As a dedicated Browncoat and diehard Whedonite, I don’t believe what I’m about to write but I’ve been putting it off long enough that I feel like I have to say something. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is my least favorite new show of the season. Along with having the most ham-fisted name since the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim California, it is just flat uninteresting.
I know, I know, cover me with cheese, but if you look in your heart of hearts, I think you’ll have to admit you feel it a little bit, too.
Problems first showed up during the pilot. I was tuned up for that event, having heard good buzz from footage shown at the cons, but I left the episode feeling a little meh. I didn’t hate it but I certainly wasn’t as overwhelmed as I was after seeing the first episode of Buffy or Angel or Firefly. Dollhouse was a little rough at first but it got very good very quickly, so maybe that signals some hope.
But the thing that worries me is the missing element: the characters. Think about the Scooby gangs from Buffy, Angel and Firefly. They were populated by fascinating individuals with their own internal lives. The same was true of Dollhouse with both the dolls and the handlers having fascinatingly mysterious back stories that were handed out piecemeal over many episodes. I can’t say I find any of the Shield (I’m just gonna stop putting all those stupid periods right now) Agents even remotely interesting. They’ve even somehow managed to emblanden (don’t look it up, just trust me that it’s a real word) Agent Coulson.
And what seems to be filling in for amazing, complex back story is over-dramatic line readings. Cobie Smulders’ “He must never know the truth.” was just plain embarrassing. Melinda May just looks constipated all the time. Grant Ward is as superficial as his name. Fitz and Simmons are kind of fun but they need to differentiate themselves some more. I can never remember who is biology and who is hardware. And Skye is the biggest problem of all. She has no depth. She is not compelling either as a wildcard or as a stand in for the viewer.
Where is the Xander? Where is the Wesley? Where is the Jane? Where are any of Amy Acker’s characters?
What we need here is an Out of Gas episode. Of all of the great things Joss Whedon has done, that single episode may be the best 42 minutes of television ever. It not only summoned up some serious anxiety and managed to use a broken timeline narrative to exquisite perfection, it also deepened our commitment to the show by teasing out some of the most interesting bits of history for our characters. That’s right. They became “our” characters very quickly.
My worry is that there is no Out of Gas episode possible because these characters are too shallow to have lives. We aren’t going to see Kaylee joyously kicking up her boots with the soon-to-be ex-mechanic or Captain Mal picking the right ship due to a thunderous case of love at first sight because nothing like that ever happened to Grant Ward or Melinda May. From what we’ve seen so far, their characters are so clichéd that they could have been written by Tom Clancy.
This is just so strange it’s hard to believe. These are people who are responsible for some of the best television ever made and it feels like they’re just coasting. Of course, it’s good enough for the stiffs. They’re coming to the show in droves, so many of them, in fact, that the series already has a full order. This may be the conundrum: If you make a show interesting enough to be great, it will languish in the fringes, but if you dumb it down enough to reach a mass audience of people with firmly limited imaginations, you’ll run for ten years. Just like Two and a Half Men and According to Jim.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Let’s hope the Whedons are suckering us in with pathetic left jabs until we get close enough for the big right hook.