Posted May 15, 2014 by D. K. Holm
As one season comes to an end and most of the network shows wrap up their 20+ episode seasons, the majority of networks engage in an annual ritual concerning the next season, called the “up fronts,” an orgy of advertising contract negotiations sealing deals “up front” of the forthcoming season, executive boasting, and conservative serial television retrenchment, with the major television stations, both free air and cable, engaged in last minute spit-and-polish touches on prime time schedules, shocking or disappointing cancellations, and requests for new shows in various degrees of season length. Thus high expectation for fall of 2014 and its new and unseen programs is blended with the sour distaste of what became of the season that commenced in fall of 2013 with equally high expectation. When fall rolls around, TV reviewers will gather to pass judgment on the new programs based usually on only a handful of finished episodes, generally the first four.
But isn’t it better to review a program at the end of its season? Especially these days when there is less need or urgency for immediate reviews, and when couch recliners with copious free time can binge on whole seasons of episodes, 24 hours of bliss – minus the 20 minutes of the each hour committed to the advertisements, blessedly removed from DVD sets. In short, in the first of some “outbacks,” this column will survey several of the networks programs now enjoying their season finales.
Take Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – that last word an annoyingly difficult one to type, like the old M*A*S*H. The acronym originally stood for Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division when the U.N.C.L.E.-esque entity was introduced in Marvel Comics in 1965, in Strange Tales No. 135 (Aug. which really means June). For those who have not remained perpetual adolescents, Nick Fury, of the growly wisecraks and adult eye patch, was introduced as a modern but rough-hewed Bond, who when not engaged in Bondian pursuits chased super villains often with superpowers and schemes of world domination, generally because someone was mean to them when they were a kid. Fury had begun life two years earlier in 1963 as a WWII sergeant leading his team of Howling Commandos behind enemy lines, under the writing-drawing team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and so became another comic book character with two parallel life stories told in different magazines in different generations.
When the aggressive movie arm of the comic book company (whose history is too complicated to summarize here, but which can be found in Sean Howe’s book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story) began introducing its prime characters seriatim in solo movies for Disney – Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and others – the studio sought to do what the comics had been doing since the early 1960s, mixing up all the characters from different titles into one “universe.” A signature moment in each film came when Samuel L. Jackson as a modern Nick Fury appeared after the final credit and invited the lead costumed avenger to join S.H.I.E.L.D for a special mission. After several movies this turned out to be The Avengers, helmed and supervised by Joss Whedon, famous for the cult hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, film, TV show, and comic book. ABC, also owned by Disney, spun off the movie sideways by creating Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Here, S.H.I.E.L.D. now apparently stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, and the episodes of the show intersect at several points with the much-loved The Avengers of 2012 – that is if money equals love (the film made $1.5 billion dollars). The connections to the show came to be something of a straightjacket for Whedon’s brother Jed, who created the show with his screenwriter wife. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or MAoS, at first concerned itself with mopping-up duties post-Manhattan-battlefield of the war between the Avengers and … I forget. Anyway, they were aliens, and they left alien debris scattered about the globe. The show also re-introduced Phil Coulson (TV’s appealing Clark Gregg, of the sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine) as head of field operations, i.e., a glorified janitor. Coulson had died in the movie, much to the disappointment of fans, both because Coulson-Gregg was charming, and because Whedon has a habit of knocking off the best characters. In the early episodes of the 22-total for Season One, the show laboriously tried to explain his presence, and his being brought back to life (via alien technology) later proved functional to the show’s final seven-episode arc.
Coulson lives in a flying bat cave provided by S.H.I.E.L.D., hunting down, with his team,the odd mutants, aliens, and bits of serviceable extraterrestrial debris. For example, in one episode, they go to Peru in search of a helpful “hammer” in a mini homage to Indiana Jones, which was partially based on The Secret of the Incas. Coulson’s team includes as pilot and fighter Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) a black ops guy who resembles the old Fury of the original comic, and two scientists with funny accents whose unexpressed love story we are supposed to care about (played by Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge). The viewer surrogate is newcomer Skye (Chloe Bennet), an activist hacker whose original mandate was to spy on the NSA-like S.H.I.E.L.D. but who is soon caught and “turned” into another member of the team, i.e., another cop. As with most TV shows these days, there are stand alone weekly stories, melded with week-to-week overall “problem” or suspense elements. Here they include fretting over how Coulson surviveed The Avengers, and what is he going to do when he realizes what happened. There is also the “Who are Skye’s parents?” situation, which builds over the season. In one of the last scenes in the last episode, we see the blood-dripping hand of the person who seems to be her father, looking at a photograph of young Skye. Writers of the J. J. Abrams-Whedon-Rob Thomas school of television writing seem obsessed with family, ancestors, and lineage and I can’t count the number of shows that show the influence of these writers by ending an episode of a show or season with the main character looking at someone making a surprise entrance off screen and saying, “Daddy?” (this happened yet again this season in Scandal, created by a show runner who admits to worshiping at the shrine of Abrams’s Alias). Eventually, though, M’sAoS does what other programs have done, from Revenge to Justified: slipped from weekly self-contained tales to on-going, long-running mobius strips of complex narrative.
The saving grace of the Whedon approach to storytelling has always been the humor, the Brechtian lingo and wisecracking, a meta-critique of the conventions of suspense narrative. Buffy did this superbly, as did Veronica Mars by Thomas, and though Whedon had only a evanescent supervisory role in the show, one still hoped that his style would set the template. Well, feeble attempts were made, usually uttered by Coulson or Skye, but for the most but the totality of MAoS was very much like any other action TV show, with a lot of tough talk, non sequitors, posturing, evil cackling by villains, and frustrated love plots. Worse, it simply looked like a TV show, one shot, inevitably, in overbright, dusty southern California, therefore lacking even the robust natural ambiance of the shows shot in Vancouver. Frankly I grew so bored and impatient with the series that I could only get through it from week to week by fast forwarding through what looked like the boring parts, generally the routine fight sequences and the sentimental and redundant scenes between parents and children “feeling” things around each other.
Fortunately, the season finale redeemed the series – partially. It’s 40 minutes felt like a full feature film, with a series of two or three false endings. Most of the unceasing and dragged out plot complications from the previous 21 eps were either resolved or slightly tweaked to set up the next season. Coulson had an increased number of wisecracks, and – as if anybody didn’t guess – the supposedly dead Fury made a three-scene cameo, sharing some perfectly timed takes. Like most comic book-based feature films, the “climax” followed three different groups striving to accomplish (or thwart) three different interlocked tasks, including May fighting to the death with a traitor to the team, and Coulson facing off against the big villain of the series’s second half, played by Bill Paxton. One especially funny moment came when the presumed dead Paxton crawled into an Iron Man-Super Soldier creating device and then announced, “Now I’ll be unstop –.”
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. experienced a rocky, uneven first season but pulled through at the end. It features attractive and funny people with a diversity of character traits, yet while imprisoned in the narrative structure dictated by the periodic Marvel movies. Second seasons are usually better (and third seasons are better yet, before the inevitable decline), so one hopes that in Season Two there will be more better MAoS and less chaos.