A few weeks back, I said I was going to do a two-part, two-faced opinion piece on Agents of SHIELD. One that ripped it apart, and then one that built it back up. So here we are.
For anyone who doesn’t want to click back to the first part, I’ll give a quick summary: Agents of SHIELD has a dumb name, an inconsistent tone (is it a thriller, a comedy, a spy drama?), is often incorrectly thought of as a Joss Whedon show, and has a big problem where Skye (its ostensible lead) is concerned. That problem mainly being that no one gives a fuck about Skye. And, worse, that the actress who plays her is… not the best. But she’s getting better. I think/hope.
With all of that said, I still — against all odds — really like the show. For a handful of reasons. Those being:
A Little Cheese is a Good Thing
Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was applauded for adding a sense of gravity and depth to a film genre that’s normally written off as being simplistic or cartoonish. I won’t argue that the movies were bad, two of them obviously weren’t, but I think that the overwhelming grimness of Nolan’s films is what ultimately sunk the third act. The Dark Knight Rises was utterly ridiculous and yet demanded to be taken seriously. That’s a problem. But even before the giant embarrassment that was The Dark Knight Rises, Tim Burton’s first two Batman movies were and are far superior to Nolan’s. Not in spite of their cheesiness, but because of it. Burton knew how to embrace and balance that cheese with some real style and drama. Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films are in that same boat for the same reasons. And it goes without saying that The Avengers followed that same model quite successfully as well.
I’ve seen many people argue that Agents of SHIELD verges on too cheesy, but I think it works. Part of the joke is that we’re watching the Marvel cleanup crew who are tasked with the administration work while the superheroes float away to their mansions and/or planets. It’s an inherently funny premise, and the show does work well when it’s going more for comedy than for drama. That’s not to say that the drama isn’t welcome — it’s necessary to balance the tone and keep this from being a full-on slapstick comedy, which would be a step too far. But often the characters I care the most about are the funniest. So when they switch to dramatic story lines, I’m still far more inclined to care about the double act of Fitz and Simmons than the stone-faced duo that is Ward and May.
The Characters are Endearing — Eventually
But even Ward and May have endeared themselves to me in the end, though not everyone feels the same. There is a lot of complaint and concern over the way May’s character in particular has been handled, mainly as an Asian woman. I think the fear is that she’s being presented as a kind of “Tiger Mom” figure of stern authority. Instead, what I quite like about her is that in any other show that “type” or figure would be male. The grizzled, haunted ex-field agent with incredible skill and a reluctance to use it? That’s a dude for sure. Especially when you’re talking about a character over 40. In any event, May’s stoicism is often played for laughs, but not at her expense — usually at whomever she’s glaring down. I don’t find her character problematic, although I do think a little more background and a few more lines wouldn’t hurt, either.
And Ward? I like Ward. He’s a walking stereotype and the show enjoys poking fun at that. In some ways, he’s a bit of Sterling Archer without the skill with women. I have the feeling that they’re gearing up to give us more sad family back story which I suppose is necessary, since they’ve dangled it over our heads for several episodes now, but feels like it’ll probably come off a little forced no matter how they play it. He’s a tough dude in a hard world that doesn’t care? Eh, it’s not that compelling.
But I do think — as I’ve made fairly clear so far — that my favorites are Fitz and Simmons. Somehow the awkward lab techs have managed to have the most engaging and emotional stories so far, and their played with near-suffocating charm by their relatively inexperienced actors.
And, finally, Coulson is Coulson. We already like him.
It Has a Solid, Open-Ended Premise
For a while there, it seemed like most network dramas tried to lock in viewers with a “new and exciting” premise that was never able to sustain much more than a single season. Remember Heroes? Or Lost? Man those were good if you stopped watching after the first season. The main problem is that something like Life on Mars, which works well in the British format of a handful of episodes every now and then, does not work as well when forced to pump out 22 filler-laden episodes every single calendar year.
SHIELD doesn’t have that problem.
That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but rather what I mean is that SHIELD hails from that older and more procedural format of American network TV. We could conceivably have a brand new case every episode while pursuing a longer story line throughout the season without much effort. Especially since most of the show’s mysteries so far have been character-based, like the Deathlok reveal — a particularly nice touch, especially since I was hoping that J. August Richards would be promoted to series regular. There’s a lot that can be done with SHIELD and a lot of directions it can potentially go in.
Which is why I ultimately plan to stick with it, even though it can be a bit of a bumpy ride. There’s nothing about the show that isn’t salvageable, and plenty there already to enjoy. In many ways, SHIELD reminds me of the genre spin-offs shows of the 90s like Xena or Hercules: not taking itself too seriously, enjoying the mythos without being too reverential and giving us a bunch of fun and endearing characters. If that doesn’t sound appealing, I doubt SHIELD will ever be your type of show. But for anyone who isn’t too demanding of a show about a spy organization that cleans up after superheroes, I recommend that people do give SHIELD a second chance — even if the first couple of episodes didn’t catch their fancy.