I Finally Figured Out Why Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Isn’t Engaging

What is my problem with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?

This year I was able to, for the most part, watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. without having to dig through the guts of each episode. I was really looking forward to this approach. Focusing on singular episodes in a show structured to mimic an ongoing comic book was making me a little batty, for one, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s structure as a network television show isn’t designed to withstand that kind of scrutiny. The more I focused, the uglier it got. By stepping back, I thought, I could better appreciate the show.

Instead, I just got bored.

(Spoilers ahead for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2 finale and Avengers: Age of Ultron.)

But why? This past half-season the show was going to great lengths to include at least one twist in each episode, and some of the twists were pretty fun. Hey, Sif is here to teach them about the Kree! Then the team hustles off to fight Skye’s dad and his merry band of losers. But don’t look now, there are two S.H.I.E.L.D.s! And a village full of super powered Inhumans. And their leader is Skye’s mom! And she’s CRAZY. When listed out like this, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does not sound at all like a boring show.

Yet, when thinking of notable episodes from these 12 episodes, only the season finale and “Melinda” come to mind. The season finale is all pay-off, so it’s understandably exciting. “Melinda” is a different kind of story, though. It’s almost entirely self-contained and while the impact of the story is greater if you know the context of the Inhuman storyline, that context isn’t necessary. “Melinda” tells a story of the impossible emotional situations that normal people can find themselves within during an age of heroes, gods, monsters, and inhumans. It fulfills an expectation that I’ve always carried for the show: depict how normal folks are reacting within the emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Melinda” does that without flinching and as a result, that small story feels larger than all of the world-altering plotlines the show throws out.

But isn’t this essentially Skye’s story over the course of these 12 episodes? Now gifted with powers, Skye has to learn renegotiate her friendships, her place in the world, and her trust in her own body and capabilities. That’s an important story to tell in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one that actually requires the decompressed nature of a television series. I would wager that most, if not all, of the viewers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have spent a lot of time wondering what their lives would be like if they had superpowers, so Skye’s storyline is going to be of interest in that regard. I’ve certainly wondered that. (FYI: I want Gordo’s powers. But also I want to keep my eyes and not have a pipe tunneling through my liver.) So why did I not find Skye’s episodes-long story as interesting as “Melinda”?

Is it simply up to the actors? This is a fairly subjective quality that varies from viewer to viewer, and while my own boredom with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is just as subjective, I don’t think I can entirely pin it down to the actors. The show has its share of standouts, for one. Ruth Negga, Adrianne Palicki, and Kyle MacLachlan tend to steal the scenes they’re in, even when they’re handicapped with the same mumblety-gook “let’s do this/this is a war” dialogue that every secret agent or super villain show/movie seems to use.

Maybe that’s it. I’m searching for some possibly-undefinable quality that makes Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. flat and drab in comparison to Agent Carter, Daredevil, and the Marvel films and it may simply boil down to the quality of the show’s dialogue. A writer who is truly masterful at dialogue can elevate a story beyond its weaker elements. The recent Age of Ultron is an excellent example of this. Regardless of what’s happening in that film’s story, it’s a pleasure just to hear Tony Stark talk in that arrogant, nervous, and wounded tone of his. And it’s fun to hear him in conversation with any of the characters because their dialogue is also suited towards their particular viewpoint and history. Even Vision, who has existed on screen for less than 30 minutes, has a distinctive vocabulary and cadence that reflects his artificial nature and his origins as J.A.R.V.I.S. and Ultron. Really, the only character who doesn’t get distinctive dialogue is Quicksilver, and you could still interpret that as a purposeful foreshadowing of his death.

Captain America couldn’t say Thor’s lines without sounding weird. Black Widow couldn’t say Tony’s lines without sounding weird. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. lacks this distinctiveness. You can insert nearly any of the show’s dialogue into the mouth of another character and it wouldn’t sound odd. The show sparks to life in the rare moments when this isn’t the case, in fact. MacLachlan’s Hyde character is so alluring in part because no one else on the show can mutter as blissfully and crazily as he can. Coulson himself gets a lot of these lively moments. There are particularly robotic-yet-fatherly comments only he can pull off; moments where you just hear the specific way he says something and you know: that’s Coulson.

There aren’t enough of these moments in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to sustain my interest through 12 hours of plot twists and gun fights. (Quick aside: Wow have the fights gotten better on this show.) But is it only the dialogue that keeps me distant from this show? Agent Carter had some pretty sharp writing, but I wouldn’t call it groundbreaking. Daredevil‘s dialogue is distinctive but it also goes out of its way to be portentous and heavy and tough to digest. It’s not a reason I would give for suggesting Daredevil over Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but nevertheless I would suggest watching Daredevil over Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..

Because the Netflix series has style. As did Agent Carter. As do the majority of the Marvel films. Hell, give Guardians of the Galaxy another watch. That movie’s story makes no sense but it’s bursting with style and personality. Guardians rode that vibrancy to a widespread success that would sound baffling to anyone pre-2008. (I can imagine me circa 2007 saying something like, “The moviegoing public loses it’s shit over a tree that repeats one line over and over? Whatever, buddy.”) Style is important to storytelling: it’s how a story communicates its qualities to a casual observer.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t communicate in this manner. Its sets are generic, the characters all dress in the same muted colors, and the show is so darkly lit that the characters tend not to contrast with their environment, making the visuals flat and unengaging. This visual sense of the show combined with its generic dialogue drowns out the more exciting elements of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

This weakness in the show is something I’ve been struggling to identify since it came on the air but it wasn’t until this recent block of episodes that I realized that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was reminding me of another Whedon show: Dollhouse. The two shows share a very similar dark, muted, and unconfrontational visual aesthetic despite their strong premises, and Dollhouse similarly struggled with engaging its viewers (and its network) in the same manner. Until “Epitaph One.”

Like “Melinda,” the strength of “Epitaph One” came from shaking loose from its shows established aesthetic and telling a personal story. For those of us sticking with Dollhouse it was a breath of fresh air. Oh, the show can be this good? This is extremely promising MORE PLEASE.

I don’t think S.H.I.E.L.D. needs an “Epitaph One.” It’s been a slow burn, but S.H.I.E.L.D. has been getting better and better, but I do think the show runners need to take a lesson from their own Dollhouse episode and boldly state a clear direction for the show going forward. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to shuck off its drab, shadowy quality, stop holding the audience and its own characters at a distance, and embrace a direction beyond its initial premise.

This is one of the reasons I think the season 2 finale “S.O.S.” is so notable an episode. It’s insane, for one. It’s chock full (chock, I say!) of crazy things that can only happen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But its final scenes also establishe the possibility of the show going a much clearer, leaner direction.

So here’s my suggestion. Get rid of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. name and visual style. Call the show Secret Avengers from now on.

Secret Avengers

(Yeah, I know they’re called “Caterpillars” in the actual comics. “Secret Avengers” is a better name.)

Captain America: Civil War will put all the heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe at each other’s throats in one year’s time. And by this point that’s kind of a lot of heroes. We’re now past explaining how people get powers. The genie is out of the bottle. The fish oil is flying off the shelves! The Marvel Universe is now HERE and the Avengers can’t be everywhere. Someone needs to deal with these threats without making cities fly through the air. It’s time for Secret Avengers.

This is where Coulson has been going all along, really. He’s a born assembler, that one. I want DaisyQuakes and Mockingbird and Deathlok and whomever else shows up next season (SPEEDBALL) bursting onto the scene and taking down losers, then heading home to their support team FitzSimmonsMackMay. If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t going to tell stories about normal people dealing with this insane new super powered world then maybe it should head in the other direction and become a straightforward super team show. There’s certainly a place for them in the wider cinematic universe. You wouldn’t call a Secret Avengers to take down Ultron, but you would for that Kree warrior from the Sif episode, or the Serpent Society, or Graviton (whenever he wakes up).

It did a lot of the hard work getting to this point, but I think Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.s day is over. This universe is brighter, weirder, and more colorful than ever. Secret Avengers…assemble?

 

Note: You can join the discussion about this season (and the next) in this thread.

If Tor.com contributor Chris Lough had teleportation powers no one would be able to consider their lunch safe from his clutches. NO ONE!

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