Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Agents of SHIELD (First 6 Episodes)

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the Nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

This is my first review Nerdview of a television series, and as such it's perfectly appropriate that I weigh in on the latest Marvel media property: Agents of SHIELD. I've got several other more important projects on the blog-burner right now, but this is probably the most immediately timely, as I can actually sound off on the series in the middle of its first season.

Expectations 'Odor': If you read my blog post earlier this summer, then you know that I've been looking forward to Agents of SHIELD for some time. I love the way SHIELD stories interweave the greatest characters and plots of the Marvel universe into a coherent story, especially in the post Civil War continuity (which at some point in the future I'll probably cover for those who aren't Marvel-fans). Secret War in particular was a great mini-series that showed how SHIELD and The Man push around superheroes to make the world safer--whether they like it or not. In particular, I like the SHIELD stories that expound on the ways mundane or low-powered agents of SHIELD are able to stand on the same field as Hulk and Iron Man. Sure, individual SHIELD goons don't last, but as an organization it pulls the strings of many of the heroes in the Marvel universe while still being a fundamentally mundane organization. As a fan of watching little guys push big guys around, it resonates.

So with Agents of SHIELD I want to see at least a bit more development of that theme: what place do NSA-types in suits have in a world of girder-grinding, lightning-throwing, super-sonic super-humans? But I also know that what we've got here is also a Joss Whedon series, and with that we're pretty much guaranteed several specific elements. First, that means a women-heavy cast of primaries, women warriors, and not necessarily in in believable roles or casting. I mean, Eliza Dushku kicking more butt than Tahmoh Penikett in Dollhouse--the heck?! Second, it means that disestablishment themes are probably going to either erode this version of SHIELD, or the team will be some sort of Black Ops splinter group to maintain Whedon's happy for rogue heroes. Third--and this is really something to be excited about--it means that the show will probably have different ages played on-screen and in the plots. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had Giles' personal life and character growth become a significant plot thread while also making us endure Buffy-as-waitress type plots. Firefly had Book alongside Kayleigh and River. Even Dollhouse, which revolved around brainwashed youth themes, showcased a lot of drama amongst the middle-aged conspirators being mocked by their own vapid creations. In Agents of SHIELD, then, we can look forward to Coulson and the youngest agents having distinct characterization and focuses in the meta-plot of the series.

But do I think Agents of SHIELD will be good? Yes. Great? Honestly, maybe. Just maybe. Because there's one element that I think could make a SHIELD show superb that I don't think Whedon would ever touch: the procedural. The thrill of investigation, of plots having certain core steps repeating to represent that the characters are in fact doing their jobs and not looking for this week's interesting thing. The Mentalist, Law & Order, and detective classic shows like Columbo are all great procedural series. In those shows you're guaranteed certain steps to get thrown into the matrix of a new mystery for nearly every episode, and it works. The most critical procedural to compare to Agents of SHIELD, of course, is The X-Files. Even though The X-Files featured outlandish plots, special effects monsters, and conspiracy theories, most of the episodes fell into a procedural format that established that even in the BS-filled land of The X-Files, they were still part of the FBI, which was a job and an organization that stretched beyond the cast of the show. Heck, they even had a petite warrior-woman mismatched with a physically uninspiring nerdy guy, all the better for Whedon to take notes.

But at least it won't be Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD.

Appreciation 'Beef': Bumbly bumbly bump. What's that? Oh, Agents of SHIELD is on? I mean, we're six episodes in and I'm still waiting for it to get started. I feel like these first six episodes have been part of a long, exceptionally badly-paced pilot episode. The writing is weak with only brief commercial-length moments of good scripting. The cast ranges from sublime to bland all the way down to absurdly annoying.

"As a fan of watching little guys push big guys around, it resonates."

In terms of the greater plot of the show, they've introduced a good number of elements from the greater Marvel universe, with Extremis, (proto-)Graviton, and the Chitauri being featured in the show so far. I'd probably suggest they slow down with their inclusion of these diverse elements, taking their time to establish more drama and mystery around them, but for the most part these kinds of Easter eggs are the most exciting thing in the show for Marvel-philes like me.

The action is fairly well-done, with Ming-Na Wen pulling off the physicality of warrior-woman Melinda May capably. Brett Dalton as Agent Grant Ward definitely does a better job of selling his stunts and action, but that's to be expected. So far two of the six episodes aired ("Girl in the Flower Dress" and "FZZT") have not featured much traditional action, and that's a positive trend I'd like to see emphasized in this series. In a world of superpowers and eldritch gadgets, combat should be brief and deadly, and there's a very real trend towards inserting bland fist fights to pad out the show where drama and actual investigation should sit.

Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson is great, and when he's actually placed in a scene where he gets to chew the scenery a bit, it's awesome. His moment with the terminally ill firefighter in FZZT was a gripping bit of drama that helped shed a little light on his seemingly spastic behavior--he's a man crushed by his own brush with death. I think the mystery around his revival/resurrection/reboot is a bit over-played, but since it is the only real over-arching mystery of the show right now, I guess I'll have to take it.

The rest of the roster, though, makes very little sense. First of all, six principal characters always feels light to me. (Heck, if you include Zordon and Alpha Five, the Power Rangers show started out with seven.) And that tiny roster is exaggerated by the red shirts of this show who are so paper-thinly developed that names and characterization are hardly ever given. In "Eye Spy" and "Girl in the Flower Dress" there are way too many scenes where there's no one on screen except two or three main characters, which is silly when you stop to consider the enormity of these plots, SHIELD itself, or even the density of SHIELD personnel in the movies. You can try to justify it by saying they need a small independent team or whatever handwaving goo-gawing you want, but in the end it's just a way to cheap out on production costs with a smaller cast, and it shows. Heck, half the episodes don't even show an actual flight crew for the massive plane they fly around--and if that bird can be managed by a lone pilot and no flight crew, then I'm a body double for Chris Hemsworth.

(I'm not, by the way.)

Setting the light weight of SHIELD in the show aside, though, the simple composition of the team is ridiculous, both in a contextual sense for the purpose of the team and in a meta-textual sense for the purpose of the show. They have a combat-competent leader in Coulson, but his almost petulant need to flout the regs is pretty vain since the show doesn't seem to have a boss for him to report to and have conflict with. As it is, having Coulson as leader constantly have to explain himself to basically all of his subordinates is not only tiresome, it's eminently stupid. Agent Ward is pretty strait-laced for a SHIELD agent type, but in a group full of recalcitrant misfits he ends up being either a sullen by-the-book regs-thumper or broody pretty boy by way of compensation. Melinda May is also very capable in combat, but reluctantly so due to her unexamined backstory. And in any case she's the only character we've seen piloting their plane, so the lady should be sitting in the plane most of the time anyways. Fitz and Simmons are a victim of their own silly premise--both annoyingly interchangeable, mutually-dependent, and inept at combat. The plot of "FZZT" revolves around the two characters being plot clones of each other, highlighting how they're doubly tiresome. So all in all, we have a SHIELD roster of a six person team with only three combat effective members, two of which do not ordinarily want to be in potential combat situations, and two who are incredible liabilities in combat situations.

"...we're six episodes in and I'm still waiting for it to get started."

And then there's the sixth member of the team: Skye. Skye is a former info-terrorist hacker the team brings on…'cuz. Normally a television show brings an outsider into a team of specialists to give the audience--also outsiders--a sympathetic window into the specialists' world. I call this a schlub (see my post on Gerard Butler for another example), and Agents of SHIELD has no need for a schlub, because everyone is largely ignorant or obtuse to each other team member's area of responsibility. So what does Skye bring to the team? Smug uselessness and pathetic attempts to be sexy with a smoker's voice? At first I thought they'd use her to introduce a sinister traitor meta-plot to define the first season, as it was clear she was maintaining contact with her Rising Tide info-terrorist group. Instead, that betrayal plot gets ham-handed four episodes in with the revelation that she was just doing it for her boyfriend, and that her acts of treason that got federal agents killed were mitigated by her stupid hormonal love connection. Not only do Coulson, Fitz-Simmons, and the plot itself give Skye a pass on her crimes, but the cast collectively tells Agent Ward to just get over it by the next episode. What was the point of introducing the betrayal and treason plot if the end result was to ditch it at the earliest and clumsiest opportunity?

Ugh. I can rant about Skye all night, but I won't. I will just sum up with this thought. The crew of the Serenity, assembled by luck and lowest-bidding to accomplish odd-jobs of the criminal underworld, was better selected, more disciplined, and more capable of addressing most SHIELD-oriented threats than the team in Agents of SHIELD. They had four combat capable crew (five on River's good days), a dedicated pilot, tech person, medic, and a seductress who could stay in character long enough to actually pull cons off.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': Agents of SHIELD has got me going through the motions. Don't get me wrong, I'm still watching this show every week, and I honestly believe there's potential in the show they've created, but so much of it is bumbling along right now that I feel like a Marvel-holic getting a watered-shot of a simulacra of the stuff to which I'm actually addicted.

Now, it may seem like I'm being a little harsh in light of the excellent Marvel movies, but wait: I'm going to get even more acerbic as I dial in my disappointment. We're six episodes into this series. Let's put that into perspective. By this point of screen-time (using show chronology, not airing chronology), Firefly had introduced Niska in "The Train Job", developed the entire crew's fabulous rapport in "Shindig", and blown everyone away with "Our Mrs. Reynolds". The X-Files had already given all of us the uber-willies in "Squeeze" with a boneless super-malleable cannibal serial killer, and established a good procedural investigative style and partner dynamic with "Conduit" and "Shadows". And Agents of SHIELD's stumbling is made even more unforgivable by the fact that The Blacklist, which started the same week, has been superb--especially in the ways that the Marvel show fails. They've got a great team that is diverse-yet-plausible, fantastic writing, good pacing, and several interesting meta-plots.

I'm waiting for Agents of SHIELD to come into its own, but I'm not holding my breath.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': As it stands, I think Agents of SHIELD will only appeal to a very small section of fans of the Marvel cinematic universe. I'm not going to assume everyone is going to get annoyed by the same elements the same amount as me, but there are just too many compromises to something that needs a very focused formula to work as a show. It still has too many superhero and genre elements to appeal to viewers who don't like the movies or comics, but those elements are so watered-down and subverted by the cliched action of the show that the movie and comic fans are going to feel let down at best or outright alienated at worst.

I hope that people will, like me, give Agents of SHIELD a chance to fix their problems, but even more so I hope that the creative team behind Agents of SHIELD will actually take the effort to fix these problems to make a series worthy of Mordor five or more seasons.

After Avengers, Joss Whedon is the magical summoner of comicbook fans.

(Fourth post this week, so the deficit is down to 3 out of 31)

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