Season 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.
I 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.
I rather arbitrarily describe the television year for US shows as starting in September (UK shows I cover separately). By my estimates on Wikipedia there were 51 ‘serious’ new drama shows this year (my list was a bit arbitrary as I excluded stuff on smaller channels or that were imported from outside US or that I’d never heard of in the slightest), and I’ve watched 26 pilots, so I’m pretty happy with a 50% hit rate. As this is about US shows, there were a lot that haven’t or won’t make it to UK broadcasters, which in some cases is a shame but in a lot of others is no loss whatsoever.
Of the 52 pilots I identified, 25 were renewed for a second season and a further 7 haven’t been confirmed either way (many of the summer premiers are still broadcasting after all) which seems to me like a pretty good rate of success. But that’s quite heavily skewed to cable channels like HBO etc. Of 29 drama premiers on the five major networks, only 9 of them were picked up for a second season.
I watched 29 pilots (including 3 comedies) and only made it through the whole season of 7 of them. Frankly, I don’t think it was a very good year, last year I watched 23 pilots and 8 whole seasons. There was just nothing outstanding, even the ones that I did stick with, only Fargo would I really describe as great; Almost Human, Penny Dreadful and Blacklist were thoroughly entertaining and SHIELD had some highs amidst the frustrations. But frankly that’s a pretty lacklustre summary. Where are the stars, the headline grabbers, the must-talkabout shows? The only new shows that have fallen into that category this year have been British, this lot are all just a bit mediocre.
Shows I stuck with
Almost Human – a very ropey start killed this series before it realised the strength it had in it’s two central characters and actors. It was more ‘fun’ than ‘good’, many of the plots were mediocre retellings of standard tropes, but the bickering between the two cops was worth tuning in for.
The Blacklist – this show is all about James Spader, he’s wonderfully charismatic and unpredictable to watch. The ongoing story and mystery is also fairly engaging, although the ‘criminal of the week’ is generally pretty disposable.
Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD – not nearly as good as it should be. It did get better as the series went on and the story got bigger, but certainly the early episodes were extremely amateur. It could desperately do with more involvement from Joss Whedon, but the building blocks are there, so hopefully season 2 will buck up.
Fargo – it took me two attempts to get into the show, but that turned out to be a good thing, because by the time I came back to it, I could watch the whole thing in big blocks. The tone and setting and characters are all just the right level of quirky and contrast wonderfully with the bleak subject matter. Wrapping up the storyline makes for a very satisfying series, but it’s a shame we don’t get to spend more time with them.
The Night Shift – I’m about half way through this one too, mostly watched in the last couple of days. It’s far from excellent (the medicine is particularly improbable to anyone who’s watched an episode of ER let alone been in one) but the characters are interesting and the whole thing trots along at the perfect level for background watching while doing other boring tasks.
Extant – I’m about half way through this series on Amazon Instant Video and it’s passing the time. That’s pretty faint praise, but I can’t seem to get excited about it despite the interesting story and great actors that are involved.
Penny Dreadful – entertaining, engaging and disposable, does exactly what it sets out to do and doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Shows that I may watch/return to
The 100 – More teenagers. It’s was nowhere near as painful as the Tomorrow People, but I was again somewhat unenthused by the genericness of it. I may give it another couple of episodes to see if it can do anything original.
Sleepy Hollow – I watched about half this season before a recording failed and then I never quite got round to going back to it. I enjoyed each episode, but never really got fully engaged with the sprawling mythology. I may return to it in the future.
Chicago PD – just like Chicago Fire, this does exactly what it sets out to do. It’s rather by-the-numbers, but those numbers work for a reason.
Trophy Wife – I never actually reviewed it properly, because I watched it through somewhat dodgy methods, but this was actually a really charming and funny little sitcom. I’m biased because of my love of Bradley Whitford of course, but it’s a real shame that this series wasn’t better promoted and scheduled and got cancelled after its first season.
Crisis – a nice idea and solidly delivered, the fact that it’s a contained story means that its cancellation doesn’t matter so much and effectively turns it into a mini-series which I may seek out at some point.
Resurrection – the pilot set up some nice ideas and it was certainly more interesting than the French Les Revenants which has pretty much the same plot, I’ve got the series stacking up on my sky plus, but I’ve not actually had sufficient enthusiasm to watch it yet.
Rake – playing up the charm and the humour makes this a pretty easy watch, but that may have got grating after a while.
Halt and Catch Fire – I wanted to like this a lot more than I did, but maybe it will grow on me. I’ll pick it up when it comes to the UK.
Black Sails – Like Pirates of the Caribbean without the annoying Johnny Depp. I’m going to add it to my “things to watch while baking” list.
Shows that weren’t my thing
Masters of Sex – I think it’s probably a superb series, but I didn’t like it. It’s an interesting idea, but I would have found it more interesting if they’d skipped the ‘obvious’ option of having the central characters get caught up in a relationship.
Intelligence – Fine, but the chip implanted in someone’s brain was already being turned into a magical fix-all even in the first episode and I immediately felt the writers didn’t have the restraint or skill to establish or stick to any rules of how it could be used, rather than just a magic thing that powers plots and dramatic timing.
True Detective – I didn’t get on with the style and found Matthew McConaughey’s character supremely irritating. I just decided that life was too short to force myself to sit through this no matter how Good it was.
Looking – the male, gay equivalent of Girls. It was less hateful than that series, and I made it through a couple of episodes before the awkwardness of the characters just made me cringe too much.
Ironside – generic, cliché and really, really boring.
Dracula – it was bright and full of energy but it was also a mess, with characters jumping about, loads of questions and very uneven tone. The whole thing felt very cheap and C-list, but it was potentially entertaining if only as something to mock.
Legends – nice idea, but some disappointing choices undermined it. Also, I wasn’t convinced Sean Bean could pull off the complexity of the different roles.
Hostages – I didn’t like the story, I didn’t like the characters, I didn’t like the writing and I didn’t like the tone.
Tomorrow People – again, just very generic characters partnered with pretty much every superhero power in the box. No spark, no self-awareness, just built by committee.
Reign – completely unbalanced, lurching from silly frippery to pretty brutal historical issues, either one could have been fun, but combined it was just a mess.
Believe – oops, I never wrote this one up. For a show about an adorable child, this wasn’t too bad, but fundamentally it was about a precocious child with super-powers and I’m not sure I can get past that.
Silicon Valley – I didn’t even make it through the whole first episode before I had to switch it off. Stereotype characters in awkward situations, I just don’t get the attraction.
I edited this post on 8th September because I’d left Penny Dreadful off the list.
If you haven’t seen The Avengers or any of the other Marvel films – SHIELD is a secret organisation which protects the world from scary stuff. Agent Coulson leads a team of misfits investigating the weird and wonderful to see if they’re dealing with superheroes, or supervillains. If you’ve seen The Avengers… Coulson lives!
Believe it or not, I do actually attempt to be fair and open minded when I watch and review television series. Although I would never claim to be dispassionate about my loves and hates, I do at least try to approach each show and each review with a clinical analysis, working out what I liked and didn’t like, what I respected and appreciated and what I just didn’t get on with and trying to explain those feelings to you, dear reader, to allow you to conclude whether you should or shouldn’t watch the show.
I can’t do that for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
I tried. I tried to watch the pilot without succumbing to fangirl glee everytime Coulson appeared, or everytime a character uttered a line of pure Whedon dialogue. But I couldn’t. I don’t actually care whether you watch this show or not, because I love it so much that if you are not sold on it simply by watching the trailer, simply by the phrase “Coulson lives and he has his own television show” then I kind of don’t care what you think.
I adored the pilot. It was everything that Whedon does best. This is a show entirely built around what Whedon has always done – making heroes out of utterly normal people. And he does it how he’s always done it, putting together an ensemble of weird but utterly believable characters, giving them dialogue that jumps off the screen, zigging and zagging the plot in comfortably unpredictable ways and bringing it all together with ruthless efficiency to make all that completely comprehendable in just 45 minutes, without losing sight of style or humour.
If I were to try really hard I could hunt out a few faults. Agent Ward is a bit too straight laced, the speech at the end is maybe a little too topical and obvious (although that doesn’t change the fact it’s true) and the music is a little too “hoorah!”. It’s also possible that the final scene of the pilot is actually the moment the show jumps the shark. Oh and the title is a mouthful to say and even worse to type. But I don’t care.
I love this show. But I love everything Whedon does and says. I love that Clark Gregg (who I have loved since he saved the day on Sports Night and was Agent Casper on The West Wing) must be wondering when he’s going to wake up having gone from a tiny throwaway role in Iron Man to being dead, to being the biggest television star of the new season. I love that Channel 4 is airing it just 3 days after it airs in the states. I love that the first show of the new season I got to see was something with so much heart and so much humour that I feel optimistic for the rest of the schedule around it.
ABC is the family network. Sorta. They’re owned by Disney and tend to specialise in soap opera-y stuff with melodrama and cheese in abundance. They also don’t seem to want to let non-US people watch their trailers, so the quality may be variable.
What’s out Private Practice never quite managed to work as well as its older sibling Grey’s Anatomy and was gracefully retired after six seasons, Body of Proof lasted just three and hopefully its cancellation will free star Dana Delaney up for something better. Happy Endings had enough critical praise for its two seasons that it may yet get picked up by another channel.
It was a terrible year for ABC’s freshman series, of the 10 shows they brought to the upfronts last year, eight have been cancelled. That’s a pretty awful statistic and some pretty awful programmes. Comedies Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 and How to Live with Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life both had names longer than their runs, while Family Tools was, well, full of tools. Of the dramas Last Resort was a great concept badly delivered, 666 Park Avenue was just a poor concept poorly delivered. Malibu Country, Zero Hour and Red Widow didn’t last long enough for me to actually see.
What’s New Back in the Game – Terry (Maggie Lawson, Psych) is a recently divorced single mum and she moves back in with her grouchy father (James Caan, The Godfather). She ends up coach to her son’s useless little league team. There was some charm to the trailer and I smiled a couple of times, but if those were the best bits, it’s not that great.
Betrayal – a couple begin an affair, but the guy is the defence attorney on a major case while the woman’s husband is the prosecutor. The plot as shown in the trailer seems pretty tenuous, and no one seemed particularly pleasant So it should fit in perfectly alongside Revenge which I felt the same way about.
The Goldbergs – set in the 80’s The Goldberg family shout at each other, don’t connect and the baby brother films everything on a giant video recorder. Most trailers are 2 or 3 minutes long, this one was 4 and every extra second felt like a lifetime.
Killer Women – Molly Parker (Tricia Helfer, Battlestar Galactica) is a tough as whatever Texas Ranger who lets nothing, not even her clothing get in between her and justice. I hate the blurb, I hate the trailer, I hate the costumer, I hate the director and I want the cast to be doing better things.
Lucky 7 – A seven gas station employees win the lottery. They’ve all got problems that the money could solve, but I’m guessing it’s not going to be that simple. The concept is solid, but I didn’t like the trailer much, none of the characters really connected with me and I was left feeling a bit uninspired.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Agent Coulson seems to have gotten better after being killed in The Avengers, and he’s establishing a team to investigate stuff. Yes, it’s a daft name, but its JOSS freakin’ WHEDON! I couldn’t be more excited about this if I tried.
Mind Games – Clark (Steve Zahn, Treme) is an expert of human behaviour and his brother Ross (Christian Slater, yes, that Christian Slater) is a con man, but Clark is bipolar and Ross is just out of jail. They set up an agency helping people to get what they want. It’s a bit Psych, a bit Leverage, and may get a bit repetitive, but I was rather charmed by the trailer.
Mixology – 10 single people in a bar trying to find people to be with. When the phrase “from the writers of The Hangover” appeared on the screen suddenly my dislike of the trailer made sense. It’s a shame because the idea of setting the whole season in just one night and one location is quite an interesting one.
Once Upon a Time in Wonderland – Alice is in an insane asylum, finally convinced that Wonderland and the genie she fell in love with there are just a figment of her imagination. But then the Knave of Hearts and White Rabbit appear to take her back to rescue her love. It’s a spin off from Once Upon a Time although I didn’t spot the connection beyond the fairy tale reality, it’s also not got a cast with any real credits or power behind them and I was left unenthused.
Resurrection – 8 year old Jacob died. But 30 years later he seems to have returned from the dead, still 8 years old. It’s possibly the simplest description of any of the new shows, but the impact could be huge and fascinating. It’s going to have the same problem all ‘event’ programmes do which is how do you draw out the mystery without being irritating, but it’s an interesting set up.
Super Fun Night – Kimmie (Rebel Wilson, Bridesmaids) always stays in her with her two friends on Friday night, but she’s invited out by a colleague to a club and hilarity ensues. Except it doesn’t. I guess if you like Bridesmaids this might work for you, but I hated the film, so hated this.
Trophy Wife – a reformed party girl marries a father of three and has to deal with his kids and ex-wives. I was watching this with a resigned sense of horror that this is the kind of thing that gets made, when at around the 20 second mark I realised that Bradley Whitford was in it. I don’t care how much you need to pay the mortgage, have some self respect man, you were Josh Lyman!
Links: ABC doesn’t let non-US people see its trailers, don’t know whether that’s because it hates us or because it’s embarrassed. The press release and schedule summary are at the Futon Critic.
Considering the amount I write about television shows, I read relatively little on the subject. I follow plenty of blogs scanning through dozens, if not hundreds of news stories and interviews via the marvellous productivity aid of RSS, but the number of books I’ve actually read can be counted on the fingers of one hand and is entirely limited to books dedicated to specific shows.
The Revolution was Televised had come up in passing from several television pundits I respect, most notably Maureen Ryan, currently of Huffington Post, who always adds depth not just to reviews of individual shows and episodes, but of the television landscape as a whole. I popped it on a Christmas list and had finished it by 3rd Jan.
The concept of the book is that there was a revolution in the way television was produced starting in the late 90s and those changes can be tracked back to a dozen key shows, that were not necessarily ratings hits (or even critical hits, although most of them are), but marked a step change in the way that television shows are created, run, marketed and watched . Alan Sepinwall takes us through each of these shows telling their stories and explaining their importance.
Your enjoyment and empathy with the book is going to be somewhat dependent on how many of those shows you’ve seen and what you thought of them. But, I was actually surprised at how engaged I was even in chapters on shows I’d never seen a single episode of. Out of the dozen shows, I would consider myself a fan of about half of them (Deadwood, Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, and Mad Men), five others I’ve seen a few episodes or couple of seasons of and have some respect for even if they weren’t to my taste (The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Lost, 24) and two I’ve never seen at all (Oz, Breaking Bad). But Sepinwall does a great job introducing each show and making you see what was groundbreaking and even magical about each show whether you were already on his side or not.
The dozen chapters telling the story of the shows are built up from interviews with a range of people involved with each show – the creators, producers, network executives that bought them, even the people who didn’t support them at the time. The comments are very open and honest, pride in successes, acceptance of mistakes and Sepinwall weaves them all together to form a detailed picture of the world of television production. Throughout the book there are also plenty of references to both older shows that lay the foundations and the newer ones which built upon them, charting the whole thing in a giant network of giants’ shoulders. Thanks to it going all the way up to the Summer of 2012 and talking about shows that are still on the air, it feels extremely current, although I guess the flip side of that is that it may not age so well.
My only frustration with the book was that as it went on, it felt like it lost sight of its premise a little. Each chapter focussed more and more on the show itself and less on what was revolutionary. The reader is left to draw a lot of conclusions themselves, which is slightly frustrating. Also, for a book which is so current, there was surprisingly little said about how television distribution is changing both with the internet (pirated or otherwise) and even the rise of dvd sales over the period. Although it’s touched on a little in the section on Lost, there’s also very little coverage of the other effects the internet drives including marketing and fandom. Mind you, those subjects could easily fill whole books just by themselves.
This is an absolutely brilliant book for anyone interested in how television really works, not just gushing about shows that people love, but about how the industry develops and innovators can succeed in a massively competitive and generally risk averse environment. Alan Sepinwall is clearly a television fan, but he is not blind to the fact that it’s a commercial endeavour – he doesn’t vilify the networks who cancel low rated series and he doesn’t sanctify show runners whose poor working practices overwhelm their brilliant creative ideas.
I found this book fascinating, entertaining and completely un-put-downable. Sepinwall has reminded me of just what a complex and fascinating medium television can be. He’s given me a fresh look at shows that I adore, brought to my attention shows I knew nothing about, and encouraged me to give second chances to ones that I’ve struggled with in the past. If you’ve read any of the dribble I’ve written, go read this and see what a professional can do.
The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall (2010) is available in paperback from Amazon. It amuses me that if you search amazon for the book title you get a number of suggestions including The Revolution Wasn’t Televised (1997), The Revolution Will Not be Televised (2008), The Revolution Will be Televised (2010), Will the Revolution Be Televised (2012) – so it would seem the jury is still out on the question.
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