Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Ten Ways to Tighten Up Agents of SHIELD

Obligatory warning: SPOILERS up to current episodes as of writing, so, you know, be smart if you're not caught up and care about that sort of thing!

As we come out of a hiatus, just to go immediately back into hiatus, I think it's time we had a little discussion about Agents of SHIELD. See, I really really like this show, but I don't love it, and I think it's because of the ten points I'm about to talk about. When the season started, I thought this would be the one show of this past new season that I would just adore, but that honor went to Sleepy Hollow (which, to be honest, I thought would be dumb but fun--shows what the commercials can tell you about how great a show is before it airs!), but while I like the set up and I like the characters, there's just this list of little annoyances that keep me from happily adoring SHIELD. I'm here till the end, but I'm also just complaining a little bit, and that's not how I like a show to be.

The most annoying part is that it's all stuff that could be fixed! And that they seem to be actively trying to fix, but that keep sort of backsliding or coming out weird*. I mean, none of us have any real insight into what the writers room, the producers, or the MCU series producers are using the show for, but it would be nice to have a little idea about just what the show's own identity is, that doesn't seem to just...blur away when a new writer starts a new script. But that would be fixed by addressing this list, so let's get to it!

1. Figure out what to do with Skye

Her mystery is fine, but she needs a purpose. In fact, I like her mystery. I think it's mostly been paced well, and I adore that she's a secret hidden thing in and of herself, and that she's both potentially dangerous and worried about it. That's fantastic. And if what's going on right now with the gutshot and the preservation jar goes where I want it to go--into her being a super power of some sort, even if it's a non-offensive power like resurrection or healing or talking to machines or something (see #4)-- it'll be even better.

But up until now, she's just sort of been there. She's on the team but she's now allowed to do anything. She's picked up because she's a world-renowned hacker who managed to breach SHIELD and make a whole lot of injustice public, but she's not being used to their advantage, so why didn't they just put her in jail and then wash their hands of her? She wants to join SHIELD, but then almost immediately betrays them, but then it's not really that bad a betrayal (see #10), but everyone acts like a jerk about it, but she still wants to stay...

I get that her goal is to find her parents. I like that. It's part of her mystery story. I get that Coulson likes her. But May's reaction to her has been wildly out of proportion, Ward frequently looks like a jerk when it comes to her through a lot of the early season, and for several episodes, she's just sort of sitting there, offering to help, and even those who like her are ignoring her, and there's no solid reason why or real confrontation about that.

This past episode did a lot to give her a real place on the team somewhere between Ward and FitzSimmons, and that's perfect, if they keep her there. There's an established divide between the fighters and the thinkers, and if she's a new thing, there's no reason why she can't serve as both. But I'm weary when it comes to her--and wary--because the show just sort of backslides to 'she's here because she's a main character' while everyone else actually has a purpose, and it makes her stand out in the wrong way.

2. Give us just about anything about may that comes from May

She's the team tank, which is great, because she's so little and pretty but still so utterly badass. She's battle-scarred and didn't want to go back in the field, which is also great, because the fact that she did shows a lot about how much she respects Coulson and trusts his judgement. But as I said above, her reaction to Skye borders on irrational for a large chunk of what we've seen, and literally all her backstory comes from Coulson telling us--almost none of it comes from her, whereas everyone else has had their own chance to feel and emote and respond to their own stories. She's holding back so hard that she's a blank wall, and though there have been a few moments in this second half--when she told the interdimensional guy what Coulson told her in that failed Op, when she held Ward's hand this past episode after the train, when she actually played a joke and smiled--where she's had her own opinions and feelings about things, she's mostly just hostile all the time about everything.

Ming Na Wen can kill a person with her side-eye, and that's fabulous, but she's really only been given the chance to play off Coulson fully, and it leaves her sort of...lacking.

This one, too, has been addressed some as the season progresses, but if it ends with us still not having any idea why May is so against Skye (it feels personal, but there is literally almost no reason why it should be, since they've disproved most of the theories about why that should be), if she doesn't loosen up enough to get her own story from herself, she's going to wind up uninteresting, and that would be a terrible shame.

3. More espionage, and make it weird

In the comics, SHIELD did a lot of espionage. It was a spy organization. It was awesome. The episodes where our team gets to spy on stuff and go undercover--the one where Ward and Fitz go out into wartorn Eastern Europe, and this past one with the train--are some of the best episodes, and I think it's because when someone's undercover, everyone has a specific job to do AND they're outside their comfort zones / allowed to have leeway that can't have when they're at the office / play off each other in new combinations depending on what's needed for each op instead of being teamed up exactly the same ways every time they go out in the field.

This last one is the most important, I think. Characters in any show (or anything at all with characters, really) work best when they're allowed to bounce off each other, work with each other, react to each other, conflict with each other, and some excuse to keep changing up how they function while demanding that they trust each other explicitly is exactly what this show needs--it's when the characters, and, I'm willing to bet, the writers, pull together and make sense as a team, not just these random people that Coulson happened to like and put in a plane together.

Plus, espionage puts the team as a whole, and SHIELD in general, into situations with other world organizations, lots of other operatives on any number of other sides, and broadens the world. When they're out there doing their jobs, they're not just five or six people tracking down weird widgets, they're a crack team of special operatives who are good at their jobs, know what they're doing, and exist in a wider world of complicated social, political and semi-paranormal allegiances. And it's awesome.

4. More powers--whatever their excuse--and don't kill them off by the end of the episode

See, this one annoys me, and has since the beginning. We're introduced to Coulson in the movies as someone who does his job politely and kindly while these crazy-powerful weirdos are busting shit up, and then when he gets his own show, there's no superpowers around? I understand why they'd want to keep the team normal--the show was sold to us as these normal people who deal with the weird stuff--but there's absolutely no reason why they can't come into contact with more special people over the course of their work. And no reason why they have to all be shuffled off at the end of the episode never to be seen again, or never to be encountered again.

Akela? Back in the fold, so bring her back. How totally badass would it be to see her working beside Nick Fury or Maria Hill, or as part of some other crack team that we don't see on a daily basis (because these guys can't be the only one, right? Right? Even Stargate had other teams, and lots of them, and we got to see them and know them, some.)? Or even just our own cozy team, since she's already known to Coulson, and she's known him since before whatever changes happened to him, and she has an awesome cyborg eye that once had a direct connection to one of their current Big Bads and would be a big help... See where I'm going with this?

Extremis victims? We know not all of them explode and / or burn up. We know that some adapt. We also know that Tony Stark has first hand experience dealing with the disease / toxin / whatever it is because of helping the one person he can't live without get past it. I understand that Tony doesn't play well with others, that RDJ is probably too busy or expensive for a TV show, and that no one on the Avengers knows that Coulson is alive yet, so we're unlikely to get Tony, but Gwyneth Paltrow has guested on TV before so we could have Pepper** offer her advice (see #5). Or SHIELD could have just 'appropriated' Tony's research. Or someone could just mention that Tony is a place they could go to get help with this problem. I mean, it's kind of a big deal that several of these dudes recently went bonkers all over the planet, but SHIELD is still acting like we know nothing about them; someone has to get with the program.

In general, it's been a very important couple of years for normal people in the MCU--a big green guy takes out part of New York, a frozen supersoldier is discovered and revived, a god levels a town in New Mexico, a very visible very rich guy openly admits that he's a super hero, another god beings aliens down on New York... There's got to be lots of alien tech laying around. There's got to be scientists and tinkerers who were already getting close to creating cyborgs and super suits and bio-weapons and cures that create powers and whatever else, and now they all have this huge, looming reason to try harder. Either as goodguys or as badguys. And there should even be normal people without powers but with strong morals or no morals who go out in masks and do stuff. The Marvel comics are packed with hundreds of side characters, throw aways, displaced team members, wild backstories, forgotten old heroes...why are we seeing so little of them here, with the people whose job it is to literally deal with this stuff?

5. Cameos! By anyone!

We got Stan Lee this week! That means this is really and truly part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe after all! And there's rumors of Lady Sif showing up sometime, which would be awesome.

But I mean, there are piles of Heavy Hitters in the world now. And each of them has people around them who aren't the stars of those movies, but are important and are recognizable, and are often played by actors who don't shy from showing up on TV. This is the perfect place for those characters to have a little more life between their movies--for them to report something weird going on, for them to answer a question the team has that we know they'd be able to help with (ahem*Pepper*ahem), for them to even just be in a recording of something that they team is looking into now!

SHIELD is presented in the movies as this wondrous international entity that can show up anywhere at any time, and already knows about everything, and then they get their own show and they're always a step behind, aren't using the resources we-the-audience know for a fact they already have, and then in Phase Two movies, they aren't even showing up. It's...inconsistent, since there's no reason they should really be behind like that, and it's annoying since there's no reason.

And, worst of all, it makes the show look like the unwanted stepchild of the MCU when it's set up to be this glue between movies, incorporating all the new info, adding layers of meaning and story, using the new weapons and reseach, connecting this team of super-powered movies between the times when they're needed to connect themselves. Where are all these people?

On a side note, though, the Hidden Asgardian story was great. Because they've been in contact with earth for ages and there really isn't any real reason why there shouldn't be people like him around sometimes. I hope he comes back.***

6. More stories directly related to what happens in the movies--not just an awesome one-liner

Although that line about the God Of Cleaning Up Their Own Mess line was amazing.

Okay, so Thor 2 happened in, like, five minutes of real time or something. Maybe SHIELD needs more than one day to get to where the Big Bads are busting stuff up or whatever****, sure, but the episode where they went to handle cleanup--which I'm sure SHIELD as a whole has to do a lot of--was a missed opportunity, pure and simple.

The end-titles thing had a giant frost monster running loose in London, chasing birds and not even trying to hide. If that's not the thing that SHIELD's favorite top agent would take his team to investigate, why are they even there?? Maybe the show's budget can't handle a giant frost monster. Okay fine; show the aftermath, where they're all covered in slime and something huge is being carted off under a tarp. Mention the damned monster. Don't be the biggest source of inconsistency in the MCU. I mean, really.


On the level of pure story, SHIELD is the one that anticipates, addresses, and deals with aliens, powers, evil geniuses, villains, whatever, in this version of the Marvel Universe, since heroes are new and teams of heroes haven't yet formed on their own. There should be all sorts of stuff that SHIELD is getting from the fallout of the movies that we aren't even getting hints of--all it would take is a half-mentioned thing in a communication from Headquarters, a quick image that gets shut down in a file, mention of another team who did whatever with that thing that we found after so-and-so. I mean, Coulson does a lot of name dropping already, so probably not from him, but in the worldbuilding for the show, there should be near-constant hints at the tech, the research, the intel that's coming from these events, and there are a lot of them now. Some of them big enough to make Tony Stark a cult icon in foreign countries.

This is all a big deal, and we're hearing so little of it and seeing even less.

7. Stop letting the commercials explicitly promise more than the episodes deliver--or deliver more

I'm pretty sure the show-people have little to no control over what the network says about it in a trailer, but SHIELD's commercials have been overselling as much as Bones' and the Mentalist's used to. If they're going to call an episode 'devastating' it had better be devastating, and the revelation that Skye is a possibly-freaky unknown object in the form of a rescued baby? That's not devastating; that's cool. Which is great, except that telling the fans that it's going to be one way emotionally and then delivering something else entirely is just putting the emotional investment of the show in an out-of-sync alignment. You want your fans to feel the way the show feels, not being told how to feel and then delivering something else.

But another way to deal with this is to just deliver what you promise. The show has so much potential for big emotional drama, and there's a certain amount of leeway for borderline melodrama when you're dealing with topics like these, branching off of movies like those, and they're frequently just not using it. This goes directly into #10, so I'll pick it up there in a bit.

8. Give us more real emotional connection with the core team, and that includes between the team members

This most recent episode did it right. I'm withholding saying that they finally hit that groove where it all works and makes sense, because last time I thought they did--the one where Simmons jumped from the plane to save the team--they were back to fractured not-quite-there-ness the next ep, but I'll just go ahead and stay that that's what we want. The way everyone connected with everyone else and the interpersonal draws and blocks and ties all pulled tight--that's how it should be. Everyone on the team lives in the same place, functions in dangerous and should-be bonding situations with each other, and has lots of different directions all of this could go in, emotionally.

We should see this all the time. And the best way to show character and character development, is to get this stuff all the time. The best way to get viewers emotionally invested in the characters is to let the characters get emotionally invested in each other, and they finally did that for the whole team, and it was beautiful. I'll have to write a whole post about the developing ties in this show (with a chart!) to really get into it, but everyone was invested this time, and the show just sang along.*****

9. Have their unknown items be more than one-shot deals

They find a lot of weird stuff that no one has seen before and no one knows what to do with, and then they just pack it up and never think about it again. Take two or three episodes to figure out what they are and exactly how to best pack them up and keep everyone safe. Have it take a while to learn how to neutralize them. Make their effects on the team slower and over the course of a few eps, especially in things that should linger like that Staff of Awful Rage that really should have left Ward more angry and unhinged than it did, even after the actual effect of it wore off. Show them researching stuff after the episode they find them in, or, if they're determined to not be the ones who do the intensive research, have Simmons be reading up on them, or have Fitz be talking to whoever IS doing the research, or have the camera come in on Coulson catching the squints up on what's been discovered since they handed the artifacts off. Have Fitz tinkering with unsanctioned widgets based on what he learned by looking at the things they found three episodes before.

Those two live for the tech and the science and the weirdness there--I have so much trouble believing that they'd just wave goodbye and never mention the stuff again. I feel like they'd just be collecting up information and diagrams and notes, and saving it all up for when they could use it later, that there'd be periodic moments where they're trying to solve a new problem and one of them shuffles through the stuff on their desk and pulls out something they aren't supposed to have, and say that it's because of how that one thing did this neat trick that they thought they could retro-engineer into this new thing and...

Basically, I just want the Objects of Unknown Origin to have more direct impact on their lives, what they think about, how they react in the future, and what they go into the field with--physically and emotionally--than they have been having, because if Skye is going to be one of them, there really needs to be more resonance. And just from a purely story-based PoV, there needs to be more consequences, more usability to the fact that they find these things and often fall prey to them. And that it's their job.

10. Stop pulling punches

Things that are set up as super-emotional--the reveal of what they actually know about Skye, revelations of betrayal, character-bonding or un-bonding moments--should actually be emotional. The banter is amazing, but the purpose of witty banter is to lighten the weight of heavy dealings, and the show, so far, hasn't really had any super-heavy dealings.

Skye cried and Coulson comforted her, but we didn't hear what he really said to her or what she said after, and there's still no reason for why May is so mean to her even though she's shown that she knows exactly what use Skye has on the team and that she thinks she's best used as a free agent.

Skye seemed to be selling them out early on and then we immediately found out it wasn't that at all, and it wasn't that big a deal, and they took her back-- but then everyone was mean to her as if it had been a big deal, and it took forever for her to win back trust she hadn't really won to begin with because this happened so early on, and she whined about it a little but never got really honestly outraged like I'm sure most people would.

Ward was possessed by an alien-god staff that brought up all your personal demons and fed them to the rage and power, and they were explicit about how it lingers, and then it totally doesn't and he hasn't had any anger issues since--AND the shared trauma pushed him and May together but didn't throw any light on her, really, and the combination of their personal neuroses hasn't yet caused any trouble or shown any stress on their selves or their stories. Not even as little glances or shrugged off things; Ward might be insecure about it and unsure of his feelings, but he hasn't even mentioned that it was pain and rage that got them together to begin with. That's a lot of trauma to just leave untouched.

Although a lot of these emotional disconnects would be solved by fixing #1, 2 and 8 up above.

And then, plotwise, there's all the... well, the best way I can describe it is isolationism of the series. I understand that they want it to stand on its own, but it's explicitly part of the movie continuity, and withholding information we already know, denying that movie-based answers exist to show-based problems, and pointedly not connecting those dots just feels like a cheat. Add to that that we have three major character mysteries (what is Skye? what happened to Coulson? what does May even think or feel about anything at all?), and it comes across as willfully not using what we know is already there--drawing things out, not giving the promised payoffs for our patience, holding off on the potential. All of which also counts as pulling punches.

You can't have a series this tied into the wider universe and make it only look internally for answers; Coulson alone should know more than some of these situations are letting on, and it's frustrating when the big shiny call-backs--the Extremis stuff, especially, and the Supersoldier stuff--have such obvious resources at their command, that Coulson knows personally, and then he's not even mentioning them or giving a reason why he can't use them. The team may not know that he's familiar enough with Pepper that she knew his first name, or that Steve is his idol and now works for the same company, but WE know, and Coulson knows, and those plot-punches need to be loosed.

And I'm not even going to dignify my constant complaint about various hiatuses by putting it on the list because that applies to EVERY DAMN SHOW right now, and we already know that SHIELD is confirmed for a second season. But it stands. Complex shows require consistency to watch, and having months between episodes is dumb; it starves the audience, which does increase anticipation, but also creates annoyance and frustration, and that means any flaws will gall all the much more. But I know that that isn't really the fault of the show, so we'll just put it over here with the rest of the fire and be done with it.

I guess it looks like I have a lot of problems with this show. And I sort of do. But I also love it and wish it could be as good as it promises--as good as it's set up to be and as the series that spawned it is--as good as it obviously can be, since there are two or three episodes where it's locked-in and just shines. It's the frustration of liking it so much and then seeing all the things that could have been handled better, that could have been so much more epic or touching or consistent that makes me make lists like this.

But this has gone on way longer than I thought it would, and if you're still reading, you deserve a say in all this: What do you think about the series? Where does it bother you and what do you think are its strengths? Discuss!

* I shouldn't use 'weird' in an article about SHIELD; there's too much i-before-e conflict in one piece!
** In Iron Man 3, Tony says he's saved her--but I don't think he said he'd cured  her. I really want her to turn out to be living with these violently explosive powers, doing her CEO job, not being a freak of nature or a villain or a superhero, but able to properly understand the problem and help others understand it. Because I mean, damn. What a wasted opportunity, otherwise.
*** In fact, I'd add him to the show. But I'd also add almost everyone I like to the show as a regular and we'd wind up with a core cast of twenty characters after a few seasons. Though, really, that would be accurate to how established Marvel teams like Avengers and X-Men handle recruiting in the comics, so...
**** Though I don't buy it because they were at the hammer in Thor 1 before Thor even got there, and he was specifically looking for it.
***** Did you see how Simmons just jumped in front of what she thought was a grenade to save Fitz, without even thinking about it?? Did you see how heartbreakingly upset Coulson was when he found Skye?? Did you see even May being afraid??? And did you see Ward worrying that May was flirting with Coulson and Coulson warning Ward about messing stuff up and Fitz being sweet and cute to Skye and Skye trying to live up to Coulson's example, and and and...??
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