THE BLOG

'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.': Fall's Biggest Disappointment

11/18/2013 04:53 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

If the plane on "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." went down with the loss of all souls aboard, I would not care. In fact, I would welcome it.

Unfortunately it's hard to see how any measures short of a total reboot could get this adventure drama to straighten up and fly right.

The "S.H.I.E.L.D." pilot was a competent and energetic opening gambit, and my hopes for the show were high. But perhaps that's why my Hulk rage has been inflamed by the shortcomings of the show, which thus far appears to be an infomercial for the interior of Agent Phil Coulson's increasingly claustrophobic plane. I tune in each week wanting to love it, but it comes up woefully short in all of the areas that matter.

Seven episodes in, I care not a whit for any of the characters. Shockingly for a drama with which Joss Whedon is involved (he's one of several executive producers), I don't care at all about the relationships between the characters. The stakes for the individuals, for various character pairings and for the team as a whole, don't add up to much. And thus I must conclude that, as is so often the case with J.J. Abrams dramas, Joss Whedon has only passing familiarity with what is transpiring on this show because he is off making movies.

I know that's how the industry works, I really do, but when something as lifeless as Fox's "Almost Human" (which comes from Abrams' TV factory) or "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." comes off the assembly lines of these guys, it's particularly disappointing. Their early TV work served as subversive rebukes to inoffensive corporate blandness, but these shows are prime exemplars of it.

As is the case with Agent Coulson, whose post-"Avengers" revival seems off -- even to him -- "S.H.I.E.L.D." just doesn't feel quite human. (Whedon and Abrams, both of whom are now highly paid cogs in very large entertainment industry machines, both debuted shows this fall that hinge on whether key characters are real and have souls. Make of that what you will.)

I can see the strained, obvious ways in which "S.H.I.E.L.D." tries to amp up the stakes within each story, but every character is too narrow and limited to animate the proceedings, and the stories themselves are constricted, unimaginative and predictable. "S.H.I.E.L.D." is a life model decoy of a show: It has all the parts and it moves them in the right ways, sort of. It presents a simulacrum of life, but is inorganic and mechanical. It has no blood pumping in its veins. It lacks fire, it lacks heat and that black plane rarely even makes an approach at emotional complexity.

I don't want to hear that the show doesn't have the money to do things that the movies did. Who expected a TV show, in this dollar-conscious day and age, to have those kinds of bucks? I didn't, and I actually relished the idea of a scrappy, hungry entry in the Marvel universe having to use its wits and ingenuity to come up with weekly adventures on a budget (what is any superhero tale but a story about beating the odds, after all?). And ultimately, the explosions and car chases don't matter if we're not particularly concerned about whether characters die. When it comes to "S.H.I.E.L.D.," I have more than once hoped that they would. Not just because I find several characters annoying or extraneous, but because a death might force the show to deal with the kind of challenging consequences it has gone out of its way to avoid.

I've watched dozens of adventure shows made for much, much less money because I was invested in the worlds, characters, themes and relationships on display. Spy shows, hero-driven dramas and sci-fi chronicles like "Stargate SG-1," "Strike Back," "Spartacus," "Chuck," "Burn Notice," "Covert Affairs," "The Americans," "Banshee," "Continuum," "Arrow" and heck, even "Lost Girl," have played in sandboxes that adjoin "S.H.I.E.L.D.'s" with much more success because they know what they're about. They've got a firm idea of the territories they want to explore and how their casts function best, and few things are more satisfying than watching a show play around with the ideas and dynamics to which it has laid claim.

I can't figure out what fascinates or animates "S.H.I.E.L.D.," aside from a desire not to draw the wrath of its corporate overlords. Is its prime directive to not confuse viewers who may be in comas?

Sadly, "S.H.I.E.L.D." isn't the only drama infected by the no-fun virus that's going around. "Hostages," "Almost Human," the upcoming "Intelligence" and "The Blacklist" are so glumly competent and unrelentingly serious that I half expect James Spader to sputter "This town needs an enema!" before the year is out. At least "The Blacklist" serves up some prime ham and cheese between its bland slices of competence, but so few other new shows have the loopy spark of a "Scandal" or "Sleepy Hollow." What sets those two shows apart, aside from charismatic characters and an energetic desire to stuff a whole lot of story into every episode, is the simple fact that they appear to be having fun.

Remember that? Fun? A careening sense of adventure and the exhilarating feeling that you don't know what's coming next? If it is the express intent of the broadcast networks to kill those qualities wherever they are found, for the most part, they're doing a bang-up job this fall. It's a sign of the sour state of network television that "Almost Human," a cop-buddy drama about a human and a robot has no sense of humor about the fact that it's a cop-buddy drama about a human and a robot. Although I will stipulate that any show that casts Minka Kelly as an urban cop must have a sense of humor ... of a sort.

"S.H.I.E.L.D.," which transmits all the joy of an annual tax audit, is not exactly filled with the kind of suspenseful storytelling that has prevented audiences from fleeing in droves (its ratings have steadily decreased since its debut). The show keeps asking viewers to trust it to dole out bits of information without offering any reason to trust it or any diversions to make the whole venture worthwhile (whatever little mythology there is comes off as scanty and derivative in the extreme). "S.H.I.E.L.D." is worse than Nick Fury when it comes to holding back vital information: The repeated references to Coulson's personal reboot in "Tahiti" are simply annoying at this point, as is the go-slow search for information about Skye's parents. That quest, by the way, completely defangs Rising Tide's questions about the motives, operation and secrecy of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I guess topicality is one more thing that was thrown out the black plane's window.

Why should viewers trust this show to transport them to interesting places? It has yet to appreciably deepen its characters beyond a trait or two. Ward remains cold and distrusting. May is remote and kicks ass. Coulson may not be what he seems. Fitz and Simmons are clumsy, socially awkward geniuses. Skye appears to exist on the show solely as an exposition-delivery system. Can you recall one villain? Can you remember which one is Fitz and which one is Simmons? Does it matter?

First seasons are hard, I get that. Even the adventure/sci-fi mainstay "Star Trek" had trouble launching each new TV incarnation. But the most troubled shows make an effort to give the audience a reason to stick with them despite early stumbles. I have trouble detecting that positive element anywhere in "S.H.I.E.L.D." The repeated mistakes and the show's tendency to double down on questionable choices seems like its natural state of being. What I don't get is why the show ignores what made the recent Marvel movies such giant smashes. The budgets help, but that's only part of it their formula for success.

The best recent Marvel films (and my personal top three would be "Captain America: The First Avenger" -- an underrated classic -- "Iron Man" and "The Avengers") did two things exceptionally well. They made you care about a central character or characters, and they made those characters matter to each other, and thus to the audience. If the characters didn't get what they wanted, you wanted those things for them. You cared about their goals and felt empathy when they were frustrated. My favorite scenes in "Captain America" involve Steve talking about his hopes and fears to Peggy Carter and Dr. Erskine. I don't know what most characters on "S.H.I.E.L.D." want or why they want it, nor has the show given me a single reason to care.

The fact is, any issue of Matt Fraction's "Hawkeye" is easily more inventive and more packed with memorable dialogue than the stiff patter and forced banter of "S.H.I.E.L.D." Like the show itself, "S.H.I.E.L.D.'s" dialogue needs to be both wittier and shaggier, not to mention less smug. Coulson and his team sound far too pleased with themselves much of the time -- an unfortunate consequence of Whedonian dialogue encountering an absence of moral complexity and emotional nuance.

Superficiality and a strict adherence to inoffensiveness has not turned "S.H.I.E.L.D." into the ratings smash ABC and Marvel clearly wanted. Simply put, they need to let "S.H.I.E.L.D." off its leash. They need to infuse it with the character depth and streaks of weirdness that makes Marvel's best and most lasting properties work. They need to let it be goofy and unexpected and complicated and occasionally strange.

And the powers that be need to let this show be sad once in a while, because a hero can only rise after she falls. Hard.

"Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." airs 8 p.m. ET Tuesdays on ABC. "Almost Human" airs 8 p.m. ET Mondays on Fox.

Ryan McGee and I talk "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," "Arrow," "Sleepy Hollow" and "Almost Human" on a new Talking TV podcast, which you can find here, on iTunes and below.