Thursday, October 31, 2013

First Impressions: Marvels Agents of SHIELD

Here is the thought for today - how many shows were great straight out of the gate? I mean, I can name a few (Battlestar Galactica's "33" was one of its all-time greats, for instance) for every one I can think of a flood of shows with weak-to-terrible starts that went on to be something far better. I remember sitting in a convention screening room watching pilot the of Babylon 5 being laughed off the screen, and Encounter at Farpoint, which relaunched the Star Trek franchise on TV is just bloody embarrassingly bad. Fringe, the show that captured and then broke my heart (repeatedly), and went on to be my favorite show of the last decade, was so un-exceptional at first I simply stopped watching, and had to be persuaded back to it. So I find the current trend for snarky write-offs of Marvel's Agent of SHIELD a little premature.

Five episodes in is, however, a good time for an appraisal of the short of show that Agents of SHIELD wants to be. As a spin-off from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, lead by Clark Gregg's break-out character of Phil Coulson, (last seen stabbed to death) it comes to the small screen carrying a weight of both fan expectation as to what it would be like, and corporate expectation for it's mainstream success. These two combine to cause a bit of stress at the heart of the show, which I think it has yet to cleanly resolve.

Firstly, the fans. Everyone wanted SHIELD to come out and blow their socks off - some of the commentary before the pilot was even released was already setting the stage for disappointment, with anticipation in some quarters that this would be a week-by-week tour of the Marvel Universe complete with movie-star cameos, not matter much the show runners tried to play that down. It's also Joss Whedon, who fairly or not has a reputation of making brilliant shows for dedicated fans that then get mishandled of misunderstood by the suits. All of this got a bit of a reality check by episode two.

What the network wanted was something else. Network TV in the US is light on big hits these days, which a lot of the critical attention going to cable shows, where dark, edgy stories with heavy serialization can survive with lower ratings thanks to the subscription model for their services. Up until it's massively hyped final series, Breaking Bad managed only a couple of million viewers, which would kill any network show stone cold dead. To get the ratings it needs to justify it's existence, SHIELD, like it's parent movies, is aiming squarely at the centre ground, with nothing to scare the horses, at least until they're firmly in the paddock.

This comes through in the characters, who are all likeable, clearly-defined good guys. Even Skye, our "outsider" character with dubious goals, is portrayed as a good person, so clearly just needs to be brought on-side. And whereas SHIELD itself may have it's ambigious moments in the movies the team, so far at least, are on the side of the angels, and whislt there is the odd contemporary reference to the surveillance state and morality of being spies, the show isn't going to do anything as interesting as "going there" on that front, as if to say thank you very much, please turn over and watch Homeland if that's your bag.

Structurally it's all very familiar - a procedural, monster-of-the-week format with gradual hints towards a larger plot. Sensibly, the initial plot seems to be about Coulsons apparent return from the dead, with the show not trying to insult the audience with any sort of "no, he was fine, really" retcon, and making it pretty clear that whatever happened to him in Tahiti - its a magical place - this is not the man we knew from the movies, somehow. The other characters are still in the background at this point; Hunky Dull Guy, Science Nerd Double-Act, Kick-Ass Veteran and Cute Newbie, but I expect (and hope) we'll start to get character-centric episodes soon enough to flesh them out. They're all fine as they are for my money, fun cardboard cut-outs but cardboard cut-outs none-the-less.

It seems to have become a "thing" recently to drop little disparaging comments about Agents of SHIELD about the place, as if it's some sort of crushing disappointment. And its clearly not working for everyone, and that's fine, because it's already trying to please as many people as possible and that's one of its problems. It certainly relies a little too much on existing conventions (but hey, so do the movies) occasionally its globe-trotting ambitions strain against the budget a little obviously, but its got a decent pace, fun (if as mentioned, a little bland) characters and carries a ton of potential for greater things.

Which will keep me watching, snark-free.