As a life-long reader of Marvel comics and someone who enjoys my action/adventure with a healthy dose of funny I am soundly within the target demographic for Marvel’s most recent foray into the world of live action television. Weekly stories within their shared cinematic universe? More Phil Coulson? A place for Marvel to introduce some of their less popular or “movie friendly” characters? I really, really, want to love Agents of SHIELD.
But I don’t. Not yet.
In the spirit of full disclosure I should mention that I’ve only watched through episode twelve of twenty-two, titled “Seeds”. It was a good place to stop since it was significantly more satisfying than the previous installment.
Things started out so well. The first episode was funny, mysterious, engaging, and only a little hokey. As is right and proper Coulson got most of the good lines and we were granted a healthy dose of wildly unrealistic SHIELD tech à la the comic books. The next two or three episodes were good but with steadily declining quality, and so far in the season there have been some which just felt like a chore to watch. There are a handful of reasons for this, I think, and most of them have been talked to death online and among the fans. I’m not going to harp on the creature of the week format, or the unusual and sometimes bad choices made by some of the actors, or even the broad overlap of character types among the main cast. No, I’ve figured out the main problem that I have with AoS so far.
It should come as no surprise that in a show like AoS the best way to keep an audience interested is to set up a primary mystery (or two, or three, or even more if you’re feeling really masochistic and really well organized) and keep the audience guessing as to the resolution for as long as possible or as long as suits the overall plot. As the story unfolds the audience should be given small clues on a semi-regular basis which increase their overall knowledge of the constituent elements of the mystery, ultimately leading up to the reveal and resolution of said mystery. (Bonus points if the writer has included a sufficient number of red herrings to actually surprise those audience members who thought they had it all figured out.) At that point, the mystery should be unraveled just enough to reveal yet another mystery, leading the characters on another journey of discovery.
This is writing 101, right? And on the surface AoS appears to follow this structure, but thinking back on what I’ve watched so far I realized something. AoS is missing the one step in that format which is crucial to maintaining audience interest: doling out clues. The above paragraph is just a long-winded way of explaining the rising action and climax portions of the basic plot diagram you probably saw in high school, and for some reason AoS is using a modified plot diagram that doesn’t steadily rise towards the climax. Instead they introduce a problem or mystery and the promptly ignore it until they decide many episodes later, “It’s time to resolve that conflict we set up!” at which point they give you almost all of the relevant information all at once. Their rising action is nearly flat with a spike at the climax point.
Now, obviously, this is a bit of an exaggeration. AoS does touch on all of the main plot lines on a fairly regular basis, providing small clues as they do. But there is such a large disparity between how much the audience knows before the climax episode and how much they learn during that installment that the all of what came before might as well have been a basically flat rising action line.
I don’t care to speculate too deeply on why this is. I have a lot of faith in Marvel and in the Whedon clan (to which two-thirds of AoS’s showrunners belong) so I’m confused as to the source of the problem. Maybe it’s because they weren’t certain that the show would be picked up for a full season. Maybe Marvel, which is notorious for their penny-pinching, wanted to cut corners in case the show didn’t succeed and ended up cutting the wrong ones. Maybe the writing staff just doesn’t mesh very well with each other or with the other production-level staff, leading to inconsistencies. Maybe Kevin Feige is so busy with orchestrating the movies that he hasn’t had time to lend a hand and a discerning eye to the sole television venture. Maybe being on a major network has tied their hands in ways they didn’t anticipate. I don’t know.
What I do know, though, is that I want the show to succeed. I’m not one to seek out spoilers but I do occasionally catch a headline or a comment from another viewer which gives me hope for the rest of season one. And season two has every reason to be great considering the volume and content of the feedback they’ve received via the internet hive mind. I fully expect the creature of the week format to fall by the wayside, for example.
So I will continue to watch thanks to a skill I cultivated from a lifetime of reading comic books: hopeful self-delusion. I will trudge on not because the show is currently great television but because I have hope that it soon will be.