TV check-in: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

agents of shield

Word of advice to all future TV shows: If you tease a flying car in the pilot, the flying car better damn well show up to do something cool at some point. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sure could use that flying car right now … or anything at all that could inject a bit of spark into Marvel’s first foray into television since the birth of their cinematic universe. I urged caution about writing the series off after others were cool on the pilot and the first few episodes, reminding everyone that executive producer Joss Whedon’s shows often took a bit of time to find their footing before really taking off. But nine episodes in (only five less than Firefly got in total), I’m running out of patience. There are two ways a TV show can be instantly compelling — either by giving us fascinating characters we want to learn more about or hooking us with engaging plotlines that ignite our desire to know what happens next. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is failing badly on both counts.

The blandness of the show’s characters is nearly a running Internet joke right now, so it almost feels lazy to point it out here. But, seriously, these people are really, really bland. Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson still carries some of the deadpan charm he did throughout Marvel’s big-screen adventures, but he’s somehow proven to be an odd fit in the TV show that was essentially constructed around him. His straight man doesn’t quite work as the show’s lead. (And, yes, even ensemble shows need a lead. Malcolm Reynolds … Jack Shephard … you get the picture.) Coulson would probably work better as a Giles-from-Buffy type of mentor figure, but that series had an incredibly strong central character for Giles and the others to bounce off of. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a show in search of that type of anchor. It can’t be Ward (Grant Dalton). He’s too white bread, too blank slate, too boring. It looked like it might be Skye (Chloe Bennet), though she’s been largely sidelined following the ho-hum reveal that she was only hacking into S.H.I.E.L.D. (and lying to them about it) in an attempt to dig up information on her parents. Ming-Na Wen’s Melinda May is purposefully low-key, and Fitz and Simmons (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge) are a witty-exactly-once pun in search of an actual reason for them to be two characters instead of one. Nine episodes in, you could kill off any of these people, and I honestly wouldn’t care. (And, in a few cases, I’d actively support it.)

Recently, the show has been making a play for the ‘shipper crowd by allowing Skye and Ward to get a little flirty before pulling a twist and having Ward jump in the sack with Melinda May. The whole thing’s a little weird because (a) you should make sure the concept of the show itself is on solid ground before you start having your characters bump uglies and (b) everyone on this series feels oddly sexless to me, like they’re all Ken and Barbie dolls with nothing but smooth plastic between their legs. It seems like romantic entanglements are being shoehorned in early because they were such an important part of Whedon’s other shows, but they carry no impact here due to the general relationships between the characters feeling so vague and unformed.

From a plotting perspective, I thought early on the show might be on the right track. The mystery of how Agent Coulson is still alive following the events of The Avengers is a good one and could provide a solid tie between the movies and the series. But showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen have dragged it out at an excruciating place. In the eight hours since the pilot’s reveal that Coulson didn’t just recover in Tahiti like he’s been told, we’ve learned absolutely nothing more about what his deal is. Zilch. Zip. Zero. That’s not stringing along a mystery; that’s ignoring it so completely that the audience no longer cares.

Early episodes also hinted at a sinister group called Project Centipede that was using some of the super-tech leftovers from the Marvel movies for nefarious purposes. The idea that this S.H.I.E.L.D. task force is around to make sure that the remnants of an alien invasion or a misguided super-soldier program don’t fall into the wrong hands is a strong one and, again, would help connect the series to the films. But Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has expanded on this idea only superficially and, so far, Project Centipede — or any kind of evil counter-group to Coulson’s team — has yet to materialize. We did get the birth of a potential super-villain in the series’ third and best episode — “The Asset” — but he hasn’t been mentioned again since.

I honestly believed (and still believe) that a televised spy series set in the Marvel universe could work. It doesn’t have to be as epic as Thor or as action packed as Iron Man, but it does have to be fun, inventive and make us feel the occasional sense of wonder. Instead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has kept the flying car parked in the garage while it repeatedly attempts to wow us with these annoying little floating robots that swoop around scanning things like this is some hi-tech version of CSI. That’s not going to cut it. None of this is going to cut it. And if the family Whedon doesn’t course-correct ASAP, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will wind up being nothing but a disparaging footnote to a Marvel franchise that’s otherwise still going strong.