Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Why It’s Totally Awesome…And Why It Could Go Totally Wrong

Agents of Shield

It’s been nearly four years since January 29, 2010. That was the air date of the finale episode of Dollhouse, the day that marked the start of a (too) long television hiatus from Joss Whedon, god and hero to geeks everywhere. It’s only fitting, then, that the classic “Grrr! Argh!” of Mutant Enemy, Whedon’s production company, returns to television paired with possibly the geekiest partner of them all, Marvel Studios.

The hype surrounding Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been nothing short of rabid in its intensity. A lot of that has to do with the fact that Agents unites two of the largest camps of nerds: the Whedonites and the comic book geeks, but it’s not just sheer numbers that the freshman show has on its side. For so many reasons, Agents is the Whedon show that fans have been waiting years for.

For one, it’s not being aired on Fox, the network that so famously sent Firefly to an undeserved and early grave, and that alone is enough cause for a sigh of relief. In stark contrast to Fox’s skittish nature is ABC’s gung-ho attitude. (Or perhaps more accurately, Disney’s attitude. Disney owns both ABC and Marvel Entertainment.) This is, after all, the parent company that greenlit Guardians of the Galaxy, the main characters of which, among other various intergalactic misfits, are a genetically engineered talking raccoon and a humanoid tree creature. A little bit of Whedon-style eccentricity isn’t going to scare off ABC. (Though somehow I doubt we’ll get a “Once More With Feeling”-style musical episode, a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer. More’s the pity.)

Then there’s the quality of the show itself. Though Agents is only getting started, and judging a show by its pilot is the television version of judging a book by its first chapter, it’s hard not to get fanboy-style excited over it. Its dramatic score sounds like it would feel right at home in a summer blockbuster. The acting, from such a varied cast as Brett Dalton, Clark Gregg, Ming-na Wen, and Chloe Bennet, feels strong and natural.

Save for a few clunky moments during its pilot, most notably the cheap-looking opening sequence, Agents’ pilot was solid through and through…because it was classic Whedon. Snarky dialogue? Check. Band of misfits that, under any other circumstances, would probably hate each other? Check. Strong female characters? Ooooh, boy, check. Here’s looking at you, Melinda May.

In true Whedon-style, the characters don’t take themselves too seriously, either. Bennet’s Skye, witty hacker extraordinaire and new S.H.I.E.L.D. recruit, is a prime example of that. At one point in the pilot, she remarks to another character, “With great power…comes a lot of weird crap you are not prepared to deal with.” She’s not exactly Uncle Ben, teaching Peter Parker about the importance of responsibility, and the show is better for it.

And in terms of future ambition, nothing, in my opinion, in the past decade can come close to what Agents is attempting to pull off, save for maybe Lost. Even then, Lost didn’t have an entire cinematic universe at its disposal. The opportunities to tie in the Marvel Universe films, both past and future, are countless. While it might be too much to hope for Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Hemsworth to drop in, the fact that the writers can work in references to so many different Marvel projects without it being lost on the audience makes for a much more complex, whole universe.

And yet…Agents still has a few things working against it. Of Whedon’s previous projects, the overall atmosphere – secret government agency, shady upper-level management – bears the most resemblance to Dollhouse, which took the better part of thirteen episodes to find its voice and didn’t hit its true stride until the latter half of its second season.

Though nerds may rule when it comes to summer blockbusters and their caped crusaders, giant robots, and aliens, it’s more difficult to translate that same appeal to primetime television. Lost was a fanboy darling for the better part of three seasons…until it went off the rails and even the most dedicated of fans had trouble defending it. Even quality, though, isn’t enough to get a geeky show a guaranteed run. Fringe was excellent throughout most of its entire run, but it occupied such a niche that its renewal was on the bubble nearly every year. Gone are the days of Buffy and The X-Files, when we can hold out for five or ten years of guaranteed geekery.

One of the riskiest things about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the thing that has fans so excited about it. Throwaway lines that reference things like Project Pegasus and the “Asgardian Mussolini” might make hardcore fans squeal with glee, but are likely lost on the everyday viewer. So many references have the potential to go without being understood or recognized, and that has the potential to work against the show in the long run. (Then again, it might send viewers flocking to the Google to educate themselves. Here’s hoping.)

At the heart of Agents’ hurdles, though, is this: For a show that was inspired by superhero movies, for an agency who works to find superheroes, for a main character (Skye) who is obsessed with superheroes…there’s a startling lack of superheroes. Whedon has said in interviews that, in a lot of ways, Agents is inspired by a Buffy episode called “The Zeppo,” which focuses not on superpowered Buffy and her preternatural vampire foes, but one of her friends, Xander, who epitomized the Average Joe label. While that worked well for one episode, it remains to be seen if that same approach can carry an entire show. Agent Phil Coulson (Gregg) was a supporting character in several of the Marvel Universe films, but now he’s the man in charge, front and center.

Maybe down the line Dalton’s Grant Ward gets doused by radioactive sludge or bitten by a spider, but for now, all of the main characters are wholly human. (Well…that we know of. Who knows what really happened during Coulson’s Tahiti vacation?) Then again, this hurdle has the potential to work to Agents’ advantage. Keeping the focus on the non-superpowered players of the Marvel Universe means that there’s the opportunity for an entire bevy of superheroes to make shorter, more dramatic supporting appearances.

Last, and perhaps most worrying, is the fact that though this is, at its heart, a Joss Whedon production, his presence is going to be pretty diluted compared to his past projects. True, he developed the show from conception and co-wrote the pilot, but right now, he’s a wee bit busy working on a tiny little project called The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. You may have heard of it.

These obstacles, important as they may be, are only hypothetical at this stage, though. Full judgment will have to wait till a few more episodes have aired, but for now I’m more than content to get behind Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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Author: Alexandra Brueckner View all posts by
Geek extraordinaire, W&J alum, Muser, Whedonite, Whovian, ice cream connoisseur, bibliophile, ink enthusiast, amateur yogini, professional globetrotter. Living in Aomori, Japan. Blogs at theglobetrottinggeek.wordpress.com and tweets from @halloitsalex.

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