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Four Ways to Fix Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D

We’re seven episodes into the first season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and so far, the series isn’t shaping into the massive hit both Marvel and ABC expected it to be. Mix the unbelievable success Marvel has had over the past several years (beginning with Iron Man and continuing with the studio’s most recent film Thor: The Dark World) with the golden touch of Joss Whedon (in a supervisory role) and it isn’t that hard to imagine S.H.I.E.L.D. morphing into one of the most popular series on television and pulling down ratings that most shows can only dream of. So, why isn’t it?


Seven episodes might be a bit too early to push the panic button, and the series has been picked up for a full season despite it’s disappointing ratings, but here are four things S.H.I.E.L.D. can do to correct its course before it truly becomes time to panic.


Agent May being awesome


1. Give us a reason to care about these characters.


It can be hard launching a new show with an ensemble cast. Fleshing out multiple characters in a short span of time isn’t easy to do without it becoming an information dump. That being said, after seven episodes, I still shouldn’t be unsure of which character is Fitz and which one is Simmons. I also shouldn’t be referring to Ward (whose first name I had to look up) as the “wooden tough guy” in conversation. So far, the only characters with some backstory are May, Skye, and Coulson, and Coulson doesn’t really count since he’s appeared in multiple films already.


I need to understand why May was so reluctant to become a field agent again. Why Fitz and Simmons decided to join S.H.I.E.L.D. And what was so amazing about Brett Dalton’s audition that Whedon and Co. cast him as Ward (seriously, there has to be more to him than we’ve seen, because Ward has to be the most boring character on television right now and Dalton often has a blank look on his face). Give us a reason to root for these guys. The lovable band of misfits moniker only goes so far before we need character development to supplement the situations the team finds themselves in. And, Skye still remains a mess of a character, despite being held up as the audience’s window into the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. Fix her character (or, give us a reason to actually care about her – her desire to find out what happened to her parents doesn’t count), and the show might be onto something great.


These past several episodes have been character driven, in that each of the last three paid particular focus to one member of the team. But I still walked away from each not really knowing more than cursory things about each of the highlighted characters. There’s a way to build up drama and deliver on characterization without losing one or the other. Judging from the past works of the production crew, they know how to walk that delicate balance. It’s time to start showing us they remember how.


Victoria Hand arrives


2. Don’t be afraid of superheroes or the comic universe.


S.H.I.E.L.D. was marketed as a series about humans who deal with the extraordinary. The common line from ABC and the production team was that the series wasn’t going to rely on bringing in a superhero character to liven things up, since that would take away from the human characters on the show. Frankly, that’s just ridiculous.


I’m not saying add a superhero to the team, and I certainly don’t expect Thor or Tony Stark to start popping by the jet for tea once a month, but adding a recurring “super” character would do nothing to hurt the show. Perhaps the team could help a budding hero learn to use and control their powers. Or even be used to prove to an egotistical hero just how amazing mere humans can be. Marvel has a long list of lesser known heroes that could work on the show and within the show’s tight budget constraints. And, with the news that Marvel and Netflix are teaming up for a series of hero-focused shows over the next several years, why not use S.H.I.E.L.D. to introduce one or two of those characters to a wider audience?


Cobie Smulders reprises her role from The Avengers


Adding a recurring superhero that only appears a handful of times a season would entice viewers who are tired of the case of the week procedural structure of the show and add a bit of flare to the series. Take a look as past Whedon shows. Some of his series’ most memorable characters began as recurring guest stars: Spike, Faith, and Darla on Buffy and Angel and Alpha on Dollhouse. Having familiar faces that pop up from time to time excites viewers and helps ground them in the action. Occasionally bringing in a hero of the week the audience knows they won’t see again makes it more difficult for them to invest in the story.


The other reason for the lack of superhero power comes from ABC and Marvel’s desire to make sure the series is accessible to viewers who haven’t seen the films. Considering the sharp drop off in viewership from the pilot to now, I think it’s safe to say the remaining audience has at least some familiarity with the film series as well as the general Marvel universe. I’m encouraged by the upcoming Thor: The Dark World episode tie-in (and, one can assume there will be a similar tie-in with the next Captain America film in February), but it appears that it will once again be a one-off episode. The show doesn’t have to be completely linked with the comic and film universes, but it needs more of a connection than the occasional film reference or appearance by Samuel L. Jackson. The introduction of Victoria Hand into the show’s narrative is a start, but S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to continue integrating the comics and the original characters together to create a more complete show.


Coulson lives


3. Tell us what happened to Coulson. Seriously. It’s getting old.


The big hook during S.H.I.E.L.D.’s summer promotion was the tagline “Coulson Lives.” And yet, seven episodes in, we still don’t actually know how he’s still alive after clearly biting it in The Avengers. While there have been some serious hints (namely that he’s not the same as he once was, he now has a mysterious scar, and Coulson has a tic of saying the same phrase each time he hears the word Tahiti) we still haven’t been told what happened.


Most of the hints and throwaway lines (such as episode seven’s “He’s like a robot version of himself”) would seem to point toward Coulson being a Life Model Decoy (which, since May has the same scar, would make her one as well). But making that the answer to the big mystery would just seem lazy, since the fandom has been guessing that Coulson is now a Decoy since before the series even premiered. Either way, an answer needs to be given sooner rather than later. In order for this new Coulson to become a fuller fledged character (because, let’s be honest, he really does seem different from the Coulson in the films), we need to understand who he really is – and he needs to understand it, too.


No more superhero of the week


4. Give us story arcs, not just a string of standalone episodes.


Now, from what I’ve gathered about the introduction of Victoria Hand into the narrative, S.H.I.E.L.D. may be headed for a more serial drama approach rather than the procedural feel of the first several episodes. And if that is the case, great! One of the greatest elements of a Whedon show is the season arc. Whedon and his writing team are great at creating season-long arcs that make audiences want to turn in week after week. When Whedon makes is big missteps is often when he tries to craft a one-off episode (think “Ted,” the robot episode with John Ritter from Buffy or most of the first season of Dollhouse). When Whedon’s team is allowed the room to create a long running storyline that spans multiple episodes, the show shines.


Giving us a potential bad guy (in this case, Hand or Centipede), and pitting them against our team of heroes (super or otherwise) is great. With Hand, giving the audience more than an episode to get to know this character, understand her motivations, and see that she might have some redeeming qualities is even better. That’s how an audience becomes invested in the characters, both the good and evil. If the audience can find some small piece of the villain that they find redeeming or even amusing (think of Spike in the early seasons of Buffy or even the Mayor, a wonderfully written villain), that’s when the show really hits the mark. If no one liked or cared about Loki, I doubt The Avengers would have been the hit it was. Having time to get to know the bad guy just as well as we know the good guy makes for great drama.


Now, I’m not saying that if S.H.I.E.L.D.’s writers take this list and follow it to the letter, S.H.I.E.L.D. will become the next Breaking Bad. But, things need to turn around a bit, especially with our heroes, before this show can truly find its footing. Knowing the pedigree of the team crafting the series and the source material they have to draw from, I still have faith that the series will fully right itself sooner rather than later. And even if it doesn’t, there are plenty of Marvel films and Joss Whedon television series to tide us over until the summer of 2015.

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About / Bio
TV critic based in Chicago. When not watching and writing about awesome television shows, I can be found lamenting over the latest disappointing performance by any of the various Chicago sports teams or my beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Follow me @JeaniusIsMe on Twitter.

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