Screen Time: Driving the S.H.I.E.L.D. bus

By Sean Sullivan

It was inevitable that Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would have to face an existential crisis: is it a Marvel movie in television form or a Joss Whedon show — a question I raised in a previous column. Five weeks in and comments around the Internet are predictably divided, between continued excitement and rising disappointment. A moderate consensus is that the show is still figuring itself out.

S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered in September with the largest television premiere in four years with 11.9 million viewers. Since then the ratings have steadily fallen until last week’s episode. The premiere scored a 4.6 Nielsen rating for adults 18–49, which dropped to 3.3 for the second episode and then down to 2.9, 2.8 and finally to 2.6 last week. The fifth episode still raked in 7.1 million viewers so the show is not in danger yet. But something does need to change.

Five weeks is an unusually long time for a show to settle into its rhythm but it is understandable given the unusual niche S.H.I.E.L.D. falls into between the Marvel movies. The show has to introduce the audience to new characters within the Marvel Cinematic Universe while remaining as interesting as the movies, which are based around familiar characters, and the show has to balance aspects of all the other Marvel creative properties and not step on any toes. And the show will have to adapt and change based on events in upcoming movies, such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier and eventually Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The largest problem with S.H.I.E.L.D. is that it has never felt like it had much of a direction. From the first episode the show has been an episodic, superpower-of-the-week show that pits the team against the latest strange occurrence. They fly in to a situation, resolve it and fly out, literally. The formula doesn’t keep the show grounded — excuse the pun.
Since the fifth episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. aired on Oct. 22, the world has seen the release of the trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which will be released in theatres April 4, 2014. Not only does that date come just before the last handful of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes for the first season but the movie is ostensibly entirely S.H.I.E.L.D. agency focused.

The trailer appears to show a power struggle between different factions of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency, which Captain America (Chris Evans) and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) get caught up in. It is a very different S.H.I.E.L.D. from the one shown in the television show, a very different S.H.I.E.L.D. from The Avengers. After the battle of New York, S.H.I.E.L.D. has built an armada of helicarriers and is clearly becoming more aggressive and heavy handed in dealing with threats. It’s a very far cry from the team of agents flying around in an airplane every week dealing with weird phenomena and emerging superheroes or supervillains.

The trailer comes after two episodes that have felt like S.H.I.E.L.D. is beginning to discover what the show wants to be — which is something akin to Russell T. Davies’s Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood, another small team battling the supernatural with the resources of a secret society behind it and also featuring dead men brought back to life. And S.H.I.E.L.D. already resembles Whedon’s most beloved television show Firefly with its group of thieves and mercenaries struggling to survive on a lone spaceship amidst a universe controlled by a tyrannical government.

However, the first episode of Firefly brought the audience into a ready-formed group with their pre-existing relationships, with only a few new characters joining the ship’s crew. S.H.I.E.L.D. is an entirely new team, slowly building those bonds between them. But what if Marvel pulled the same trick with Agent Coulson twice by creating a common enemy to unite a group? — we aren’t counting the second episode. The Captain America: The Winter Soldier trailer seems to suggest there are different factions within S.H.I.E.L.D. What would happen if Coulson’s new team fell on one side or the other of that struggle? The looming conflict within S.H.I.E.L.D. may give the show the driving force it needs to figure out where it finally wants to go. What if Coulson’s team were on the run, hiding from a faction of their own organization? Or alternatively, what if they fell on the other side of the conflict and were tasked with missions whose ethical concerns made even them uncomfortable?

Now it only remains to be seen if the events raised in the trailer translate into increased viewers over the next couple weeks.

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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