I admit it – I am a Marvel fan boy. Among the comics I read the most as a kid were “Avengers” and the amazing Jim Steranko-drawn psychedelic “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” I am also a big fan of Joss Whedon, although I admit I didn’t get bitten by the Buffy bug until season three, and used to fall asleep during some of the slower “Firefly” episodes.
So I was very excited when the new “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” was announced after the huge success of “Marvel’s The Avengers,” with Joss Whedon as the show runner. I had visions of Jayne Cobb in Splinter Cell-like gear, or Faith in a black leather S.H.I.E.L.D. “uniform.” And of course, like everyone else, I wanted superheroes (Jessica Drew, please dear God) and super villains (MODOK and A.I.M.; Strucker and Hydra).
What we got was a show that was somewhere between “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Warehouse 13 – without the real international intrigue of the former or the humor of the latter. The show quickly fell into the “baddie of the week” formula, and if I wanted to watch super-science gone awry with real drama and well-done moments of humor, I would re-watch the much better late Fox series “Fringe.”
My friends have almost completely abandoned the show, and they are not alone. According to AdWeek, the show has lost a whopping 53 percent of its viewers since the premier episode, in only seven episodes. The show reached a low point with episode five, in which a Hong Kong man with flame-manipulating powers (and no explanation of who he got them initially, since Disney/ABC/Marvel studios legally can’t use the term “mutant” as long as Fox holds the licensed rights to X-Men) gets abused by the shadowy researchers first seen using chitauri technology in the pilot episode.
This should have been an episode in which the nature of how the show deals with super-powered beings gets set, and in which more clues about the shadowy group of scientists are revealed, Instead we get a guy who is given the horrible name “Scorch” by the bad guys, who despite having a pretty comfy life decides to go all psycho killer on everyone (yes, I know, the chitauri tech helps them get that way, but the transition was almost like flipping a switch). And we find out almost nothing more about the scientists, except that the only one we have seen in more than one episode – SPOILER ALERT – gets killed off.
But the next episode starts to turn things around. It turns out there is no bad guy in this episode, just a mystery that needs to be solved and ultimately a tragedy that is beyond the abilities of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team to stop. Eventually – SPOILER ALERT – the source of the tragedy, a chitauri helmet endangers the life of the lovely and nerdy Agent Simmons. That leads to a great bit of character development, and sets up some actions which – in perfect Joss Whedon fashion – has consequences in the next episode.
That episode, No. 7, is hands down the best in the series so far, and the most Whedonesque. It introduces Saffron Burrows as the perfect incarnation of Victoria Hand from the comics. It makes the massive bureaucracy of S.H.I.E.L.D. seem like an impersonal monster in true Whedon fashion, then turns that on its head. It continues the Fitzsimmons character development, this time making Fitz the subject and revealing depths to his character as an agent. It also advances the concept that even Coulson knows at some level he isn’t the man he once was – maybe not a man at all.
Is it the episode “Ariel” from “Firefly” when it comes to twists and character development? No, but what in modern television on a major old-school network has been?
What episode 6 and particularly episode 7 were turns out to be satisfying shows that leave you wanting to experience more – something that can’t be said of S.H.I.E.L.D. since the first episode. Will it be enough to reverse the precipitous slide in the show’s ratings? Maybe, since Disney owns ABC and Marvel, and is likely willing to let the show simmer until the recipe comes together properly.
At least we can now start to smell that it could ultimately be as good as the recipe promised.