I want to like Agents of SHIELD. Even as someone who rarely watches TV, the thought of enjoying a piece of Marvel’s cinematic universe on the small screen every week is appealing. I’ve watched the first three episodes of the show now, though, and it has not failed to disappoint. With such well-realized and solidly entertaining source material in the Marvel Studios films, why does SHIELD fall so flat for me?
For starters, the whole tone and direction of the show feels like a bit of a misstep out of the gate. While I understand the logic of drawing on the lighter elements of humor and adventure in Marvel’s movies in order to appeal to a broader audience, that effort to “Disneyfy” the concept for ABC has robbed the property of much of its edge. The problem is that there is no way for a TV show to out-Marvel The Avengers (peace be upon Whedon) and attempting to emulate that film’s formula is a recipe for mediocrity (at best). Agents of SHIELD would be better served carving out its own niche in that world. Personally, I’d be more interested in a The X-Files-inspired political thriller delving into the organizational and conspiratorial aspects of the Marvel U. Do you think Nick Fury’s deceit really begins and ends with his manipulation of the Avengers? Do you think Hydra is really gone for good or that it doesn’t have its agents pulling strings deep within the SHIELD hierarchy? There’s plenty of room here for tales of paranoia, distrust, and surprising revelations galore. Not only would this approach give SHIELD a distinct identity apart from its big-budget superhero cousins, but it would also mesh well with the darker, political tone of Marvel’s Phase 2 (a la Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier).
Ironically enough for a program titled Agents of SHIELD, the show (so far at least) has very little to do with SHIELD at all. It follows a team ostensibly operating under the aegis of SHIELD but whose independence strains the credibility of that title as anything other than an attempt to cash in on the Marvel brand (and to make an excuse for the Bond-style toys). Once again, I think embracing the bureaucratic nature of the organization rather than distancing the core stories from it would be the smarter move. A little more Alias intrigue, a little more Deep Space Nine diplomacy, a little more Battlestar Galactica military structure, and a little less A-Team cowboy heroics and CSI procedural investigation would go a long way.
All that said, I’m not opposed to fun, romping adventure stories. I could see the show succeeding along the concept-heavy Star Trek route. What’s going to hold the show back regardless of its thematic and stylistic tendencies, however, are its almost farcical cast and poor acting choices.
Maybe it’s just me, but I find most of the actors in the show completely unconvincing in their parts. The apparent necessity of casting beautiful young people, even in roles for which they are unsuitable and illogical, has long been one of my biggest beefs with American television. I’m really supposed to believe that the 22-year-old former pop star with the perfect hair, overdone makeup, stylish dress, and vivacious personality, the girl who looks like she just stepped off the set of Pretty Little Liars, is actually an expert hacker and double-agent for a clandestine anarchist group? And you seriously expect me to accept this guy…
…as an experienced and lethal black ops specialist? He looks like the most dangerous mission he’s ever been assigned is posing in his skivvies for a Sears catalog. (I won’t even bother drawing attention to the sci-fi engineer with a Scottish accent. On the nose much?) All the fresh faces, cartoonish action, and paranormal-weirdness-of-the-week plots make me feel not so much that I’m watching a show about covert intelligence agents as that I’m watching the Scooby-Doo gang.
Unfortunately, pretty faces don’t always make for pretty line delivery either. SHIELD is clearly trying to carry the tradition of witty banter established in the Marvel Studios films which is admirable in and of itself. Problems arise when the actors aren’t strong enough to make their characters heard through the wordplay (or when there aren’t characters present worth hearing). The jokes work for Robert Downey, Jr. because he is Tony Stark; when he offers a waggish line, we feel the force of his personality shine through. However, when the repartee outshines the characters, when the audience hears jokes but not individuals expressing themselves, a show’s cast can start to sound very “samey.” Instead of a chorus of distinct voices, one hears only the singular voice of the writer, and lines intended to be clever come across as forced and contrived. SHIELD (like many beginning shows) has fallen victim to this predicament, and one can only hope that time will bring strong character development and an opportunity for the writers and actors to more fully grasp the nuances of the characters’ voices.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the whole muddled mess is the fact that Joss Whedon’s name is attached. I haven’t done much reading on the show, so I don’t know how heavily he’s involved. I will say, however, that Agents of SHIELD has thus far fallen woefully short of the caliber of the previous projects he’s helmed directly. If you want fun, edgy sci-fi/fantasy, you’re better off re-watching Buffy or Firefly. Better yet, especially if you’re looking for a Marvel fix specifically, check out his run as writer on the Astonishing X-Men comic with artist John Cassaday. In my opinion, it’s some of the best work done in the fifty year history of the X-franchise.
As harshly as I’ve criticized it, I will acknowledge before I sign off that I haven’t entirely given up hope for Agents of SHIELD. It’s not a complete disaster. The reaction above is based admittedly on only the first three episodes of a show still finding its footing, and episode three was a step in the right direction. Things could change for the better, but I think it’s going to require a pretty major evolution from the current format and much more sharply drawn and believable characters in order for it to outgrow its derivative, N.C.I.SHIELD training wheels. In the meantime, at least I have Thor: The Dark World to look forward to.
What do you think of Agents of SHIELD so far? Is my judgment too hasty? Am I wrong to hold out hope at all? Leave a comment, and let me know where you stand!
Special thanks to my good friend Solomon for the photo manip assist!