasons whereas The Flash and Constantine have yet to complete their first. However, when you compare them to SHIELD at the same time in their first season, SHIELD comes out on top. You had grown attached to almost everyone (Skye). It was absolutely gut wrenching when Simmons tried to kill herself in “F.Z.Z.T”. On the flip side, when Star Labs was attacked by a meta human with electrical powers in a recent episode of The Flash, I barely felt for anyone. That’s the product of weak character work.
I think the main problem is that, as stated in the disclaimer above, there’s an pressure to get as much comic book into the comic book show as possible. For example, in SHIELD, Mike’s progression into becoming Deathlok was slow, taking multiple episodes, and pretty free of anything from the comics. However, when Deathlok finally “arrived” the emotional impact was huge. You cared for him as much you feared him. It served to create a dimensional, fully formed character. Meanwhile, in The Flash, you just get Captain Cold. Here’s a freeze gun, you’re a supervillain! Outside of “hey cool, Captain Cold” I feel nothing for the character. That’s watchable, but it doesn’t really build a good show.
This past episode of Agents of SHIELD was its mid-season finale. It ended in a mad dash by most of the characters into an alien city that was about to explode. You felt the danger for each of the characters (except really Skye), because each one is real, in a dimensional sense, and you’ve been led to care for them. When one of them dies, it hits you.
I’m never worried about anyone in all the other shows. Again, part of it is because a lot of them are comic book characters whose fate I already know. Such is a big problem with Gotham. I know the fate of the main character, the main character’s family, Bruce, Alfred, The Penguin, and almost everyone. There are some fun things you could do with them in the meantime, but it’d be like driving a commute I’ve been on a dozen time before, but now some of the scenery has been changed. Still boring. I suppose you could make a case for that being my comic book knowledge at work, but is there someone out there that isn’t familiar with Batman? These aren’t obscure characters, these are the main tenants of the universe. I just have no interest in watching familiar characters explore a world I’m familiar with.
All shows are built on a mystery or a conflict at its core. For Agents of SHIELD, it began with “what happened to Phil Coulson?”. For, say, The Flash it’s “what’s the deal with Harrison Wells?”. Each a pretty solid mystery. It’s where they go from there that makes SHIELD stand out.
SHIELD‘s mystery is tied into the theme of Phil’s crisis of faith with the Agency he devoted his life to. It’s a mystery that all others were built on. One that dove tailed into more and more conflicts on the show. In The Flash, Harrison Well’s identity is just… interesting. I mean, it’s not that big part of the show actually. Most characters don’t even know there is a mystery. It’s just for us. I just want to know what the answer is, I don’t really care what impact it has on the characters.
Constantine was based on a conflict, specifically John Constantine’s struggle to rectify an exorcism gone wrong. It’s done pretty well! Each episode plays into it somehow, it’s a running theme with the show. It affects everything. His interactions with people. How he solves a case. I like it! The mysteries surrounding the show, however, are kind of weak. The rising darkness is pretty vague and we don’t get a sense of it’s magnitude because we don’t have anything to compare it to. John’s prophesied betrayal is a little more interesting, but, again, doesn’t seem to hold much weight. Most characters ignore it.
This is the hardest one to quantify. Everyone’s different, and what they call “fun” will probably be too. Someone might just like to watch Arrow trade blows with Deathstroke and that’s it. There’s nothing wrong with that! It’s just that it’s a bit flimsy is all. Not a lot of substance. Maybe that’s weird to say about a comic book show — this isn’t Shakespeare after all — but I believe its a valid issue.
Agents of SHIELD‘s scope is so much bigger than all the other ones. Their missions are grander. They’re louder. They’re more fun. Arrow, The Flash, and Gotham are stuck with one city local, but SHIELD can go all over the globe. The Flash has to fight another meta human, but the SHIELD Agents are caught up in an in-air dogfight while trying to get rid of a new alien threat.
Indeed, this can be chalked up to budget constraints. Agents of SHIELD has Disney backing so they can have a bunch of CGI and different locations, but in the end I do believe it’s up to how to you use it. After all, Constantine has a bunch of different (admittedly similar) locations all across their episodes. Sure, they can’t have too much CGI, but they make up for it with interesting practical effects. So you’re telling me that Arrow or The Flash has more funding issues than Constantine?
One of the reasons I stopped watching Arrow is that it just wasn’t fun to watch the main character. I don’t mean that in the “oh too gritty for me” sense. It just seemed like I was watching a dour serial murderer complete his kill list in between arguing with his acerbic mother and sister. It was a tough pill to swallow.
When The Flash had its crossover with Arrow, Oliver hadn’t really seemed to have change. He is still much more Batman than classic Green Arrow, he’s still pretty one note: dark, and he’s not that fun to watch. He’s good in a fight, but you could put anyone in that suit and I’d still feel the same about the fight. It’s just a dance.
In Agents of SHIELD, when May gets into a fight it has weight because she’s a living, breathing character who we connect with. The weight makes the fights more exciting, even though I know she’ll obviously win. That’s fun. When Ward, now a dark, murderous character as well, sets his sights on a target, you get excited because of all the experience you have seeing how lethal he can be. That’s fun. Hell, just seeing Skye’s insane Dad rage around is really fun, and we’ve only known him for about as long as I had watched Arrow.
So those are the main reasons why I believe Agents of SHIELD is the best comic book TV out right now. However, I understand that SHIELD isn’t perfect. Skye is the closest thing we have to a main character and she’s arguably the worst character on the show. That’s not good, you guys. She needs more development to become something more than an awkward quip-machine. The show exploits its mystery, sometimes to the detriment of the audience. Not to mention, for an action adventure show, it can definitely be something of a slow burn.
But what do you think? Did I miss the mark completely? Let me know why down below.