At the outset: Please understand this isn't a Marvel vs. DC thing. I'm sure that's where the comments thread will go, but...ugh.
It's also not just about the already-getting-old fanboy complaint that Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't have enough superheroes. I get (on some level) what they're trying to do, and think it could work, if done right.
But with due respect to both AMC's The Walking Dead and ABC's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., just a few weeks into the new, young season, I've got no doubt that Arrow is the best comic book adaptation on TV right now. I'm not saying that either of the other shows are not good. The Walking Dead is probably, from an acting and cinematography perspective, the best show of the three by a football field. But Arrow hits a sweet spot of technical excellence and pure entertainment that neither of the others can touch. It's like hybridizing the best elements of those shows and, okay, maybe it isn't as bouncy and fun as S.H.I.E.L.D. can offer on a good day, and maybe it can't punch its weight at the Emmys against The Walking Dead...but on balance, it's the best thing we fanboys have right now.
Okay, so it took a while before we got an episode with AT LEAST ELEVEN DC Comics references, including one to one of the most famous and recognizable film villains of the last decade. But that doesn't change the fact that virtually every episode of Arrow has at least name-dropped somebody or something from the DCU--and in a way that's organic to the story and plays into the overall plot.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. may make a reference every episode, but it's usually a throwaway thing about how one time, there was a mission, and The Avengers were there. It feels tacked on, and there's absolutely no feeling that the Easter eggs hidden in this show will eventually add up to something important to the plot.
You don't need to throw Thor in every week to make people feel like it's part of the Marvel Universe and their geek cred is being rewarded. Arrow manages to do it by saying that the District Attorney is Kate Spencer or the hot tech girl is Firestorm's stepmom. To steal a joke from another column (linked below), you mean you couldn't just open a random issue of Spider-Man, Hulk or Iron Man and find a pair of scientists whose name you could have slotted into Fitz and Simmons's name instead of having that oh-so-clever "Fitzsimmons" joke?
This one doesn't really apply to The Walking Dead, which is a standalone book in its own little corner of the Image Comics publishing empire and not part of the larger Image Universe. They've actually done pretty well using the names of minor or throwaway characters to fill out roles of "Dude About To Get Eaten #3." I mean, hell, Bob Stookey played a key role in the season premiere.
Let that sink in for a minute. Yeah, we've got Laurel and Huntress, who most people don't particularly like...but even Thea has been fixed this season! And for every truly awful character who comes along, you've got freaking Deathstroke as a lead character in the flashbacks.
The characters on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are, to be honest, paper thin. Even the likable ones are pretty much charicatures of what's come before--there have already been a number of articles focused on the fact that each non-Coulson member of the strike force could basically be replaced with another Joss Whedon character and nobody would notice.
And who, really, is likable? I've yet to speak to a fan (although I'm sure I'll hear from them in the comments) who like Ward or FitzSimmons. Skye is about 50/50. That means out of your six series leads, only two of them are, by consensus based on the dozens of articles I've read since the series launched, popular with fans and critics.
Entertainment Weekly, in a thoughtful piece on how to "fix" S.H.I.E.L.D., recently suggested that Akela Amadour, who guest-starred on a recent episode, might actually be more interesting and popular than any of the principals. We think they might be right.
The Walking Dead is better on this score, but it's hard to get emotionally involved in people you think are cool when you know that, other than three or four of them, they're as likely as not to be gone at the end of the season.
In The Walking Dead, many of the key plot beats come from characters who are pointless, annoying or don't matter. That's because The Walking Dead basically has one key play: Somebody dies. And if you can't kill the main characters, all the drama has to come from the below-the-line performers. In many cases, that leaves the leads feeling vacant or shallow--we've heard fans saying that they feel they're being told to like a character because they're supposed to. It also means that they're given emotional beats rather than action ones pretty often, and that leads inevitably to fanboy bellyaching about Rick not being macho enough.
They do kill some toplining stars--usually one or two a season--but it's been pretty safe bets (notwithstanding Merle and Shane, who were both beloved but who also both really, really needed to die). Last year, they killed two of their three female leads--getting rid of the ones fans had campaigned to get rid of and leaving us with actors teasing "Richonne" this year. Nobody cried.
Like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Arrow has been written as a bit of a monster-of-the-week series with an overarching mythology. Ever since The X-Files proved this was a solid way to attract genre audiences, most successful fanboy entertainment has followed a variation on this theme (yes, we know that Star Trek did it first, but...you know what? That's a whole other conversation).
S.H.I.E.L.D.'s overarching mythology, though, is heavily reliant on the movies--which they seem to be contractually unable to directly reference, only to make cute nods to every so often. That puts them in the difficult position of trying to create their own uber-arc, while using characters entirely made up for the seris and who don't seem to have a lot going on outside of work (see below).
No kidding; how much time did we spend in the garden during the season premiere versus time spent actually doing stuff? It was probably about 50/50, and while that episode was pretty strong, those numbers are a microcosm for the series. I'm far from the first to point out that there are big chunks of the show where absolutely nothing happens (see graph at left, which went viral online last week), and so it hardly bears explanation.
In fact, I've long been a big proponent of the mentality that The Walking Dead is just fine when nothing is happening, provided the characters are strong and interesting. But this season, I just can't help it--I sat up and whooped at the screen during last week's Arrow. I am a sedentary and unemotional TV watcher; this is simply not the kind of thing that generally happens. It might be the first time that's happened since the first time Ted told his kids "...your mother was there," on How I Met Your Mother.
That was something like five years and fifteen or sixteen false starts ago, and now I only watch that series because Cobie Smulders is freaking awesome at comic acting and I'm unwilling to wait for her inevitable recurring role on S.H.I.E.L.D. to see more of her. None of that is relevant to my argument here.
My point--back when I had one--is that Arrow backed up a dump truck full of plot toward the end of last season and just dropped everything out of it on top of the leads. Now, there's never a dull or quiet moment. It's a bit like if every episode of the series were the last six of The Walking Dead season three, when you were following three separate and equally important plots at once. And the show is written in such a way that, while all of that sounds overwhelming and like it's bound to get confusing and annoying, it hasn't yet; it's just kept the excitement level higher than I thought possible for the show.
Five episodes in, though, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. feels...well...procedural. These guys are operatives who are there to do a job, and while the job is awesome, it's still a bit on the artificial side. It's been argued that's why the ratings have been slipping; because if people want to watch a procedural at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday, there's already NCIS, which has one of the largest and most passionate followings on TV.
Because it's a job. Every episode starts out with "Hey, a case just came in...", and that's their motivation.
On The Walking Dead, the motivation is "Hey, let's not get eaten this week, mmmkay?"
The motivation on Arrow? Well, it's a bit all over the map. There are a lot of things going on in any given episode and sometimes he's an altruistic hero, while other times he's cleaning up messes that he's made. Other times, still, he's roped into the procedural aspect of the cop show by Officer Lance.
To an extent, this is a necessary aspect of all three shows. The Walking Dead is actually attempting to deal with their "surviving versus living" issues this year, making it a key part of the narrative. S.H.I.E.L.D. is a first-season show and so they haven't yet had time to make mistakes that they have to clean up or make connections who can call them for help.
Except that they have.
Aside from Skye, nobody on the team is entirely new to this business and, as we saw with the Akela episode, Coulson has non-Avengers-related pieces of his past that still need dealing with. That's a 20% share, at this point, so maybe we aren't giving them enough credit on this score...but it just doesn't feel like there's any heart in this thing. When Oliver came back from the Island, he immediately had a situation that was rife with conflict from his pre-Arrow life. There is a grand total of zero reasons that couldn't be the case in S.H.I.E.L.D. Maybe they're trying to make it happen, but with Akela--or, hell, with Skye's hacker ex-boyfriend--it's felt tacked-on.
This is what you always say about a great athlete; the reason they're better than the guy who came in second in the MVP balloting every year when they came in first, is that they make it look effortless.
And this one wasn't even on my original list; it got added when I realized how often I've used the phrase "tacked on" above.
This one, again, doesn't really apply to The Walking Dead because there is absolutely nothing about that show that looks or feels easy, and nor should there be given its subject matter and the fact that every single week, the stakes are "everyone in the entire show could die for no good reason and with no real ability to stop it."
But here's the thing: A show like Arrow doesn't make more than ten stealth comic book references in a single 45-minute episode unless the writers are working their asses off to bury Easter eggs in the dialogue. But at no point did anything last week feel like it was being shoved in our faces for a reward. It all worked.
When S.H.I.E.L.D. makes its 33rd Avengers references of the season, it will feel the same way at least 30 of the first 32 did: like pandering and, at times, a little like desperate pandering.