Formulaic 'S.H.I.E.L.D.' fails to pique audience curiosity

ABC

By Maddie Thomas, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 26, 2013

“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” was given every opportunity to succeed. Backed by the multi-billion-dollar Marvel franchise and one of the hottest directors in Hollywood today, Joss Whedon (of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The Avengers” fame), it was destined to be the breakout pilot of the season — or at least destined to immediately earn strong viewership. How could it not, when it was marketed as a small-screen spin-off of the immensely popular “Avengers” movie? And yet, somehow, “S.H.I.E.L.D.” is floundering. Formulaic episodes, two-dimensional characters and the lack of a cohesive overarching plotline are turning a once-promising project into the biggest flop of 2013.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.


C-
ABC
Tuesdays at 8 p.m.


This week’s “S.H.I.E.L.D.” episode, titled “The Well,” is the seventh episode of a (recently picked up) 22-episode season. Usually by now, about seven episodes in, a new show wants to have found its footing and be settling into a groove that allows writers to experiment with characters and generate some quality television. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” isn’t quite there yet. This newest episode, advertised as a companion to the “Thor: The Dark World” feature film, was a yawn-inducing hour of television complete with boring, empty villains (Norwegian hipsters who are … pagan?), a relatively low-stakes plot featuring an Asgardian staff that pisses people off and one guy in a suit who apparently used to be a Berserker soldier.

“S.H.I.E.L.D.” ’s predictable, formulaic setup (team finds otherworldly object, member of team is infected by it, team works together to overcome struggle) might be acceptable if its characters were actually compelling, but seven episodes in, we’re still dealing with six dull, two-dimensional leads. “The Well” offers up a wonderful opportunity to explore Grant’s past, but instead of actually taking advantage of that chance, the writers decide to stick with the show’s “secrecy” motif and tease us with an incomplete flashback featuring young Grant and a little boy (presumably his brother?) who is stuck in a well. Secrets are valuable — they keep a TV show interesting and allow for confrontation when they’re revealed — but the writers are so focused on keeping the secrets locked up that the plotlines become too vague to be captivating. Rather than piquing curiosity, secrecy leads to confusion.

The one redeeming moment of “The Well” comes at the very end, with an implied hookup between Grant and May (the wonderful Ming-Na Wen, who has consistently been the best part of this show), which was a small but very welcome plot twist after watching the will-they-won’t-they tension between Skye and Grant build up over the past few weeks. Hopefully, this surprise character pairing is a sign that things are about to be headed in a new and exciting direction, because that is exactly where “S.H.I.E.L.D.” needs to go. ASAP.

At the end of the day, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is simply not stepping up to the plate. In the first seven episodes, the writers have fallen into a rut of formulaic episodes and characters without chemistry. The only plot driving the season forward as a whole is Coulson’s mysterious Tahiti trip, and even that is wearing thin after being mentioned basically every week without any new revelations to keep us invested. Joss Whedon knows how to make a TV show, and though he’s not running it day to day, he must be aware of “S.H.I.E.L.D.” ’s total lack of intrigue. Perhaps the writers are taking advantage of the guaranteed hype and popularity that comes with the Marvel franchise to start out the first season cautiously, but time is running out. They can only get by on Marvel’s good name for so long; eventually they’re going to have to delve into the characters’ back stories and take some more risks.

I’m at my wit’s end with “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” but my admiration for Joss Whedon is keeping me from giving up on it just yet. Though seven episodes in is pretty late in the game to still have trouble developing characters, every new show has a learning curve. With 15 installments left in the season, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” still has time to turn itself around, but it’s going to take some drastic changes.