The husband-and-wife writing/producing team of Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen have been at the helm of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD since its debut five seasons ago, and they’ve proven time and again that a sense of status quo is rarely very welcome in their corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The showrunner couple has routinely led a revolutionary reset of the show’s environs and themes with each new season, and frequently more than once with smaller story arcs throughout. So when it came to finding a proper launch point for the durable series’ fifth season, debuting December 1st, Whedon and Tancharoen made a choice both radical and logical: after four earthbound seasons, it was time to take the lead of the big-screen MCU and films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok and follow a more cosmic path, as they explained during a press visit to the super-secret set of the show.
On the risky reinvention of starting Season Five in outer space:
Jed Whedon: We try to a little bit follow in the wake of the films as they plot new territory in the MCU. Last year that was magic with Doctor Strange – we felt like Ghost Rider all of a sudden fit into our show in a way that we didn’t necessarily feel like he would have before, tonally.
And this is us expanding out even further into the world of space, which they very much are living in now in the features. It's the great unknown, and we hadn't explored it yet.
Maurissa Tancharoen: “It's the one thing we haven't done yet,” as Mack says [in the debut episode]… We knew as we approached the end of last season that we were definitely heading into space.
Whedon: We had some ideas of what exactly that would be, but it got cemented last year… As with everything in TV, you have an idea of what it's going to be and then as you start to build it and you start to write it, you cast it and it evolves into its own thing.
Tancharoen: Every year we reset the series, and this year we definitely knew that it would be the most giant reset to date. And that just creatively across the board for everyone: art direction, our sets, all of it – you'll see an overhaul.
Whedon: It was exciting; it's like a new challenge for everybody who has been working on this show for five years, and by exciting I mean too much work for everyone involved.
Tancharoen: We also thought budgetarily, it would be budget-friendly because pretty much we're bottling the show. But, of course, no.
Whedon: We sort of had an idea of how we wanted the season to play out, so we were looking for a scenario to help tell that story. But as with everything, we sit in the room with a bunch of writers and everybody throws out ideas. “What if it's this?” “Oh, that idea was cool.” So it's sort of, “best idea wins.”
Last year, when we were talking about, “How are we going to change it up?” Talking about space, that's just a total departure. We talked about other options, but we always came back to, “Yeah, there's nothing cooler than that.”
Tancharoen: Every year we're terrified about what we're about to venture into. Every year we say that we back ourselves into a corner. Last year, Ghost Rider, that was something that was not in our comfort zone. We were just doing that again this year, tenfold, to everybody.
On the actors requiring even more green-screen acting acumen for Season Five:
Whedon: They now get it. I think it was probably about a year of acting on the green screens – until they saw the first season, they didn't know they weren't going to look ridiculous you know? We're saying, “No, trust me! We're blasting you with wind – it's going to look great.” They're going, “Ahh! So what is this going to look like?” Then they see it, [VFX Supervisor Mark] Kolpack does his visual effects, and all of a sudden they start to trust. So we have a good trust in terms of that.
I would actually say this year, we've fleshed out the world in a real way, much more than usual. They're acting with real people, the sets are totally different – they're immersed in the world, so they don't have to imagine it that much. They're on those sets, so in a way, we put it a lot more to our production team to build it, and so the actors had fun. It's good for them to do something fresh.
Tancharoen: And change it up a little bit. And also we put them all together. Last year they started off all sort of scattered, and this year we have them together, hunkered down in this new place. It's all a mystery to them, together. The audience is also discovering where they are alongside the characters, so that's also a new part of this reset.
On uniting the team – for the most part – after a very fractured group in Season Four:
Whedon: We figured that the audience has gotten to know them over the years, so why not put them all on the same page together. No one knows anything.
Last year was about tearing everybody apart. We spent a lot of time doing that. We started the year with everybody with different job assignments, Daisy was off on her own. We brought them together, but only to break them apart again in the Framework. They were not only losing each other, but losing themselves.
So our goal this year was, “OK, we know all these people; we end the last year with them all going to get food, and Daisy makes this speech that says, 'If we go down, we go down together. We're in this together.'” We wanted to create a situation where that would occur. And then, putting that family together in an intense situation will end up causing drama internally, inevitably.
That was our goal: what can we do with our people? We know them so well, we've spent this many years with them, let's throw them on the craziest roller coaster adventure we could think of. That was how we approached the year: let's drop everybody – them and the audience – right in and let everybody go, “What the …?”
On the show’s current bent toward thematic rather than overt connections to the big-screen MCU:
Whedon: Once we have our own assets and our own story, it becomes much more rewarding to explore that. You're right: it's a thematic tie. We try to make it feel like that the whole thing is moving in this swelling direction. We're not in space for no reason. We wouldn't have gone there [the movies] hadn't.
The overt ties were a necessity of starting out, but those have faded over time, basically because we have our own mythology. That started to be much more interesting to us, and hopefully to the audience, just digging that stuff up. No one wants to come to see our show to see another show. Now they want to see our show, which, yay!