I'm going to get right to the point: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not good.
Five episodes in, and I'm ready to quit -- and I don't quit anything. I'm still watching Grey's Anatomy, Project Runway and yes, even the boys vs. girls season of America's Next Top Model, but S.H.I.E.L.D. is pushing my limits.
Last week's episode was a small step in the right direction, finally introducing the show's Big Bad, Centipede. But I'm finding it hard to muster up anything beyond apathy towards this evil. Why should I care whether or not Coulson's team can save the world from Centipede when they haven't given me a single reason to care about the people doing the saving? Here are seven ways that S.H.I.E.L.D. went wrong:
1. Stock characters Each of the heroes of S.H.I.E.L.D. are recycled archetypes from yesteryear. And while Joss Whedon made a name for himself subverting clichés, S.H.I.E.L.D. just re-creates them. Skye (Chloe Bennet) is an obnoxious simulacrum of a "quirky" techgirl, and Ward (Brett Dalton) is so generic he's better fit for a CBS procedural. Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), who was poised to be my favorite, is sadly only a caricature of what TV often confuses for a Strong Female Character (read: kicks ass but lacks other dimension). And I still haven't worked up the motivation to decipher which one is Fitz and which is Simmons. All I know is that both have my pining for the nerdy charm and ease of Whedon's previous winning nerd characters Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hanigan) and Topher Brink (Fran Kranz).
2. A leader not-so-shrouded in mystery Then, of course, there's Coulson (Clark Gregg) who — thanks to some over obvious "hints" — we know is some sort of Life Model Decoy, clone, etc. The ham-handed way the Coulson mystery has been handled by S.H.I.E.L.D. shows how little faith the series has in its audience, repeatedly saying something is wrong instead of giving actual evidence, as though viewers would be unable to connect the dots. By doing this, S.H.I.E.L.D. diluted a potential key aspect of the show's mythology and instead created an empty mystery, a static protagonist and undermined any reason I might have to keep watching, since the eventual reveal is almost guaranteed to be anticlimactic.
3. Scooby who? Then there's the question of why these individuals? Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) posed the same question to Coulson in the pilot and, much like her, we're still waiting for an answer. But maybe there isn't one. It wouldn't be out of step with the series to have created its own motley crew based on nothing more than recognizing the success of Buffy's Scooby gang and the crewmembers of Firefly's Serenity, since S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to so much enjoy re-creating tropes without adding any of its own inspired twists.
4. Only semi-super For a world filled with superheroes, S.H.I.E.L.D. is largely devoid of the larger-than-life flash and fun of the Marvel Universe. While I understand there are restrictions based on Marvel's future film and franchise plans, along with the show's budget, I really doubt S.H.I.E.L.D. couldn't do better than a guy who makes fire from his hands (named Scorch, of all things).
5. Not subversive or inventive enough However, if S.H.I.E.L.D. had fully committed to going against the superhero grain (instead of remaining frustratingly in the middle) this could have become the series' greatest asset — a refreshing look at the superhero world from the perspective of ordinary people. This notion formed the basis of the pilot (which I found highly enjoyable), focusing on the lengths a father would go to support his son in the struggling economy. The second episode continued the trend of exploring superpower inequality, positioning a Tesseract-powered weapon as the subject of an international arms race. These hints of politically savvy, culturally relevant story lines, while they gave me hope at the time, now only remind me of whatS.H.I.E.L.D. is not: a smart, subversive drama. Instead of plots inspired by modern paranoia and struggle, we get Centipede, a Big Bad so boring that even that even Scorch looks inventive.
6. Solutions are too easy The simplicity of S.H.I.E.L.D. is out of place in this post-Sopranos world and seems painfully dated. It's hard to inspire any real tension with an antagonist so comically evil, especially with the unlimited resources at the team's disposal. Every situation, no matter how dire it may seem, is ultimately a low-stakes caper, since we know at any moment someone can pull out a get out of jail free gadget to save the day at the last minute. What ultimately made Battlestar Galactica and Firefly so engaging was the idea of the crews being isolated from necessities on their respective ships. But for now, Coulson's team has no reason to stop drawing from S.H.I.E.L.D's arsenal of technology, weapons and supplies.
7. Lacks real-world complexity and intrigue It would be much more interesting to see a rift between Coulson's team and the larger operation ofS.H.I.E.L.D. and explore how they could continue their mission (whatever it is) with less resources. For now, Skye has seemingly dropped her suspicion ofS.H.I.E.L.D., but the series could benefit greatly from mining the moral gray zone of the government's indifference to civilian privacy, especially in the wake of the NSA and Edward Snowden. This has been vaguely touched upon through Skye and The Rising Tide, but as we've now learned Skye doesn't want to be the next Julian Assange. She's simply a poor orphan who just wants to learn the truth about her parents' identities. By giving Skye such a hackneyed motivation,S.H.I.E.L.D. is missing out on a fantastic opportunity to take a critical look at the organization's intentions and tactics. Especially since I can think of a million reasons to root against S.H.I.E.L.D., but only a few in defense of their clandestine, "all for the greater good" operations.
Overall, S.H.I.E.L.D. is not unfixable. And it's possible the show's sliding ratings will inspire a serious reevaluation moving forward. But for now, I can think of a million things I'd rather do on Tuesday nights than tune in for another parade of missed opportunities.
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S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on ABC.