No new show on TV went into the new season with more anticipation and higher expectations than Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., currently serving as the staple of ABC's Tuesday night lineup.
After opening the series to huge ratings, though, they've had a hard time keeping up the enthusiasm, with critics and audiences both bemoaning the fact that it doesn't particularly feel like it's set in the Marvel Universe and that, as often as not, nothing much seems to be happening.
Now, the first of these criticisms is arguably the great Catch 22 of the series: operating on a TV budget and hoping to keep the focus on an ensemble cast of fully-human characters (especially Coulson, originally designed as a peripheral character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), it's virtualy impossible to keep up the pace fans would want in terms of looking and feeling like it belonged shoulder to shoulder with Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. The series seems to have set out to craft an identity for itself, and that's fine...but the fact that it hasn't resonated with a lot of fans is admittedly problematic.
A bit like the way Dexter spent its entire final season being unfavorably compared to Breaking Bad, though, things seem even worse for S.H.I.E.L.D. because fans seem to think that Arrow is "doing it right" more in its second season than it was last year, and far better than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. We have, ourselves, chimed in on this subject.
Look--the show isn't terrible. A friend of mine recently observed, that it's "too inert" to be terrible, that something has to actually happen first. But it could be so much better. How about these ideas, just for starters...?
Imagine the "Holy s--t" moment Marvel fans would get out of the revelation, ideally at the end of an episode, that they're dealing with "something...inhuman." It would rival the whoops that went up around the DC-fanboy internet when Arrow name-dropped Ra's al Ghul.
You could then start to slot all of the random "monster of the week" super-powered villains into the Inhumans category, essentially replacing "mutant" as "identifier for insignificant person with powers" in the Marvel Universe. Which is fair enough, since that's what the comic books seem to be doing right now anyway.
But, alright, The Inhumans are probably aimed for their own movie and you can't very well use them up that way in the series. We get it. What about...
Look, we get it. Jeremy Renner is a big star, he's a guy who's reportedly already a bit dissatisfied with the way Marvel has treated his character....He's not going to take the step "down" to television.
And we also get that the whole point of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is that "not all heroes are super," and that regular people are struggling to cope in a post-Avengers world.
That said, who's to say that Jessica Jones, Carol Danvers, Mockingbird, Daredevil or any one of a huge number of non-powered Marvel heroes couldn't become part of the S.H.I.E.L.D. ensemble? Even if you didn't want to make a character like that part of the road team, since s/he would detract from the other characters on any given mission, why not make Jessica Jones the official liaison between Fury and Coulson's team?
Scale the show back a bit
This one seems counter-inuitive, but one of the problems that I've got with this series is that it does its best to ape the visual aesthetic of Marvel's $200 million blockbusters on a TV budget. That's just not possible, and the look ends up...off. I don't know if this can be fixed by just hiring better directors, but everything feels like it's being shot on a TV set.
Limiting the team's resources a bit and forcing them to focus on more surmountable threats and less globe-trotting and super-hacking could help bring some of the street-level believability that The Walking Dead and Arrow have into the series. Obviously you don't have to go all the way down to the level those characters are operating at, and matching their tones would be a fool's errand...but a realistic sense of what you can do on a weekly, network TV budget would help keep things from feeling so artificial.
This might seem counterintuitive given the previous point, but raise the stakes of the action on these characters.
The Walking Dead exists in a world where anyone can die at any moment and it's the biggest series on TV. Oliver Queen has spent the season under the constant threat of losing his family business and fortune while his mother readies herself for a life sentence and his One True Love won't have anything to do with him after his superhero alter ego played a role in killing her boyfriend.
And that's, like a third of the stakes in that show. They recently ended an episode with the SWAT team training all their weapons on the main character.
When the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. screw up, they...get a tongue-lashing from a grumpy Nick Fury? And fans get a Sam Jackson cameo out of it? Ooh, the horror. At least he could threaten them with something.
You don't have to kill people off to raise the stakes, but certainly giving something in the show weight beyond the silly will they (they will) or won't they (no, really, they will! There's seriously no doubt at all!) between Skye and Agent Ward couldn't hurt anything.
Look, this is a show where there's a fight scene or three every week, there's guys with super powers or weird cosmic weapons all over the place...and it still feels like nothing at all happens.
That's just crazy.
Part of it is the format; Grey Scherl from Inside Pulse, speaking to me about this series, told me that he felt like it resembled early seasons of Smallville--where there was little, if any, overarching mythology and the menace-of-the-week format left fans feeling like they weren't really missing anything if they didn't tune in. Compare that to The Walking Dead, where your favorite character might not exist when you get back, or Arrow, where you might miss Ra's al Ghul this week, and you can see why some people think there isn't a lot going on here.