Recurring Cast: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D was hyped up quite a lot, but it opened its season rather poorly. The pilot was moderately impressive, giving us a mini Marvel movie. We had an origin story for the unit, a narrative full of neat, little twists that we near impossible to predict and the usual Joss Whedon trick of blending humour and action so smoothly that we get a fun, thrill ride. However, the obvious flaw in the system turned out to be accurate and the show failed to give us that same experience week in week out. Like a Marvel movie, it was too neat, too smooth. While the Whedon sarcasm was expertly timed, it flushed all tension from the plot and even a moderately interesting plotline couldn’t save the show. Critics and bloggers everywhere were revolting. Even if I was still a true believer in this show, I had to admit that some valid points were being made.
I think the main problem were these critics not understanding the essence of Whedon’s characters. It easy to look at the highlights of Whedon’s career and make a snap decision that his characters are always expertly written: Willow, Malcolm Reynolds, Echo… he has brought more cult characters to television than almost any other writer. However, Whedon is terrible at introducing characters. Take Angel: almost every new character on that show gets under your skin almost immediately. J. August Richards’ Gunn is a walking ‘black-man-on-TV’ stereotype and Cordelia was the character that Buffy wanted to offload onto an inferior spin-off. However, Whedon’s talent comes from developing this stereotypes into something worthwhile. Cordelia and Gunn eventually grew on you and everyone ended up forgetting their initial missteps. The same could be said for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’s cast. With the exception of the already developed Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen (who admittedly was bad-ass from start to finish), the cast didn’t impress. Chloe Bennet seemed like a discount Eliza Dushku and Brett Dalton had the charisma of a Nicolas Cage movie. However, for those that gave this show a chance, they became interesting figures. Skye earned her place on the team, the stock geek characters, Fitz/Simmons, became unique in their own way and Grant Ward’s storyline could have been the biggest shock on offer here.
The first half of the season is spent on making you like these characters. I admit, the first half is pretty lame. It isn’t necessarily bad TV, but it doesn’t leave a lasting impression. Each week, something supernatural, superhuman or anything remotely ‘Marvel-y’, would pop up and the team would investigate. The tone would be kept light, sometimes satirising its own plot-line, which while amusing, made the show seem apologetic that it was so tame, rather than trying to do something interesting with itself. The characters tried to develop, but because they got off to a rather bad start, no one was overly bothered with what they were trying to do. It’s not even as though there wasn’t an overall story keeping you hooked, because, looking at the season as a whole, the early episodes lay the foundations for some pretty big narrative arcs; it’s just still a little flat. The show was always promising big things around the corner, but by the time you got to them, you were more interested in that other big thing around the corner. I was caught in this weird space where I was enjoying Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that I should be enjoying it a lot more.
And then something weird happens: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D gets really good. The forgettable stand-alone episodes disappear almost completely and the rest of the season becomes one big story arc. It feels like a rollercoaster that takes ages to get going, but when it begins the descent, it isn’t going to be stopping until the very end. We begin worrying that certain characters might die; despite claiming we disliked them, we began getting a little upset when one of them ends up in a hospital bed. I guess that we all have Captain America: The Winter Soldier to thank for this change in pace. I won’t spoil either the season or the movie for you, but the movie does end on a twist that throws the longevity of this show into question. The show takes up the remains of the Winter Soldier’s plot, adds slightly too it and throws us into a massive conspiracy movie. Every episode turned the table on the viewer. The action actually got really good, especially in one scene where Ward makes a desperate last stand on a bunch of corrupt S.H.I.E.L.D agents. One thing is certain: Whedon knows how to write a twist.
Is it perfect? No. I cannot really explain it, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D still feels really unsatisfying. I think a large part of that is still the ‘much bigger thing just around the corner’ style of story-telling, but Whedon feels uncomfortable delivering on his set-pieces. Sometimes, we get the climax we are waiting for, but there are times, where Whedon tries to clever and dances around it. It happened a lot in Buffy, but we get great villains that Whedon thinks it is funny to kill off in a sudden and, quite frankly, lame way. Sure, it earns a chuckle, but when Whedon doesn’t deliver on that big fight he was promising all season, you cannot help but lose a little faith in the show.
Final Verdict: While it struggles to be consistently good, it does eventually find its feet. It isn’t quite worth recommending with too much confidence just yet, but I am eager enough for a second season.