Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD: Season 5

There are shows that I love the big stories but get a little bored in the actual watching, and then there are shows like Agents of SHIELD where I adore the little moments and am bored by the big stuff. There are few shows out there at the moment that I find charming, where I love the characters and their interactions and genuinely want to spend time with them. I would cheerfully watch these characters build IKEA furniture together. In fact a lot of the time I’d rather watch them undertake a simple task like that than watch them get bogged down in clumsy attempts to save the world.

This season had some big STUFF going on – time travel, the destruction of the world, aliens and complicated theories about the nature of time and destiny. The problem is that I’m not sure any of it actually hung together. Every time I tried to work it out, it felt like it was heading in an incoherent direction so I stopped. Maybe if I’d kept trying to work it out, I would have got through it to something that made sense, but I couldn’t be bothered. I always thought it was a shame that the series tried to do these big stories, thereby trying and failing to compete with the Marvel movies it spun off from, or the various other hero shows. I wanted it to be about the more day-to-day, the daily grind of the agents behind the heroes, tidying up their mess or dealing with the stuff it wasn’t worth calling them for. I like stories about the little people, heroes are all well and good, but the little people deserve some love too.

The writing for the characters and the performances remain superb. The dialogue isn’t quite up there with Joss Whedon’s best, even after 5 seasons it still feels a little like Whedon-lite, but it still has that underlying sparkle. Characters snip and snark, make pop culture references, and most importantly have strong senses of self and their own history. They all remember how ridiculous their lives are, how they’ve all made mistakes and all lost things. They talk like normal people, and when one of them occasionally slips into hero speak, the others aren’t afraid to call them on it. It’s laugh out loud funny, and heartbreakingly emotional.

It’s a long wait to the next season which is only set to be 13 episodes long and doesn’t start until next year. I think there’s a good chance it will be the last season as the ratings have never been very good, but I will miss these characters.

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD: Season 3

agentsfoshieldSeason 3 of Agents of SHIELD actually felt like a significant improvement, Looking back on the plots and action that took place. I think it’s due a much less frantic pace and far more coherent set of storylines which actually felt like they were going somewhere, rather than the endless meandering and circling around that previous seasons have had.

From a clinical point of view the writing and stories had a very good mix of big and small, the pacing worked, the interactions between the plots worked and none of them overstayed their welcome. Looking back at the season I don’t think there were any dead ends, each story wound into the overall picture and continued to effect characters. Relationships moved forward, people grew, people fought with each other and things occasionally blew up. What more do you want?

It feels like all the characters, and actors, were playing to their strengths this year. The cast expanded with new ‘inhuman’ superheroes and ‘normal’ agents and they finally seemed to gel into a coherent collection of people. That’s not to say they always agreed or worked well together, but it felt like a fully rounded group that covered off all the various attitudes and emotions. I particularly like the mixture of “grown ups” and “newbies”, each respecting each other, but also occasionally having to exert their authority and experience, or challenge and get creative. As characters rose and fell to prominence, others dropped away; allegiances and attitudes shifted and it felt like an organic whole rather than a forced structure.

There are still some weak points, or rather under-utilised characters, the cast list was very crowded at times and not everyone was well used all the time. Hunter was well used for levity, but his quest for revenge didn’t quite play as well; particularly against Adrianne Palicki’s much more nuanced performance as the recovering Bobbi. Sadly, I still think Clark Gregg’s more melodramatic moments as Coulson don’t quite land right, but his lighter delivery is still flawless and gives the series a wonderful character. Lincoln was something of a non-starter for me and I remained pretty bored of Ward, I didn’t really find his character very interesting when he was a good guy, and his switch to Hydra made him no more interesting and then when [the spoiler for the second half of the season] that was the final nail in the coffin of any interesting character options.

I enjoyed this series. It’s a long way from perfect, but it is firmly settling into the entertaining category, with a few characters and performances I really look forward to. I think it can still be better than it is though, and continue to hope it will find some real magic.

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD: Season 2

agentsfoshieldI think I’m coming to terms with Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, adjusting my expectations and criticisms to factor in that this is not a Joss Whedon project. At least it’s not a present day Joss Whedon project of Firefly and Avengers level, more like one from the early seasons of Buffy. There are sparks, moments and suggestions of brilliance, but as a whole… it’s still just a bit amateur.

The thing is that we’ve got used to expecting more of television and Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD just doesn’t get there. The arcing storylines are over-worked and fail to really engage – relying on exposition and catchups to remind you constantly of how things fit together, why characters are mad at each other and what the threats are. For the purposes of those plots, the characters have to be pretty one-note and growth only ever comes in fits and starts. Combining those factors means that the base dialogue is rather clunky and the acting is often equally lacking in subtlety.

There’s a lot of plot packed into the season and by the time I’d finished it I’d pretty much lost track of where we’d started. Not least because several elements kind of loop. Trusting Ward, getting betrayed, trusting Ward, getting betrayed; seeking answers to questions, each of which only raises more questions; keeping secrets, everyone being mad about that, getting over it, keeping secrets. They all just go round and round. It can result in kind of checking out of the major plot and letting it wash over you. Which is maybe for the best, because the real high points of SHIELD are in the moments between the plot.

The cast and writers excel at the little moments, the asides, the sarcasm, the relationships. They have that Whedon ability to be actual human beings, to be happy and sad at the same time, loving and hating the same person, being brave but scared, all the seeming contradictions that actually make people real. It feels like those get drowned out when it comes to the bigger plot moments and storylines, before being switched on again for a 30sec scene over the closing credits.

I don’t know whether that’s due to inexperience on the parts of the writers and cast, or whether it’s a deliberate choice. But it makes for an uneven series. It’s the same problem some of the super-hero films have, building walls between character moments, plot moments and action moments. SHIELD is getting better I think, certainly this season was a lot more polished than the previous season, but I think it’s got a way to go and it would be nice if Joss could come along and speed it on its way.

Agents of SHIELD: Season 1

agentsfoshieldI’m torn over this series, because I so desperately wanted it to be good, and expected it to be good, that I’m struggling to find a balance between going easy on it and venting my frustrations. My expectations and hopes were high from the get-go with this series and while I knew that it would never be able to live up to the phenomenal hype, I had hoped it wouldn’t fall quite so far.

I am a big fan of the comic-inspired superhero genre that’s been ruling the box office for the past decade or so. I’ve always been a fan of genres like science fiction and fantasy which allow investigation of ideas and characters unusual circumstances, and the superhero genre is a good lens through which to tell stories about people both normal and exceptional and what those labels even mean. The series of Marvel films built around the individuals that eventually make up The Avengers has done a great job at making interesting stories and blending them with so much action and humour that they are exceptionally entertaining to watch.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m also a massive Joss Whedon fan and was utterly blown away by The Avengers, he’s a perfect match for the genre and the whole of his spectacular back catalogue has clearly been influenced by his love of exactly the things I just described. It seemed almost too good to be true that after showing what he can do with the budget and characters in a film, that he’d be able to continue playing in that sandbox with the much larger scope of television.

As it turns out, it was too good to be true, because with the exception of a couple of ideas and the occasional line of dialogue, this is not a Joss Whedon production. I don’t know what his actual involvement was, but given that he was prepping for what’s sure to be the biggest film of 2015 during the production of SHIELD it’s unlikely he had a great deal of time. And while those working on the series did a passable impression at times, the absence of Whedon’s polish, originality and flashes of pure genius were notably absent.

Sadly the whole thing felt a bit like the B-team were dropped in the deep end. There were times on the series, particularly during the first few episodes after the pilot that felt out-right amateur. The relative inexperience of most of the young cast and the showrunners left many scenes feeling like it was a rehearsal being filmed. Dialogue was clunky and flatly delivered, plots were predictable, stage directions were clumsy and it only felt a couple of steps away from actors looking for their marks and being unable to walk and talk at the same time. I absolutely adore Clark Gregg, but there were lots of times when he felt like a brilliant supporting actor floundering in a lead role. It all felt stodgy and forced, nowhere near the organic and solid style that Whedon’s work usually has.

On the plus side, the series did gradually pick up. There was a marked improvement following Captain America 2 which dramatically changed the context for Agents of SHIELD. There were still some problems with dialogue and characters, but the structure and interest which the ongoing storyline brought gave the series sufficient energy to cover over some of the gaps. I think the series was completely at the whim of the film schedules and the writers had to sort of tread water a bit until that storyline kicked in. On the other hand, it may actually have been better to have even more ‘normal’ time for the team before everything shifted. It didn’t really feel like they’d necessarily earned the strong bond that they had to rely on. I know my context is somewhat different, but I can’t say that after just 6 months I would treat my colleagues like my only family in the world. The pacing just didn’t feel quite right, both too fast and too slow.

I do still like Agents of SHIELD, after all it’s hard to be frustrated about things that you just don’t care about. I think it still hasn’t show its real potential and don’t think it really will until Whedon himself is able to spend more time on it. The bones of it are there, but it just needs him to polish it up and add more of those lines of dialogue that just blow you away. The quiet “huh” in response to bad news, the quirk of an eyebrow instead of shouting, the moments of emotion that are so well earned that you want to jump up and cheer. Agents of SHIELD had all of those somewhere in its 22 episodes, but Firefly had them every single scene.

Fingers crossed for next year.