Geek TV Part 1: Agents of SHIELD

We rumble ever closer to the dawn of the new TV season, which will feature no less than six TV shows based on or connected to comic properties, some of which won’t even get cancelled between now and Christmas.

Obviously I’d prefer none, but life has been really drilling in the message that I can’t have everything I want lately.

So to try and keep the number of geek TV cancellations down (and pave the way for the rumoured Supergirl and Titans series I’m hearing about), here’s the first of several posts as to what I see as the challenges and opportunities for some of the key players.

(No, I don’t have any sway over the various showrunners, but when I wrote one of these two years ago about dos and don’ts for Arrow, they did nearly everything on my list, so what the hell.)

Agents of SHIELD: don’t spin your wheels (any more)

Not my actual advice.
Not my actual advice.

Okay. It was a bit of a close call, but Agents of SHIELD is back for season two. It’s possible that the corporate synergy of Disney-owned ABC running a Disney-owned Marvel show made renewal more assured than we thought, but the second season pick-up came awfully late.

Challenge: pick up the pace

When we last left you, Agents of SHIELD, SHIELD had ceased to exist and Agent Coulson (who appears to have a hint of the space madness due to his life-restoring possibly Kree blood transfusion) and his merry band were tasked with rebuilding it from the ground up. Also Agent Ward, the blandest character on a show whose overall characterization could be called lackluster, had finally become interesting when they revealed he’d been a Hydra sleeper agent all along.

The last six episodes were legitimately good, with actual stakes and actual tension and real uncertainty about what would happen. And Patton Oswalt, which is always welcome. It didn’t pull your ratings up, but the fans you still had surely appreciated it. You need some more of that to kick off this new season. Because the fact is, you don’t have enough viewers left that you can afford to lose half of them in your first seven episodes again. And the most important thing you can do to avoid that? Don’t spin your wheels for half a season.

When season one kicked off, we had three big mysteries: how did Coulson come back from the dead after Avengers, what’s the secret in hacker Skye’s past, and some people called Centipede were trying to make their own super soldiers out of a witches’ brew of Marvel movie references.

And then all three plots just sat there until Christmas.

Once per episode you’d remind us something was up with Coulson (and name-drop someone from the movies, which was 95% of your connection to the Marvel cinematic universe for a while). Every once in a while you’d say “Ooo, Skye’s past is mysterious,” or have Centipede pop by and continue being crude knockoffs of the bad guys from Iron Man 3. And so it remained for your first dozen episodes, while you hemorrhaged viewers and good will.

So don’t do that again. We’ve now had a few hints at Skye’s past and Coulson’s resurrection, go somewhere with it. Get into what freaky alien stuff is happening in Coulson’s head, let us know who Skye’s dad is, and have a season arc that doesn’t take 16 episodes to get out of first gear.

Also, Ward’s finally interesting. Don’t let what I assume is going to be a big redemption arc push him back towards bland and dull.

Opportunity: stand on your own

Real talk, Agents of SHIELD. This season? Your biggest weakness is also your greatest opportunity.

Last season, you had two big Marvel movies to tie into: Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: the Winter Soldier. Now, for all the hype about having an episode directly tied to Thor, what we actually got was The Well, an episode which featured vague glimpses of Ward’s childhood (at the time, Ward was still as interesting as drying paint) as the team fought the most one-dimensional, least inspired villains of not only the whole season but of the entire Marvel cinematic universe, in a plot based around Asgardians with zero connection to Thor, Loki, or any of the events of either movie.

The villains from The Well made this guy look like Hannibal Lecter in comparison.
The villains from The Well made this guy look like Hannibal Lecter in comparison.

Then, in April, Agents of SHIELD was kind of forced to respond to the events of The Winter Solider, since they left SHIELD in ruins. And suddenly everything kicked into action. The stakes were high, Coulson’s secret was (partially) out there (even if it only raised further questions), Deathlok had been introduced, and you finally, finally, had a villain who was any fun to watch.

The argument by pro-Marvel pundits (I’ll refrain from calling them apologists) is that you couldn’t do most of this plot until after the Winter Soldier. And that’s true. But guess what, team? There’s nothing to wait for this year.

Guardians of the Galaxy came out a month ago, and while it’s still popular, there is really no way for you to tie it into Agents of SHIELD beyond Coulson’s Kree-blood space madness. It’s not like we’re expecting Star Lord to pop by and explain what Coulson keeps writing on the wall. He’s busy protecting the people of Pawnee. And the next Marvel movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, isn’t until May. By early May, you’ll need to be ramping up to the finale. You won’t have time to throw an Ultron-based monkey wrench into everything.

So on the one hand, you won’t have Marvel movie tie-ins to boost ratings. But then that only worked once. The bait-and-switch Thor “tie-in” led to a two-week ratings spike, but the Winter Solider had no real effect. Well, as Mr. Peanutbutter said… “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, fiddle-dee-dee.” No, wait, that’s not right… David Cross, what’s the expression?

Sorry, got sidetracked there… my point was, you can’t count on the movies to boost your ratings, but you’re also not beholden to them in terms of story. You don’t have to do a half-assed episode about Asgardian whatnots because Thor 2 just came out (seriously, Hawaii Five-O consistently writes better villains than the ones from The Well). You don’t have to schedule all of your interesting plot developments around Age of Ultron. You can tell a proper season story.

Joss Whedon’s name is still on this thing. I know you know how to make a seasonal arc worth watching with villains not pulled out of the NCIS reject drawer. So do that.

Tomorrow: Gotham had my curiosity. Now it has my attention.

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