After a so-so season 1, here’s what season 2 needs to succeed.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was picked up for a second season several weeks ago, surprising absolutely nobody save a surprisingly large population of The Internet that evidently thought ABC and Disney were likely to not renew a decently-performing weekly advertisement for several of their largest theatrical franchises because it took a while for it to figure out what to do with Chloe Bennett.
But renewed it has been, and with renewal must now come speculation about what is to come and pontification as to what should come. Because that’s how it works. This is how your television-journalism sausage gets made, people. So, then: What does Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. need to do to get stronger and stay there, in the opinion of some guy on The Internet who got paid to watch the whole of season 1?
JUSTIFY ITS OWN EXISTENCE
A problem with the first stretch of season 1 was that there wasn’t an immediately available answer to the question of why we were following these specific agents around week to week while always being aware that they were only a minor part of a much bigger and frankly much more interesting agency. Eventually they settled into a specialty (fighting CENTIPEDE and Cybertek, not yet known to be HYDRA offshoots) and were revealed to have had a secret purpose (prefab support-structure in case Coulson’s resurrection went south,) but having a basic setup is important.
Fortunately, it seems like that’s what they’ll now have heading into season 2: Captain America: The Winter Soldier blew up S.H.I.E.L.D.-proper, and now Our Heroes have been charged by Nick Fury to rebuild things from scratch under the radar with Coulson as the new director.
PICK A TONE
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is all about mixing genres and styles. Thor stars in fantasy films, Captain America just did a political thriller, Iron Man mostly makes action-comedies, The Hulk does monster movies. But when they all got together for The Avengers they found a unifying teamwork/buddy tone that brought them all together.
Agents occasionally had trouble creating its own version of that all-important unity: its serious moments were serious, funny bits were funny, weirdness was appropriately weird… but it didn’t always “gel” right. Audiences have accepted that the MCU is a hodgepodge of genres, but everybody needs to get on the same wavelength or “feel” for an individual story to flow properly.
Surprises are great. Mysteries are fun. Pulling the rug out from under an audience can be a great way to keep things fresh and interesting. But if you’re going to trick people, a good rule of thumb is to make sure that whatever they’re actually getting is at least theoretically as good or better as what they thought they were getting.
The first stretch of Agents’ first season illustrates a handy set of “don’ts” for this problem: Marvel, ABC and Disney all openly encouraged fans to speculate on whether or not some arcane bit of Marvel Comics obscura would be used to explain how Agent Coulson had come back from the dead… only to have the answer be not exactly as exciting as anything folks were dreaming up. It wasn’t a bad answer, and it led into bigger more interesting mythos-building for the series, but expectations had been mismanaged.
See also: Advertising “tie-ins” to the bigger Marvel movies that turn out to be only passing mentions. “The Well” is actually one of season 1’s best episodes, but all anybody remembers is that the over-promoted tie-in to Thor: The Dark World turned out to be the agents showing up for a couple of minutes to pick at debris left over from the film’s finale. Here’s a thought: If the “Marvel stuff” in a given episode is going to be more “Huh. I recognize that reference. than “Holy crap!!!,” make it a surprise – trust me, Marvel: You’re not going to get a major ratings boost for “Tune in tonight for QUASAR!” Everyone who’d be excited about Quasar is already watching your show.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
TV shows tend to look cheap in their first season. Don’t believe me? Find a first-season episode of Law & Order: SVU or NCIS and look how half-formed the sets, costumes and makeups all look. Agents has the added problem of its characters having to supposedly turn up all over the world without actually having the budget to go all over the world. And while the producers and location managers struggled mightily in season one… too much of the series still seemed to take place in the same Southern California industrial park.
A lot of this is a problem of budget, but other shows have done more with less. Lighting and shooting for scale are something of a lost art in TV production these days, but not completely – look how much mileage CSI: Miami got out of orange color-keying. the agents don’t necessarily need to go bopping off to Mars or hanging out with Namor in Atlantis, but it’d be an improvement if Evil Villain HQ’s supposedly on two different sides of the planet didn’t appear to have been built as part of the same Valley strip-mall.
DO MORE MARVEL STUFF
Just to be clear: I think the “Where are all the cameos!!!!????” backlash on this series is way overblown. Remember when Smallville had been on long enough that the DC back-catalogue had become “cool” again and people like Hawkman and Stargirl started showing up? Yeah. The show didn’t get any better – it was still Smallville, now with elaborate cosplay. I enjoy checking obscure comic book characters off my Stuff I Never Thought I’d See In Live Action list as much as anyone, but the bad episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would not have been suddenly made “good” just by dropping Night-Thrasher or ROM the Spaceknight into the middle of them.
But… there are a lot of good assets in the Marvel canon, and this series might as well make use of them. Forget the cameos, there’s more than enough super-technology and evil organizations floating around the margins of the universe to not have to build a whole episode around the chilling villainy of “Ghost Person with Wrench.”
PUT AT LEAST ONE RUNNING MYSTERY COMPLETELY TO BED
Agent Coulson was Frankenstein’d back to life by chemicals extracted from what is probably an alien and the experience may have given his mind access to higher functions that he may not be fully in control of and may not be entirely beneficial. Agent Skye is actually the child of a pair of unregistered nonhuman super-beings described as “monsters.” These two mystery arcs are probably connected and have been running concurrently since the first episode in one way or another.
They need to bring at least one of these to some kind of conclusion, so the show can have something resembling a solid basis. That’s not to say either of them have to stop developing as characters, but one or both of them need to turn a corner and start a new arc. Mysteries within mysteries are all well and good, but if you stretch it out too long people get annoyed.
Another thing that changes next year is that Agents will not be the only Marvel series running on ABC. Agent Carter, a period drama set in the post-WWII era involving Captain America: The First Avenger’s Peggy Carter and the birth of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, will be joining it in a yet-to-be-announced capacity, though it’s widely believed that Carter will be run as a special event instead of reruns when Agents takes its mid-season break.
What will that be like? What do we want to see out of Agent Carter? Next week, we’ll look into that…