The idea of a S.H.I.E.L.D. series made me nervous. How could it not? The serialization of a sizable component of the Marvel Cinematic Universe could only ever be problematic. A television series nowadays survives on the ability to adjust both minutely and drastically according to viewer response each week. Movies, in contrast, are much more like monolithic, nigh immobile cruise ships. The two existing in the same narrative realm seems so star-crossed.
After watching the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on Netflix, though, I am convinced. Not that the entire series will work but rather that this season proved it can work. Here’s the quick summary of how it works: following the events of 2012’s The Avengers, we discover that Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) isn’t nearly as dead as we were lead to believe after being stabbed through the chest by Asgardian villain and Thor pseudo-brother Loki. Instead, he’s alive and well (sort of) and assembling a team.
To do what? That’s a very good question. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) more or less just gives him a giant plane to serve as a mobile base and tells him to take care of, um, things. The beginning parts of the series are, in a word, weak. The use of Gregg as Coulson and the guest star inclusion of Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill certainly help lend an air of legitimacy and familiarity to something brand new, but suspicions are otherwise immediately raised.
The way the drama is ginned up between a hacktivist group called The Rising Tide and a mysteriously overpowered fellow feels far too much like another take on procedural mysteries like Supernatural or Fringe, which isn’t a bad thing but also doesn’t inspire much interest in continuing. Luckily, you can see the immediate Joss Whedon influences.
The surrounding cast is far more intriguing than the plot. Just the fact that two people are continually referred to as one via Fitz-Simmons—two intelligence experts played by Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge—is a quirky enough bonus to keep things fun and endearing. Not only that, but the acting is commensurate to the pace, which is to say brisk and confident. It strangely makes a story about a man about to explode far less interesting than the people involved.
Coulson and Gregg, though, offer an odd contrast. Gregg’s acting is…fine. It’s not bad but I do wish it was more consistent. Sometimes it feels like he’s a powerhouse holding back for moments of refined emotional release and other it feels like he just forgot how to talk like a human being. Coulson, however, soon becomes the bonding material for the series’ general intrigue.
Don’t forget that this man was, like, dead. All the way. How can you not be curious about how that happened? Unlike Fury’s death in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we actually saw Coulson die from a direct and fatal attack, so his revival is far more surprising. Whedon, though, is masterful at planting the seed and harvesting the crop. (Both Jed and Joss at this point.)
That’s really what this first season feels like—and also feels like Whedon rarely succeeds (commercially, anyways) at television. He loves the idea of liberally sprinkling seeds in your brain, watering them, and watching them grow. Coulson’s mysterious survival, the overlap with Thor: The Dark World, and the ominous outcome of The Winter Soldier. It all folds so nicely into one another precisely because of the efforts the show takes early on to put up a fascinating lattice that crumbles so beautifully.
A problem, however, is just how much the show depends on the films. A friend complained that it felt like early episodes were just biding time until the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s a sentiment I sincerely disagree with and one that I feel is a gross misunderstanding of a narrative foundation, but it does tangentially raise a point that an understanding of the mythos laid down by the other Marvel movies is basically required. Otherwise you wouldn’t care about Coulson’s resurrection and you wouldn’t feel the oppressive and uneasy shadow of Hydra coming up over the horizon. It takes away a large part of the impact when the show kicks it into high gear.
It’s the smaller integrations with the encompassing universe that is problematic. Well, not problematic but certainly annoying. How many times can they mention Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff as the paragon of espionage? It doesn’t even count as fan service at that point. It’s just cloying. Pandering.
But the show does excel at exploring the smaller bits left by the wayside of the movies. Coulson’s love life—given up in a very Men in Black fashion—gets revisited in a compelling way. And there’s a satisfying reclamation of his death and rebirth. Even the closing bit is a great reminder of how well the show usurps assumptions and many conventions.
Each episode also ends with a tag, an end cap scene that incites further curiosity or merely provides closure. It feels very much like the films not because of the structure or the timing but because they actually achieve the same thing. It’s easy to just chop off each week’s story with a cliffhanger and let the tag just do what comes natural, but they very often come across as well engineered. The tags serve almost perfectly as a bridging epilogue and prologue to what you’ll see either immediately next or further down the road.
The seemingly high budget also can’t hurt. There is a lot of traveling around in this show, and even if there wasn’t, there was a lot of building or dressing sets to make them look like locations from all over the world. With the backing of the obviously and incredibly profitable Marvel and its further parent company Disney, it’s easy to see where the money can come from, and I’m grateful for it. The production value and ability to bring back direct characters and props from the hugely financed movies is a boon to the show.
For as good as it gets once the show finds its footing, it is a bit disappointing that it becomes ultimately predictable. Texting my friend as I watch it, I word-for-word say “I hope [redacted] doesn’t happen,” and then it happens. I even follow my concerns with the explanation that it would be too obvious to have this as a misdirect, and then it happens. It’s often that it’s never the true reason or outcome that is the reward but the further and deeper mysteries uncovered along the way. Of course, after Lost, we all know how that ends. (Poorly.)
I do, however, wholeheartedly believe that the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a winner. And from what I hear, the second season improves upon it. It’s just that it gets off to a shaky start just because of the higher aspirations for its narrative roadmap. Building a foundation is never fun when it has to happen quickly (and almost brutally on television), but the results simply have that much higher to climb because of it. Let’s hope it continues.