Wednesday, September 25, 2013


"Under people skills she drew a, I think it’s a little poop with knives sticking out of it. That’s bad, right?"
-Agent Coulson

I have a sort of rule that I just don't watch television shows when they are on television. Its not a deliberate hard and fast rule that I crafted and hold to on purpose, its just how things end up. I don't care to be tied down to a certain time to watch TV since I usually view only when I'm not feeling well or need to rest with my feet up.
However, I set aside an hour yesterday to watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or should I say Joss Whedon Presents Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?  In any case, it was a rarity for me to watch a show when it was on and sit through all the ads.  I much prefer watching On Demand on cable or on Netflix streaming.

When it started, I had fears.  It would be cheesy, it would be too revisionist, it would be too snarky and contrived in the way Whedon's worst stuff can be.  And I worried that it would be too much Dawson's Creek and not enough 007.

I was relieved to find out it wasn't any of those things.  Overall, I liked SHIELD quite a bit.  It was clever and fun and often funny.  The world that has been created for Marvel in the movies holds together quite well and is interesting to dip your toe into.

What worked well was the way SHIELD is presented.  Yes, its an ominous government organization, but it is overall a benevolent one, if a bit rough around the edges in terms of constitutional protections.  SHIELD isn't a sinister corrupt agency like, oh, the  last 900 television shows created like Alphas.

Instead of an evil controlling group of bad guys, SHIELD is essentially good and tries to help, protect, and seek justice, and these days that is pretty fresh and remarkable.  And the guys in it, while obviously dangerous and strong, are basically working for good.

Agent Coulson is always fun to watch, and I have to wonder where Clark Gregg came from.  From his first appearance in Iron Man, he's always been interesting to watch and likable.  You wonder what he's doing next and what he does when he's not busy in a scene.

The rest of this is going to contain a lot of spoilers, so if you haven't seen the show, its time to read something else.  You can't say I didn't warn you.

I liked how Michael was portrayed, as a man who wants to do right, has been formed by stories of heroism and superheroes, and is faced with a world that has men like Captain America and Thor in it.  He's given a chance to be more but can't figure out exactly how to do it, and is continuously frustrated with that fact.
He makes a speech near the end about being held down by the man, but it wasn't a race-based speech, more of a shout of frustration.  He's lost his job, he lost his wife, and he's been trying to do the right thing.  In that process, he got involved in some very bad stuff.

The bad part is that I didn't get a sufficient feel for him being a good man, which Agent Coulson imperiously declares as fact upon viewing two short videos.  Either Coulson is an eternal optimist who presumes the best of everyone, or he has a plot-driven superpower to see into the hearts of men and judge their character. 

Liking your kid and looking for a job do not necessarily mean you're a good guy, but there wasn't really time to develop Michael's character sufficiently.  So when he tears apart a construction site and kills his supervisor (or at the very least puts him in the hospital), the viewer is not left with the feeling that he's a good guy pushed too hard, just a psychotic who went around the bend, Falling Down style.
I don't know if that was some sort of populist "yeah, stick it to the man!" moment of anti-corporatism that didn't work for me or what, but it was shocking and made Coulson's reaction very implausible.

Some other flaws were how nearly everyone in the show but Coulson is under the age of 25.  It seems highly unlikely to me that SHIELD is populated exclusively by young and pretty people (I know, I know, its TV but still, come on).  Ming Na-Wen's Melinda May character is in her 30s, of course, but the rest are so young.  It strains credibility to have characters that capable and experienced in such youth, could there really be that many prodigies of the right psychological profile and loyalty that SHIELD could snap them all up?

I'm not going to explain how Coulson survived.  I have a few theories (Asgardian medicine, for one), but the show doesn't really explain and its clear that it is something that will be dealt with more clearly in the future.  Coulson seems a lot more cheerful than he was in the movies, which is a bit odd given his experiences.

A few of the personalities weren't very interesting, but I'm guessing that will be fleshed out more later.  The super spy Ward was basically a cardboard cutout, and the worst example was the hacker Skye.  She is a Christmas Jones character, a girl cast for her looks and body that demonstrates absolutely none of the alleged ability and intelligence she's said to possess.

We're supposed to believe this girl hacked into the world's most secure computers (designed by Tony Stark) from the back of a van?  I'm a bit tired of characters who have a room full of super-high end technology and absolutely no demonstrable ability to pay for it all.  She has no job, there's no indication of family wealth, how did she buy and pack a van full of all that gear?  It happens all the time on TV, we're just supposed to shrug at it, but it makes no sense.

Skye was bland and forgettable, I wouldn't even remember her name if it wasn't one of those twee millennial names that annoy me.  She just wasn't an effective character at all despite being so critical to the story.  The only part that was interesting was her admission that she one time hung out in front of the Stark building in a cosplay outfit.

The show had two major flaws, as I see it.  The first was that it presumed too much without any explanation.  A major criticism many people have of American TV is that they explain too much, sometimes to the point of great annoyance and repetition.  Shows like Pawn Stars will start out after every commercial break recapping what went before.  And that's a valid criticism.

However, there's another way you can go too far, and that's something Anime does too regularly; dump people into a situation with tons of references and events that have no context or explanation whatsoever.  This can be a useful device, if used sparingly and carefully, but Agents of SHIELD basically dumped an entire world on the heads of viewers without even bothering to wink at the camera.  The character of Melinda May is presumed to be terrifically significant (she's a new character), for example.  Who is she?  Nobody but the writers have the slightest idea, but the characters all seem to know.

I'm not saying they have to show some montage or explain, but you need to be careful doing too much of this or people will walk away figuring they can't understand the show or missed something in the past.

The second flaw is the Iron Man Universe effect.  For some reason, probably due to its immense popularity, the Marvel movie guys have come to the conclusion that their universe is going to revolve around Tony Stark.  Every single marvel movie released by Paramount has had Tony Stark and Iron Man as being a central and key part of them.  His dad made Captain America!  He was involved with Thor!  He's the main character of The Avengers!  In Avengers 2, he's the guy who created Ultron (instead of Hank Pym, in the comics)!

This show has the Iron Man 3 plot device of "Extremis" featured strongly.  For those who never saw IM3, Extremis is a chemical treatment that grants great strength, durability, and regeneration, but makes people unstable, and many simply explode after a short time.

Its not a bad device, and it does help segue into SHIELD, but at the same time, Iron Man, again?  Until that movie he was a 3rd tier superhero.  I liked him okay, but he wasn't that big.  And he's probably the fifth smartest guy in the Marvel Universe, not the inventor of all reality and key to the future.

Its just a personal thing, but I think they're riding this Iron Man thing a bit too hard.

There were other small bumps, like... what happened to the doctor who gave Michael his powers?  What happened to the bad guys (likely Hydra or AIM) who showed up to kill Michael in the final action sequence?

Yet in the end, I thought the show was too short, and want to see more, so it was successful.  I did enjoy SHIELD quite a bit, and I know that most of these concerns will be dealt with in future episodes.  I expect we'll see either a reference to or an interrogation of the lost characters mentioned above.

I hope that Paramount is smart and sticks a cameo or two of major characters and players in the show.  Just having Hawkeye be seen in the cafeteria would be a good move on their part.  Putting more comic character references in is smart too; X-Men was good at this with little "easter egg" style bits slipped in.  Whedon has said he doesn't want the show to be an Easter Egg hunt, that its about the people of SHIELD, and that's good but its smart and fun to have at least some of that happening.

In the future, interviews indicate that the show will be about regular people caught up in the changing world, a major theme of the first show.  Joss Whedon's take on superheroes is that they unman everyone around them and make people feel inferior, even terrified (Iron Man 3 was all about Tony Stark having anxiety attacks over what he faced in NYC, which seemed a bit excessive to me).

So we'll see how this goes and what happens in the next episodes, but I'm looking forward to finding out.  I just hope it gets into OnDemand, because I don't want to set aside an hour every Tuesday just to see.

*UPDATE: episode 2 was disappointing, I won't be watching the show when it airs any longer. It can wait for OnDemand or Netflix.

**UPDATE LATER: After watching the first season, it went downhill pretty rapidly.  They succeeded in making Agent Coulson unlikable, the characters don't feel plausible (they're too young to know and have the abilities they have) and they turned the one really capable reasonable guy on the team into the worst monster imaginable, a traitor.  Its like the writers were determined to take everything you might like and betray you.

Worse, the show is really almost wholly detatched from the Marvel Universe... and SHIELD its self.  They're not part of a larger organization, and SHIELD its self is basically destroyed.  By the end of the first season it got better but then collapsed the next season and I stopped trying to give it chances.


Eric said...

I watched this last night and really enjoyed it. Based on the first episode alone, it's about 5 times as good as Arrow, which I can't seem to stop watching even though it is a ludicrously bad television show.

Looking forward to seeing how the various characters are developed. Yes, Coulson rocks. Shooting his own guy full of truth serum was a pretty neat trick.

And no complaints from me regarding lots of young good looking females being on the show!

Unknown said...

I enjoyed it and I feel like it has some real potential and I am looking forward to watching the rest of it. I also like Arrow and do not think it is nearly as bad as the previous poster.