The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

On Television: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Delivers … Modestly

Written by: Mark Hurley, CC2K TV Editor

There’s some spoiler action here, kids.

Whatever your level of genre affinity before the advent of the first Iron Man flick that was the harbinger of this brave new Marvel Age, it is safe to say your geek levels have been punched up a notch with the Avengers Initiative and its myriad franchises. Your casual fan is buying comics, your hyper-nerd is building replica jet packs from Home Depot stock, and your cheerleaders are allowing themselves to be felt up on dates to movies involving giant green punching machines. Our collective bluestocking quotient got a little higher for it, and it is all due to the careful reverence to the source material, and the obvious love put in to each of the installments by directors, producers, cast, and crew. The production of a television show that would accompany this ‘new’ world was an obvious call.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is an ensemble procedural centering on the super spy agency that manipulated said world to bring the Avengers together. The fun of the show is to witness the inner workings of an organization whose thousands of employees and billions of dollars of super-equipment can’t exist simply for the whims of Tony Stark and his ilk. They must be doing other things, and the program gives us a unique view into the other missions and inner workings of a spy beurocracy in a universe of aliens and gods. Given that fans must wait a year or more between each of the Marvel films, this first season of Agents has proved a subdued supplement to hold the rabid Marvelite over until the next Avengers installment.

With a solid block of episodes under the show’s belt, however, the experience has proven an arid one. We were warned that we’d not be seeing super heroes, that this was television, with all the budgetary and licensing constraints that entails. With all the technological whimsy that has been Marvel’s second wheelhouse intact, not to mention the stellar writing we’ve come to expect from the new Marvel Universe, the lack of wild mutant exploits was an acceptable concession for audiences… in the conception stages. A solid cast of agents of Nick Fury and Maria Hill caliber would get us through, right?

Therein lies one of the major problems with Agents. The ensemble comic book cast we were promised turns out to be bland police procedural fare. You’ve got your brooding pretty boy super cop, your Tiger Mom airplane pilot, your two quirky English scientists, and your cute chick naïf. Leading the cast is fan favorite Agent Coulson, played by Clark Gregg. Yes! Right? Well, as it turns out, what worked in a supporting cast member in the films does not a series carry. You know that uncle whose worldly, dry humor got you through so many Christmases with the extended family? Ever gone with him alone on a fishing trip?

Did I ever tell you how I lost my pinky toe, kid? Your grandmother is one controlling she-beast.

Coulson’s no-nonsense, cool demeanor in a world of flash and intensity is refreshing and infinitely minable for comedic relief. Left alone with a supporting cast that couldn’t support a Little Tykes picnic table, Gregg’s previously admirable performance comes across as wooden, and the audience is left wondering if they sat on the clicker and inadvertently switched to an unsuccessful Cold Case spinoff pilot.

Marvel is spectacular because BANG! KAPOW! BOOM!, as my eloquent friend Sean puts it. Turns out, we need supers in our comic shows, after all, not a less compelling X-Files rip off. More on that in a moment.

I’ll admit I struggle with procedurals, personally, and not simply because the very title of the genre insinuates life’s horrifying tedium, the very banalities I watch television to escape. The ennui, the debilitating routine of detective work outside of a bat-eared cowl is, of course, stated in the televisional genus’ name with a challenging sneer, demanding you endure the monotony, else your Grisham-devouring friends think you unintelligent. But the real issue for me is that procedurals attempt to force their audiences to empathize with protagonists whose motives I would normally pointedly question in my everyday life. Alright, cops. Despite what the costumed mascot at your second grade assembly told you, cops in real life don’t automatically (or usually) represent the cut-and-dry ‘good’ element of a given situation.

That cop was straight-up lying to get his job done, a fact that even the hilariously drunk redneck elevator pilot understood. I’m just sayin’.

Law & Order is a good example. It doesn’t mask the corruption that exists in the justice system: the crooked cops with moral agendas, the downright duplicitous district attorneys. And yet every episode begins and ends with the assumption that these characters are the given source of positive energy in the universe. Never mind Sam Waterston’s skirt chasing, walking harassment suit McCoy, we’re disappointed along with him when a case doesn’t go his way. Forget the fact that Max Greevey directs his investigations with his dubious moral compass, or that Fred Thompson seemingly doesn’t realize the parody of awful he is playing as Manhattan’s DA. In the end, these are the guys protecting the world from the scum they somehow aren’t.

This applies even better to L&O’s two acclaimed spin-offs, Criminal Intent and SVU, the main characters of which deserve to be subjects of their own investigations. Olivia Benson is so messed up from the job, she’ll shoot you in the weenus just for having one. Detective Stabler’s very name is a lie, he’s the most unstable cop imaginable. 90% of the characters in all L&O iterations are unable to maintain relationships with their own children. All these characters have major psychological issues, which are probably accurate and adds to the drama, but in the end we’re still expected to cheer them on in their fight against crime when they are remarkably ill-equipped for the job. I don’t implicitly trust the police in real life, why am I rooting for this group of nut bags? By the way, one must really be dialed into that mindset to watch CSI without a scoff at the impossibilities of the science involved.

Which brings us back to the lack of super humans and mutants on Agents. Agents comes along at a bad time in terms of real-life politics. Spies aren’t popular favorites for any American with even a vague concept of current events. Julian Assange and Snowden are media monsters, Bradley Manning is still MIA with no popular attention, and the upper echelons of America’s billion dollar-a-week spy network are all privy to the contents of the Prime Minister of Germany’s panty drawer. We need some justification if we’re going to cheer on a fictional spy agency.

A procedural like Criminal Minds works better than most because our heroes are tackling problems beyond the realm of regular crime. Their targets are psychopathic serial murderers who don’t think and act like your common criminals, with pathologies that require real psychological science, a little luck, and a metric mother-ton of violence to overcome. We need the FBI’s profilers, and there is never a question that what they are doing is necessary. Agents would benefit from some of that escalation, as S.H.I.E.L.D. itself benefits from it in the Avengers films. Fans aren’t demanding a cameo by Robert Downy Jr. and Mark Ruffalo in every episode, but maybe some of the canonical depth of the Marvel Universe could be tapped for a villain with powers more impressive than budget-friendly prescience. That way we know this prying counter-intelligence agency is necessary beyond the realm of the movies. The show could at least be set on the bitchin’ S.H.I.E.L.D. Hellicarrier we’ve come to love.

Even this guy would be preferable to the caliber of character we have seen so far on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The show would also benefit from the grittiness of Criminal Minds. Never before the advent of Agents have fans been punched so thoroughly in the face with the fact that Disney has bought the hell out of Marvel. Television is experiencing a golden age of Breaking Bads and Dexters. If you want us to follow your show with any level of avidity, even one whose appeal crosses multiple age demographics, we’re going to need a little more than Scooby Doo, monster of the week pap. At the very least, we should have been able to hope for a comic TV entry superior to DC’s CW offerings, and we haven’t even seen that yet. The intrigue of the girl who may or may not be a double agent is hardly compelling when we all know that she totally isn’t, and Coulson’s fake death story arc, well, that’s all over but the crying, right? Comic fans will be looking for the ol’ Life Model Decoy trick, methinks, and maybe that will prove interesting, if a trifle weathered. Game of Thrones this is not. This isn’t even Numb3rs.

As of this writing, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. walks a thin line. Last week’s inclusion of a pyro villain was a good start on the road to awesome comic action. Still, the upcoming sweeps crossover (directed by Jonathan Frakes, nerd squee!) with the new Thor flick will not include Thor or Loki, and will occur after the events of the film, meaning the Agents crew will probably be playing janitors to the real action. Watch me contain my excitement.