When Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered last fall, the drama failed to live up to the hype. This is because even though S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered in September, the series had to wait until Captain America was released in April to reveal HYDRA had infiltrated the organization, completely changing the direction of the show. That means they spent nearly eight months simply biding time! But once S.H.I.E.L.D. was shut down and clean-cut Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) was revealed to be a sleeper HYDRA agent, the tide began to turn in the show's favor. But was it too little too late?
Executive producer Jeff Bell talked to TVGuide.com about the show's negative reception, what's in store for Season 2 and why fans should give it a second chance.
The finale left us with a very troubling image of Coulson (Clark Gregg). What state will he be in when the show picks up?
Jeff Bell: The thing we've been asking and the thing we've been giving some of the answers to is, 'What will I become?' And we think that works for S.H.I.E.L.D., we think that works for each of our characters. But we love the idea that just as Coulson is tasked with being the director of this defunct organization, this little chink in his armor with, why is he writing this strange writing? I think it's a compelling image and I think it's definitely something we will explore this season.
Now that Coulson has been tasked with building a new S.H.I.E.L.D., how will this change the show?
Bell: Drastically. We are no longer this trillion-dollar international organization that can tap into every person's cell phone on the planet with fleets of heli-carriers. We are now truly the ragtag group of people who are hunted by the government, still hunted by HYDRA. They're not really funded. They have no jurisdiction anywhere. They can't go in and flash a S.H.I.E.L.D. badge. A lot of the cool tech because of that will be stripped away and because in ways, we're going to throw back to a simpler time. S.H.I.E.L.D. grew out of an organization called the SSR, which goes back to World War II and we think it's fun to sort of take S.H.I.E.L.D. to a simpler place, because if you're going to rebuild something you want to rebuild it from the ground up.
People did seem to enjoy the show so much more when the agents became underdogs at the end of last season.
Bell: We felt that way! It's hard to say, 'Yay! They're tapping my phone.' ... Especially with all the NSA stuff that was happening last year and everybody listening in on everybody's information. S.H.I.E.L.D., in many ways — that was their bread and butter. And so the fact that the people who were leading that were proven to be corrupt, as I think a lot of people fear governments are corrupt, plays into our storytelling. And then having the good people within the corrupt organization is also something I think people really respond to ... I think there's something really powerful about that — knowing there are people who are trying to make the world a better and safer place. And I think we're in a much more sympathetic position to do so now.
The show was criticized a lot at the beginning, in part because the agents had too much power. What was that criticism like knowing you had the HYDRA twist coming later?
Bell: That was our challenge last year. We knew HYDRA was in S.H.I.E.L.D. and we knew HYDRA was the Big Bad for our season. But we couldn't say what we called 'the H word' until after the movie came out. I think we found other ways to tell compelling stories, though it felt more standalone in the beginning. As it started to connect and as the pieces started coming together, I think it gained momentum. Our other challenge was we had these five new characters who had never existed in the Marvel universe before and getting people to know and care about them the way they do now. Sometimes that just takes a while.
Now that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been disbanded, will the show continue the case-of-the-week format or become more serialized?
Bell: We're still trying to tell an episode where you can come into the episode and understand the episode, but were trying to continue the momentum we got in the back half of the season. There was an urgency and momentum to the storytelling that I think people really responded to and that I think we really enjoyed writing. So yeah, we'll be continuing to keep people moving.
Are there any specific cases or characters you're particularly excited for fans to see?
Bell: This is where I have to say that I work for Marvel and say that's a really great question, I can't wait to find out the answer to that ... What we're hoping for is you'll recognize the show, but it will feel very different. There's a bunch of new characters on the show and we're on a different base and new villains since Mr. Garrett got blown up about 12 times in the last season. So as much as we loved him, new antagonists. We think we're telling good stories, but you never know until you put it on the air.
Were you surprised by the negative reception last year?
Bell: Sure, yeah. Because there were about five different things happening at the same time and so what I think was challenging for us was there was no consensus. They'd be like, 'Oh, it's not the movie!' And, 'Oh, you don't have Captain America in your show!' or, 'Oh, you're too standalone!' or, 'Oh, there's not enough Marvel people in it.' It wasn't like everyone said the same thing. And actually, if you look at our ratings they were quite good. I think there were about 12 people on the internet who have a very strong voice and I think as the show sort of played more into what they were expecting, they started to like it more.
What are the challenges and benefits to being so closely tied with the Marvel films?
Bell: The benefits far outweigh the challenges. The benefits are there are this incredibly rich universe that they've created that we get to play in. ... We try to put stuff in that the die-hard fan will love and enjoy but were not going to build a story on something who watch it on ABC won't understand. We're trying to balance that. And so there's a rich body of work for us to draw from. And really the only downside at all is that there are some times when there might be a character or something that we want to play with and they already have plans to play with that person. It's not just our football. It's their football and their field and their referees so if they want that, we understand it.
When the show started there seemed to be a very clear cut definition of good and evil, but it began to get grayer as it went on. Will you continue to muddy those waters?
Bell: It got grayer, but I do think one of the things I love about Agent Phil Coulson is that he's a hero. He's not an antihero. And I do love that about his character. And as the world was crumbling around him, as the company man was learning he was more loyal to the company than the company was to him, he still strove to do the right thing. He wanted to do the right thing in spite of that.
Is it even possible for Coulson to stay a hero with the serum in his body?
Bell: That's a great question. What is this serum? Why is he doing that? Is he in control? Is he losing his mind? Or is he becoming something else? Or will he be fine? Those are all things we are going to explore.
Kyle MacLachlan has joined the show as Skye's (Chloe Bennet) dad. Now that he knows where she is, what's his next step?
Bell: In many ways last year, Coulson was a surrogate father to Skye and any time you have a show about a team, it is a metaphor for a family. And so to be able to bring on a character's birth father as well as have a character's surrogate father, I think there's opportunities for really rich storytelling. So there's a lot of exciting things to figure out. Who this guy is and what happened and what's the truth? Because everyone seems to have a different opinion or heard a different story on what happened.
Is there anything you can reveal about what's happened to Fitz (Iain De Caestecker)?
Bell: He's on the show this year. So... that's good. Honestly, we're trying to do our best to let people experience that as purely as possible without any sort of hints or spoilers. He's a robot now! He has no legs but he's got wheels! I'm not saying that's not true, but I'm not telling you that's what it was. He's alive so that's a good thing unless people wanted him dead. We think we have a really rich storyline for all of our characters, Fitz included.
There's going to be an Agent Carter crossover in the premiere. How will that flashback factor into the episode's plot?
Bell: I think it's more fun just to see it. But let me say, it's not just because there's going to be an Agent Carter show on the network. I think we found a way to sort of... because she's, like, 1,000 years old now, and you know. Let's just watch it. But we were thrilled that Hayley [Atwell] came out and played with us.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns Tuesday at 9/8c on ABC.