Screen Time: Fall television preview, part two

In the last part of my fall television column I previewed four shows I was looking forward to this fall: The Blacklist, Sleepy Hollow, Dracula and Almost Human. This week I look at a show that should have been included last week: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Often called this fall’s most anticipated new show, the first episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. aired on Tuesday, Sept. 24. However, the pilot had originally been screened in its entirety earlier this summer during the San Diego Comic-Con.

Created by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen and set after last year’s Avengers, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a lot going for it — including an audience that has been waiting in dizzying anticipation since the series was green-lit last year. After his previous television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse, Joss’s return to television is met with high expectations. And the reviews for the show’s premiere are as full of praise as those written after Comic-Con. Nielson ratings show 12.1 million viewers tuned in to watch the premiere on Tuesday.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be a huge success for ABC, that goes without saying, but I wonder how much of the excitement is only because it is a Whedon show, or how much is because it is set in the Marvel universe and will follow parallel to the movies.

S.H.I.E.L.D. is a great show but I wasn’t left with the same excited feeling that I expected at the end of the episode. The episode was rushed and the characters a little flat, even back-from-the-dead Phil Coulson.

There are two main difficulties the pilot had to deal with: Joss, Jed and Tancharoen had to sell the story to Marvel and ABC — and their audience — and they had to quickly set up the circumstances and the characters of the show.

Joss’s television shows are known for their groups of characters and the fascinating ways they interact with each other. Joss has always been great at developing characters and building his stories off of them, rather than building the story and dropping the characters into the situation. The pilot of S.H.I.E.L.D. was sparse on character interactions, compared to other Whedon television shows. This was largely because so much had to be established in the episode to set up the rest of the season but it did mean that none of the characters shined during the episode, not even Clark Gregg’s agent Coulson. Small hints of each character’s personal problems were littered throughout the episode and there were frequent and fast-paced conversations between characters, but never enough to let us know who these characters are, not enough for us to care about them.

This leads back to the other difficulty with the episode: it had to be a Marvel show. The audience has probably seen at least one of the several Marvel films in the last few years and expects a television show about superheroes to be fast paced and action packed while also containing interesting characters. If anyone can balance all three well, it is the Whedon family. But Joss is the first to point out that a television show is a television show and a movie is a movie. There are different rules and different structures to each and different ways to approach the story. Joss said as much about the difference between writing for his television show Firefly and its sequel film Serenity. What exactly is a Marvel live-action television show and how do you write one? The only comparison on what to expect is by referring to the movies. But what if what we expect isn’t what makes great television?

This is what I’m concerned about: no show, even a Marvel show, can keep up the fast pace and action of the pilot episode for an entire season. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to slow down and become more about the characters than the fight scenes and superpowers. However, once it has, will the audience stay? Or alternatively, will it attempt to avoid the typical formula of a Whedon television show to remain closer to the Marvel films?

Sean Sullivan watches more TV than is good for him. To prove his time was well wasted, he writes a bi-weekly column looking at television and movies.

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