Saturday, November 16, 2013

TV Review: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Season 1 Episodes 1-7)

I purposefully wanted to wait until about six episodes in before offering up a review of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.EL.D. because 1) all series need a little time to get their legs under them and 2) the last time Joss Whedon had a TV series (the amazing Dollhouse), it wasn't until the sixth episode that everything took off. Granted, that time, everyone involved with the show repeatedly reminded viewers that the sixth episode would be the best and we just needed to hang in there to reach it. No such assurances were offered for AOS, and after seven episodes I've realized why: It simply isn't going to get any better. Another thing I've realized about the show is that no matter what anyone says and no matter how much ABC wants to promote it as such, AOS isn't a Whedon show in the traditional sense. It lacks Whedon's trademark humor and quick fire dialogue, there's no standout character for the viewers to really latch onto for better or worse (the fan favorite Agent Coulson not withstanding, more on that in a minute), and there's no real season long story arc yet (which after 7 hours is a significant problem). Acknowledging early on that this was not a Whedon show changed my expectations and allowed my enjoyment of the show to increase, but it didn't make the show any "better," and as someone who really wants to like this show, I find this to be problematic.

I think the biggest and most glaring problem facing AOS is how episodic its format has been. Coulson's team tackles a specific threat each episode. Instead of setting the team against an enemy and allowing them to do battle intermittently throughout the course of the season, the creators have decided that it would be better to give them an ever changing threat or problem to solve. This could be a good thing as it would give the writers the opportunity to expand the already established Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for some reason the show doesn't appear to be doing that. The threats are typically contained to the episode in question and they haven't done much to expand our understanding of the world in which the characters operate. Nor have the episodes done anything to enhance our understanding of the characters themselves. At this point in the show's run, we've really only been given two separate serialized stories: What really happened to Agent Coulson, and what's the story behind Skye's parents, and both stories have been done poorly. Skye's story is arguably the most interesting of the two at this point, but that's only because it's new. Its novelty, however, also works against the show as the story's introduction in the fifth episode feels rushed and comes out of nowhere without giving the audience time to really care. The fact that Skye is looking into the S.H.I.E.L.D. in order to discover the truth behind her own origin should have been introduced in the first episode to allow suspense to build around it organically. It also wouldn't hurt to have the story center around someone more interesting than Skye, but that's another issue we'll get to in a bit. The Coulson story was the main thing I took away from the first episode and it was the primary source of interest for me as a viewer. But as the show has dragged on and on with no real headway being made on that front, I've found my interest to be lessening with each passing week. Again, this would be easily rectifiable if either Coulson came off as a significantly different character than he was in the Marvel films, or if the show just showed us some kind of forward momentum towards a resolution instead of just teasing us with hints that he's "different" every week.

The characters are the second problem facing the series. None of them are interesting. Besides our previous ties to Coulson (which as I mentioned already have been growing thinner each week), Malinda May is the only character that seems to be even remotely three-dimensional at this point, and I can't help but think that this has something to do with the fact that she hardly ever speaks. If the writers gave her as much dialogue as they do the others, she'd probably be ruined just as quickly. None of the characters feel like fully developed people yet so much as cardboard cutouts who exist to do the one thing they each do. The show doesn't strive to surprise us with out of left field character beats. This is most obvious in one of the show's better episodes to date: F.Z.Z.T. Simmons is infected with some kind of Alien virus transmitted through static electricity and the team, Fitz in particular, rush to try and find a cure before she basically explodes and kills them all. Even though the scenes that follow are entertaining, nothing in them is surprising. Of course Simmons would throw herself from the plane instead of risking the lives of all of her team, of course Fitz and Simmons combined brain power would come up with a cure that works in time, and of course after complaining the entire episode that he needed something action-y to do, Ward would jump out of the plane before having his parachute fully fastened and save her. Again, this was all very entertaining in the moment, but I don't think it did much to add coloring to the characters we'd been faced with for five hours already. But the worst character ever award certainly goes to Chloe Bennet's Skye. She's boring, she's annoying, and her continued presence on the team is totally unjustified. She's a double agent and then she isn't, she's a computer hacker who has to be fitted with a bracelet to stop her from hacking computers because she can't be trusted, and her sole purpose continues to be to tell the team "no" for some reason or another each week. It's pathetic.

Shows in general, and Whedon shows in particular, work best when each major player's position within the group makes narrative sense. The best example of this from the Whedon-verse is Firefly. Not only do the characters have an immediate purpose (pilot, mechanic, doctor, muscle), they also serve a deeper role of representing elements of Mal's soul that he's lost over the years. There's never a question about one of them being left behind or replaced with someone else capable of doing their jobs because the audience understands why they're there. Or as Mal puts it when asked why he'd come back for Simon and River, "You're on my crew. Why we still talking about this?" The same cannot be said about Skye; surely if her only purpose is to be a computer hacker, the team could find one far more trustworthy and reliable.

All of this boils down to a show that's not in full command of itself yet and is falling into bad storytelling methods. These problems are problems I would expect to have been ironed out after two or three episodes. That they're still so prevalent and that they're all so easily fixable, tells me that the show probably won't get much better than it's been thus far. Or at the very least it'll require an entire overhaul to make it better. I don't want it to seem like I hate the show outright. I actually find all of the episodes watchable if not enjoyable. But I'm not rushing to my TV set each week to make sure I've caught the latest installment. I had high expectations for the series given the stellar work Marvel's been doing with its cinematic universe and the names attached. It's sad how hard those expectations of a great show have come crashing down around the reality that it's little more than middling at best. Do we really want to dedicate 22 hours to something that will never be more than mediocre?

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