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TV Review | After rough start, ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.’ sees improvement

Published: Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 11:02

By anyone’s estimation, Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” came into the fall 2013 TV season in a prime position to be a commercial and critical hit for ABC. Coming off the heels of Marvel Studios’ extremely successful blockbusters like “The Avengers” (2012) and offering a direct tie to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “S.H.I.E.L.D.” was in the unique position to take advantage of decades of source material from the comics. Combined with the return of fan-favorite character Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and creative direction from acclaimed television creator (and “Avengers” director) Joss Whedon, the show had extraordinary potential and goodwill before a single episode aired. How has that potential fared so far? Barely through half of its 22 episode season, “S.H.I.E.L.D.” has mostly been an exercise in middling quality, with only the occasional episode breaking free and living up to the series’ promise. However, recent episodes have shown that “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” may have some surprises left as the show approaches the final portion of its first season.

So far, the drama’s biggest disappointments have been its weak scripts and a relatively flat cast of characters. The show’s deliberate decision to focus on so-called normal S.H.I.E.L.D. agents instead of superheroes makes sense given TV’s budget restrictions, but it would help if these characters were actually interesting enough to care about. With the exceptions of Coulson and Skye (Chloe Bennet), the rest of the team hasn’t progressed much from the one-note characterizations of the pilot episode, and secondary plotlines fail to hit home thanks to a lack of any meaningful emotional connection with the characters. The result is a group of characters that is not particularly captivating — which is unfortunate in an ensemble show setup like this one, where one of the series’ major strengths should be watching the members of its cast play off each other.

Bland characters may have been more forgivable if they were surrounded by exciting spectacle or engaging plots, but “S.H.I.E.L.D.” hasn’t fared too well in this area either. With what one would assume is a large portion of the Marvel Universe seemingly at their disposal, the writers haven’t done much to incorporate what could be one of the show’s major assets. Numerous references are made to Marvel films like “Thor” (2011) and “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011), but most of the time they only serve as a reminder of how “S.H.I.E.L.D.” pales in comparison to the scale and adventure in those films. While it would be unfair to expect the show to delve into an expansive and CGI-heavy world like Asgard on a television budget, it could at least do better than having an aging college professor as a token Asgardian.

The final problem that has plagued “S.H.I.E.L.D.” may be more due to the standard network model of stretching out dramas for a 22 to 24 episode season: The first half of the season suffered from a sense of aimlessness in its pacing. Nearly every episode followed the “mystery of the week” plot type — which is not necessarily a problem in itself — but coupled with bland characters and generic villains, many episodes simply felt drawn-out and boring. There were vague attempts to establish an overarching narrative for the show: the shadowy Centipede Group, the unknown origins of Skye and — most importantly — how Coulson survived his death in “The Avengers.” Yet these have all suffered from a lack of proper pacing and, thus, lost any sense of mystery or momentum. Many viewers are likely curious as to how Coulson survived, but only tossing out tidbits of information over 13 episodes is possibly the least engaging way to further this plotline.

Despite these numerous flaws, “S.H.I.E.L.D.” actually reached a series highpoint with its latest episode “T.R.A.C.K.S.,” marking what seems to be a turnaround for the show. Following a strong previous episode that saw the team visit the S.H.I.E.L.D. academy, the most recent installment was an entertaining take on a typical train heist. Between taking a unique approach to the episode’s structure and dramatically raising the stakes for the team, “T.R.A.C.K.S” also set up the remainder of the season for more dynamic villains with the introduction of Deathlok (J. August Richards) and further development of still-unknown The Clairvoyant. This was the first episode of the show where every element seemed to be firing on all cylinders, proving that it has necessary ingredients to create engaging television and providing new hope that “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” can live up to its initial potential in future installments.

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