Considering that Marvel – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. takes places mostly on a plane, it’s ironic that it took the series sixteen episodes to finally achieve lift off. It had a very slow start indeed. Had it been any other television newcomer and not such an important part in Marvel’s overall media strategy, it would likely have been culled fairly soon.
The initial brief must have been to make something very family-friendly and aimed at young teens, first and foremost. The early episodes had a somewhat bland team bouncing around the globe as part of an international organisation (S.H.I.E.L.D.), that meant to investigate and control anything and anyone superpowered. The focus was on the case-of-the-week, rather than on overarching plots. The group had some mild infighting but mostly seemed like a warm and fuzzy family. There were doubts about the motives of S.H.I.E.L.D. but there did not seem to be a lot of moral grey area within the team. Everything seemed safe and predictable. And viewers, initially enthusiastic when the series was launched with a lot of hype, were bored and started to tune out. In an age where The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones draw a massive amount of attention, in part because of their sense of danger and their unpredictability, it seems that playing it safe was not the best tactic. Maybe Marvel underestimated the percentage of nerds in their twenties and thirties who would be tuning in, demanding more of an edge.
Enter angst. As the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier crashed into the continuity of M:AOS, suddenly there was betrayal, vulnerability and a sense of danger. M:AOS‘s showrunner Jed Whedon is no stranger to angst, being the brother of Joss Whedon, Avengers director and – more significantly – Buffy and Angel creator. Joss is an angst purveyor extra-ordinaire. Whether turning the screws tighter on the cast was planned from the very beginning, or if it was a course adjustment when the viewing figures disappointed, I do not know. But it has finally made the show worth sitting down for, rather than something harmless turned on in the background while you do the dishes.
The series has had characters/actors from the movies make an appearance, Nick Fury/Samuel L. Jackson being the biggest name. Bill Paxton plays a significant role in later episodes and does it with glee. Both star in the season finale, which is full of pay-offs, witty banter and fan-pleasing moments. It was well-received, though in my opinion it got a bit silly and left me on the outside looking in. It was plot-heavy but lacked the series’ new-found sense of danger and it seemed to get sloppy with logic. For the second season, I hope the cartoony aspects won’t get in the way of the drama. Maybe I am just jonesing for the combination of snappy dialogue and angst that Buffy and Angel excelled at, but M:AOS has the potential to deliver. Though it wisely withholds redemption in its season finale, willing to go further down its new, morally grey path, it seems likely to redeem itself when it returns.