When answering questions from reporters during a set visit, Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. executive producer Jeffrey Bell said that the show’s mission statement is to hit four things in every episode. The writers, he said, aim for “funny, sad, wondrous, and beautiful.” To fans of previous shows created or co-created by Joss Whedon (as this show is), that sounds like an attainable goal, since all four of them hit that mark with surprising frequency. But to anyone who’s seen an episode of this show, it sounds completely ridiculous. Individual episodes of Agents have maybe hit one of those, but never two and certainly not four. It’s a show that has seemed like a bland commodity almost from the word go, an unadventurous attempt to build a mass-market TV show out of the spare parts of a movie franchise. For so many serious TV fans and comics geeks, the show has been the biggest disappointment of the TV season by far. At times during this set visit, the producers seemed blithely unaware of this. (Marvel TV impresario Jeph Loeb actually suggested the audience is really interested in Agent Ward, who, at least to my knowledge, is fairly routinely written off as the show's least interesting character among many.) But at other times, they seemed determined to turn the show around.
There are three kinds of Television Critics Association press tour set visits. The first is for a show that hasn’t even debuted yet that has a cool set, one that might make for some interesting inches in local newspapers who just want to write about how, say, there’s a show shooting on a battleship or something. The second is for a beloved show that’s either rounding the corner early in its run and turning into something critics want to celebrate or coming to a close. But the third is the kind of set visit that has dominated this press tour, a set visit for a show that has a good shot at renewal but has also lost a fair amount of its audience and wants some good press to turn things around. It’s an attempt to at once promise cool new stuff and to acknowledge maybe not everything went as well as all had hoped, without actually coming out and saying that. (This is usually couched in some variation of repeating a criticism and then saying, “I can see why some people thought that.”) And in case you hadn’t guessed, the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. visit was very much in the lattermost category.
In order to hype the upcoming run of episodes on the show, Loeb showed us clips of Bill Paxton’s work as Agent John Garrett, J. August Richards as comics character Deathlok, and Jaimie Alexander’s work from the already-announced episode where she reprises her film role as Lady Sif (which will center on her tracking down fellow Marvel character Lorelei). Cut down into one-minute snippets, it made for some pretty cool stuff, with Paxton fitting eerily well alongside series star Clark Gregg, Richards’ Deathlok costume looking pretty cool, and Alexander’s sword fight bringing a nice level of scale to a TV action sequence. (It’s worth noting here that I am no comics geek, and the mention of Deathlok and Lorelei seemed quite exciting to the comics geeks around me, so maybe this is bigger news than I thought it would be.) But that’s the thing: You could probably grab a spare minute or two from any episode of this show and make it look like a reasonably enjoyable action-adventure TV show. Stretched out to 42 minutes, though, the series has significantly more issues.
At all set visits, it’s possible to see the talking points that have been given to all involved ahead of time, but the level to which the show’s producers and stars had been drilled in what to say by publicity was nearly comical here. I talked to just about everybody involved in the show, and nearly every single one repeated some variation of the idea that ABC’s tagline used to sell the series in the early going—“Not all heroes are super”—was a kind of catch-all into which fan frustration should be shoveled. The fans, see, wanted this to be a series about crazy superhero action, but it was important to be able to do stuff on a TV budget. And besides that, the Marvel cinematic universe doesn’t actually have real superheroes—which the producers seemed to define as “mutants” without ever saying that word because 20th Century Fox. It, instead, has magic and science gone wrong and the like. And the show needed to honor that by not having a world suddenly teeming with heroes, a world that would radically break with the cinematic franchise.
All of this is well and good enough. There’s certainly room to play within the Marvel cinematic universe, but not very much, and I would hope that any reasonably charitable TV fan could understand this wasn’t going to be The Avengers. Yet the next logical question to ask is why, then, the show hit the ground running with so many boring characters and stories that pigeonholed things into bland action-adventure standalones, particularly if the producers had so thoroughly planned out the season that they knew what the last image of the season one finale was before starting serious work on the show. (Over-planning is often a problem on first-season genre shows, which want to have a firm set of signposts in line, without realizing that the narrative pace of television is blistering.) And it’s not as though TV can’t do exciting action-adventure standalones, though Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. might make you believe it impossible.
And yet I came out of the set visit at least slightly optimistic about the show going forward.
There are a few reasons for this. First and foremost is the most recent episode, which wasn’t great but at least attempted to understand that the show’s biggest problem is its characters and started to shade in some of their back-story by taking the action to the S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy. Second was that footage. It might have been taken out of context and buffed up to look as good as it possibly could, but, screw it, Deathlok (about whom I know nothing) looked cool, and Paxton had a way with this dialogue that made it sound more clever than it probably actually is. And there’s also the fact that amid those talking points about the show would occasionally slip out some tacit acknowledgements that not everything in the first batch of episodes had worked.
Mostly, though, I was heartened by talking to the producers. Though Joss Whedon is involved in the show’s large arc storytelling, he doesn’t have the time to be as involved on a day-to-day basis as he was on his other shows. Yet he’s been good at the larger arcs in the past, and now that things have gotten to the midpoint of the season, there’s a chance that whatever plan he concocted with Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen, Bell, and Loeb at the start of the season will kick into gear and propel things forward. This won’t work as well as it might without characters to really care about, but a plot that unspools well enough can sometimes take on its own sense of momentum and hurtle past all of the dead spots. (I think it’s also telling how much the presence of actors like Paxton and Richards was emphasized. If you still don’t like the main cast at this point, maybe the show can entice you with some guest stars?)
But the thing that most heartened me was that all first season shows involve some sort of steering into the skid, some sort of course correction. In talking with the producers, I got the sense—first advanced by Loeb and Bell—that they were fumbling a bit to figure out how to tell a 22-episode story in a 13-episode world. Jed Whedon (Joss Whedon wasn’t present at the set visit) pointed out to me that in a 13-episode season, the story is usually kicking into high gear around episode six, because that’s roughly the halfway point of the season. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. reached its halfway point just recently, and its story, too, is about to start moving forward at a quickened pace. Netflix and cable have changed how quickly audiences are willing to consume narrative, creating a willingness to watch shows with relentless forward momentum, shows that don't pause for anything. (Go and look at some of those early seasons of Buffy now; at the time, their pacing felt revolutionary and different, but now, they’re starting to feel a little slow-paced compared to what’s on the air at present.) There’s been plenty made of how Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is something of a throwback show in its dedication to action-adventure tropes above all else. But at all times in talking to producers, I got the sense that they at least understood the story on this show needs to move faster and needs to have more concrete stakes. And because the post process on the show takes so long (due to all of the added effects), turning the ship may have taken a bit longer than it would have on another show.
All of this is idle speculation, and the show’s biggest flaw, its characters, was something the producers spoke much less about. (Indeed, Loeb seemed to think the audience was pretty darn invested in them.) It’s always a gamble to hope that a show like this can turn itself around, but if any collection of talent is going to figure it out, it’s this one. The show has the ratings room to play around a bit, particularly once DVR numbers are factored in. Now, it just needs to prove it has the goods, lest some of these thoughts turn into a “fool me once” sort of situation.