Going into its first season, Agents of SHIELD had more than its fair share of pressures. While there was undoubtedly fan enthusiasm, there were also an enormous amount of factors influencing the product, asking and hoping that it would be good, and live up to its promise. In addition to a marketing campaign that logically tied it to the wildly successful Avengers film, it also had to live up to expectations of fans, both of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as of long-time geek god Joss Whedon.
In addition, the show was being pulled in many directions. Not only a creative product of Whedon himself, who eventually turned the reins over to his brother and sister-in-law so he could devote himself to the next Avengers, but also very much of the Marvel machine. Kevin Feige and company were clearly at play here, looking to make something that felt true, that could easily insert itself into the continuance of cinematic outings. On top of that, showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen were given the unenviable task of bringing together all these high-stakes elements and working with a brand-new set of characters in a long-established universe.
In retrospect, it’s probably not too much of a surprise that the show, in spite of some genuine spikes in quality, had a rocky first season. A lack of focus and consistency in solid episodes dog many of the series’ low points, as Tancharoen and Whedon wilted under all the pressures while their inexperience to the form spoke to a painful lack of engaging television.
It could actually be said that it’s to the benefit of everyone the show is getting a second season — and that it was almost a foregone conclusion. Enough shows have taken one season or more to find their footing and it’s a relief to know that this series will likely be given that opportunity. In addition, while the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier made up the bulk of the series’ best episodes, it is perhaps something of a relief that those events are now well and done with. Looking back, knowing about the upcoming Hydra twist, it rather feels at times as though the writers are spinning their wheels, waiting for events to occur so that they can get down to what the series will really about.
Here are a few things it would be lovely to see the show improve upon going into its second year and beyond, hopefully making for a more solid outing across the board.
Stop Telling Us Why We Should Love Skye
Nothing against Chloe Bennet, but her character was easily the worst of the season and maybe this is both a compliment and put-down. Others around her, like Ward and Fitz, felt all-around too underdeveloped to resonate one way or another — at least until Ward’s about-face after Hydra took control. The show is clearly choosing to put the characters of Skye and Coulson at the forefront of the series’ mythology. Coulson works logically, not least of which because Clark Gregg’s affable presence in the Phase One films was a large reason the show was ever developed to begin with.
However, Skye fulfilled some of the most cloying stereotypes that always weigh down troubled TV series and movies, being something between a Mary Sue and a manic pixie dream girl. The writers often give her an almost endless and absurd amount of capabilities to satisfy plot resolutions. There was a distinct lack of focus of where she was standing relative to SHIELD and how we the audience should feel about it. Worst of all, the series spent far more time telling us how special she was without doing enough adequate showing to back it up.
Case in point: at the end of the tense and surprisingly well-executed T.R.A.C.K.S, Skye is shot point-blank per orders from the Clairvoyant and the following episode returns with her life in dire peril. The plot was built around the Clairvoyant looking to learn more about the secrets of Coulson’s revival while our main characters fretted over Skye to the point that May, of all people, took out her intense frustration on Ian Quinn. Among the many problems, not only have these characters not known each other nearly long enough for them to all be so emotionally invested in Skye, but May is a big question mark. The woman is built specifically as someone who is distant and intentionally doesn’t attach herself to others. Yet, with no predicated relation-building in any previous episodes whatsoever, she becomes intensely upset at the thought of Skye’s demise. It is a dramatic and unearned emotional overreaction that the show itself takes no thought to even comment upon.
The long and short of it: back off on Skye. If she’s going to be central and so special, start showing us more reasons why we should feel that way rather than having the characters constantly remark upon it.
Tighten Up the Plotting
While it’s hard not to be excited at the prospect of another Whedon-helmed show on the air, it became painfully obvious that the man was not really involved in the show at a certain point. Perhaps he has remained at the peripherals, but if he were consistently in on the process, the writing would have been stronger and the character development would have been better managed. The show struggled constantly under the weight of trying to pin down a consistent villain, sending us off in a series of misdirects as the writers themselves were likely making up a fair amount as they went along. Early episodes and pretty much the large majority of the series between the pilot and The End of the Beginning were brought down by subpar episodes with bad storytelling and an uncomfortable overabundance of one-liners.
It’s almost widely agreed that the best episodes of the show were in the weeks following The Winter Soldier, demonstrating that the show was at its best when it had significant outside factors to react to and stuck to a more serialized format. The stand-alones would only work well if they credibly developed characters and relationships — which, by and large, they didn’t — and also found ways to introduce plot mechanics that would later become important. The series had an easier time of it with the latter than the former.
Indeed, the show would also be better benefited if it could prioritize its characters as much as its concepts the way all of Whedon’s best shows have. The rift between Coulson and May after the Hydra take-down was one of the most effective emotional plotlines precisely because of how well the show had believably established their connection over the first two-thirds of the season. Unfortunately, it was solved in a throwaway scene that didn’t even implicitly address anything that had divided them and by the end of the day, the only acknowledgement we received from Coulson was of how glad he was May was back. One of the best emotional developments Agents of SHIELD ever accomplished was undercut by a cop-out of a resolution, mostly because it wanted to get back to the plot-heavy stuff.
Work Better Movie Tie-Ins
We actually won’t get much chance to see this in the second season, as no further Phase Two films are planned prior to Age of Ultron. While The Winter Soldier fallout was undeniably fantastic, it also was a bit of a weakness because it showed us what the show potentially could have been from the start if it had just been given the proper chance. That is to say that t’s wonderful to have the show intermingling with events and characters from the films, but it shouldn’t be entirely dependent upon them in order to achieve true quality.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the advertised “tie-in” for Thor: The Dark World was incredibly weak. Instead of delivering any true elements that directly or even indirectly carried over from the film, the story used it as an excuse to introduce the Berzerker staffs. This was a plot that likely would’ve been fine on its own but didn’t need to be advertised as a response to the recently released film. Lady Sif’s appearance a few episodes later was a much better outing overall.
Whatever complaints and criticisms and praise that can be made, it is nice to know Agents of SHIELD will be around for at least another year. It’s an exciting experiment and entry into the expanding MCU, it’s given us a few great new characters (Melinda May, in particular) and it’s offered more Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson on our TV screens, all of which are great reasons to keep watching the show, whatever else may occur.