Pop Prof #8: Is Agents of SHIELD smarter than it seems?

Warning: There are spoilers for both Agents of SHIELD and “Captain America 2” in this article.

During the first two thirds or so of the first season of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, the word that best encapsulated the show was “clueless.” The show entered the fall with tons of goodwill; after all, it was loosely affiliated with “Avengers” director and nerd TV favorite Joss Whedon, it tied in with the massively popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Clark Gregg starred in the show as beloved MCU side character Phil Coulson. However, from the pilot episode on, something wasn’t right.

At least that’s the way it seemed at first. Now that the season is over and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” has recontextualized the show’s titular organization, viewers have a different picture. Is it possible that Agents of SHIELD was playing the long game, making questionable choices that seem wiser in the wake of its April reveal?

The show quickly squandered any trust than hopeful viewers had placed in it, thanks mostly to its seeming cluelessness. Though set in a superhero world, Agents of SHIELD rarely engaged with anything superheroic, focusing instead on “weird science” one-offs and an unengaging central mystery. Though Gregg earned praise in the MCU films for his sarcastic reactions to absurd situations, the show cast him as a straight man and rarely gave him anything to react to.

Worst of all, Whedon ended up being involved very little in the day-to-day operations of the show, which was run instead by his frequent lieutenants, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. The snappy dialogue that usually characterizes Whedon efforts was non-existent, replaced by obvious jokes and unbearably corny one-liners. It’s been mentioned countless times before, but it bears repeating: this is a TV show that had a “he’s standing right behind me” joke and a “speak English, nerd” joke in the same season of episodes that came out in 2013.

The early goings of the show saw other bouts of cluelessness as well. For a show set in a nigh-omnipotent international spy organization, Agents of SHIELD failed remarkably in its ability to read a room, telling pro-Big Brother stories in a climate where viewers are likely to be distrustful of a secret-keeping public agency. An early episode saw hacktivist-turned-spy-computer-whiz Skye (Choe Bennet) turn her back on her Snowdenesque origins and sell out her fellow “information should be free” cohort, who is summarily arrested by SHIELD and presumably whisked away to a black box or some other fresh hell. There’s a good debate to be had about the role of the Snowdens and Wikileaks of the world, but Agents of SHIELD was uninterested in having it, instead assuring the audience that Skye was right to protect the data held by the world’s most invasive public organization.

However, shades of the show’s presentational bewilderedness began to fall away as the season went on. Episode 15, “Yes Men,” still had writing problems but featured an entertaining guest star turn as Jamie Alexander reprised her role as Sif from the Thor films. Even better was the show’s 13th episode, “T.R.A.C.K.S.,” a fast-paced, multiple-viewpoints adventure that ended with a surprisingly villainous turn – and don’t forget cyborg assassin Deathlok (J. August Richards), whose recurring appearances in the season’s latter half provided a superpowered hook.

That was all prelude, however, to the show’s twist, one that savvy viewers saw first in “Captain America 2”: unbeknownst to the public and to many of the people within SHIELD, the organization had been hijacked by Hydra, a Nazi offshoot first seen in the original Cap film.

Suddenly, some aspects of Agents of SHIELD began making sense and even started to become consistently entertaining.

It may be a stretch to say that the Hydra reveal snapped the initial episodes’ oddities into focus, but they certainly could be viewed in a different light. SHIELD has been a suspect organization since “Avengers,” when the group’s faceless higher-ups tried to nuke an alien-embattled New York City; now, the series regulars could recoil at their devotion to the agency as dangerous groupthink. Brett Dalton’s Agent Ward, the show’s most boring character, was given a new injection of life as a Hydra double agent, and guest star Bill Paxton revived the early episodes’ dull plot devices as MacGuffins in service of his plot for domination. Instead of a small team working for a faceless monolith, Coulson’s squad became plucky insurrectionists, dodging a government suspicious of their actions and trying to take down the Hydra agents who hijacked what was left of their former agency.

Most importantly, the show’s writers recontextualized the motivations and relationships of each of the main cast members. Skye worried if she’d backed the wrong horse, Agent Mae’s (Ming Na-Wen) intergroup spying became a matter of twisted loyalty, and company men Coulson, Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) questioned the dedication that had become their identity. Even Agent Ward’s initially wooden demeanor could be seen as a bad guy trying to fit in with a good team, particularly because Dalton was much better at playing the villain.

The last six episodes of Agents of SHIELD still contained a couple of stinkers and the dialogue was still subpar, but the show was carried in large part by its new, exciting premise (and buoyed by “Captain America 2,” a far better movie than Agents of SHIELD is a show). But what about those first 16 episodes? Were they a mostly bad collection of a show stalling before its real premise could be revealed, or was the show constructing a narrative of delayed gratification, teasing out a sense that something about this world was off before “Cap 2” and Episode 17 (“Turn, Turn, Turn”) could deliver the gut punch?

The answer may be a bit of both. The nagging discomfort of the “SHIELD is always right” mantra in the early part of the season is likely at least a bit intentional; the same could be said for a conflicted moment in Episode 14 (“T.A.H.I.T.I”) where Coulson kills some innocent guards ostensibly because he “had no choice.” Those who complain that Agents of SHIELD shouldn’t have started before “Cap 2” came out are missing the point; the viewer needs to get to know these characters before the twist so that their guilt and fear can have emotional impact.

However, this doesn’t excuse most of the bad TV decisions the show made as it was starting out. The best Marvel films look great, feel lived-in, and pepper their drama with humor. By contrast, Agents of SHIELD’s sets were too sparse, its action was muddy, and its writing was hackneyed. These are not attributable to long-range TV planning; they are suggestive of an uncertain writing staff or an overbearing network nitpicking one of its top investments.

By its finale, Agents of SHIELD became a dumb, fun action TV show with emotional stakes that occasionally hinted at something better, and that’s a fine place for a network drama to be after its first season. Those who stuck around all year saw their investment somewhat rewarded, but none of the viewers who checked out early could be blamed for doing so.

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