It seems like nearly everyone is writing pieces about why Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is failing, so I thought — as I actually watch and enjoy the show — I might as well wade into the discussion to argue why it's not.
But while trying to write that defense, I found myself having to throw in an awful lot of caveats like, "Well, Skye's not great, admittedly" or "tonally it's all over the place." So at some point I will offer its defense, but for right now as a mostly satisfied viewer, here are the things I think need some work:
It Should Just Be Called SHIELD
Look: nobody is going to confuse SHIELD with The Shield, a show that's been off the air for about 5 years now that was on a different network. And as a title, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. both looks and sounds ridiculous. Maybe when it first premiered, we needed a million titular precursors because other than Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen, the rest of the main cast consisted of actors with IMDB pages too short to fill a full screen. That's fine. But now people know what they're getting and they either like it or they don't — with or without the official Marvel stamp of approval. So take pity on those of us who want to talk about the show without sounding like assholes.
SHIELD Needs to Find a Tone and Stick With It
The first two episodes of the season weren't great — they were all over the place stylistically, going from zany cartoon antics to over-the-top violence. It was just too much of everything. The show has mellowed considerably, but we're still left with the same question: what is this show? Is it mainly an action show with some fun banter? Is it mainly a campy show with some action? Week to week that answer changes.
I actually would love for a TV show to just go full camp in a way that American TV often shies away from. Torchwood, which I strongly suspect is where the bones of this show were stolen from, was far from perfect in its first two seasons, but when it did finally settle on being mostly an action show with some camp, it really came into its own.
Conversely, I think SHIELD would work better if it did the opposite: if they made this feel like some kind of corny retro comic book TV show and just embraced the camp and lowered the stakes. Because at the moment, I'm having a very hard time caring about the spider brain machine that worked on Coulson, or the Clairvoyant, or Skye's (probably) alien parentage. I'd much rather see ridiculous semi-super villains, or Fitz and Simmons heckle each other in the lab, or any of the characters heckle each other: those are the show's strongest and most endearing moments, and it needs to focus on them instead of tamping them down or wedging them in-between moments of spine-snapping violence.
Remember That This Isn't a Joss Whedon Show
Technically, obviously, it is: he's the executive producer and is rumored to have some say over the scripts, but primarily this show is written and run by the husband and wife team of Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. So this criticism goes out more to the audience and the critics: SHIELD isn't going to be Buffy or Firefly, and it's not trying to be. It's a small pet peeve, but when I see people talk about "what Joss Whedon's doing with SHIELD" I can't help but feel a little annoyed on behalf of the actual writers. For a couple of reasons: one, again, while Jed Whedon might share some of his brother's DNA, he is actually an independent human being (his wife even more so) and two, because they are much more junior writers being held up to the level of someone who's been working in the industry for much, much longer. In other words, they should be allowed a little more leeway than someone who's been writing, running and producing television and film for two decades.
Finally, Do Something About Skye
It kills me to say it, but while I'm finding myself less and less irritated by her, I still see Skye as dead weight on this show. She was meant to be our eyes and ears into the world of SHIELD, but increasingly she's like a bad Eliza Dushku knock-off who's overstayed her welcome. Here's to hoping that the resolution of her mystery will make her more interesting or, barring that, less of a central focus.
When SHIELD first premiered, people weren't sure about the cast in general. The guy playing Ward was a bit stiff and stilted, Fitz/Simmons were perhaps too cutesy for their own good, Melinda May basically never talked... but while all of those characters eventually came into their own and became somewhat charming (even if they remained essentially the same), Skye is still deeply annoying and increasingly pointless as a character. Also — an amateur superhacker? Didn't that character type die in about 1998? If not, it should have.
So that's it, really. I am enjoying the show, but I do have to agree with some of its critics that it's not exactly knocking it out of the park right now, and settling a few of these problems would go a long way to winning its initial audience back, and keeping mostly satisfied viewers like me around for next year.
Is anyone here still watching?