Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Agents of SHIELD: It's actually good now!?

Previously on Agents of SHIELD.

Since there's no episode of Agents of SHIELD this week, I thought now would be to catch up with my reviews. Sorry I haven't posted in a while! I've been busy launching a publishing press that prints and publicises original novels by talented fanfic authors. You should check us out! There are book excerpts on our website (young adult satire! queer romance lit! urban fantasy noir!), alongside cover art and info about why a project like this is such a good idea for people in fandom.

If you don't watch AoS, or if you (understandably) lost interest after a few episodes, then you really need to reevaluate your decision because this show has improved A LOT. I have no idea what happened between episodes 5 and 6, but if you read any of my earlier reviews, you'll know that I was very critical of the first half of the season. Now I'm wondering just what the hell was going on, because a switch flipped during episode 6 and the show has been steadily improving ever since. Here's my rundown of the season so far:
  • Episode 1: Entertaining, for a pilot episode (and I usually hate pilots).
  • Episodes 2-5: Increasingly frustrating, both in terms of general quality (dialogue, characterisation, episodic storylines, etc) and as a sci-fi/genre show. Almost no worldbuilding, character development, or emotionally compelling scenes. There is no way I would've kept watching, if not for Clark Gregg + the Marvel connection.
  • Episode 6: Suddenly?? Actual emotions are happening?? Agent Ward almost does something interesting enough for me to stop hoping he'll drop dead, and FitzSimmons are brilliant.
  • Episode 7: Super fun. Simmons and Skye get to be hilarious together. SHIELD Agent Victoria Hand is introduced, and I greatly enjoy the fact that she is much taller than Coulson. We FINALLY get two of the main things I was hoping for: a real look at SHIELD's unethical behaviour as a quasi-governmental organisation, and some details of the inner workings of SHIELD HQ.
  • Episode 8: Directed by Jonathan Frakes (!?) AKA Commander Riker from Star Trek: TNG, and director of two Star Trek movies. Real, solid links to the Marvel movie universe, played out in an interesting and reasonably unpredictable way. Ward and May hook up, to my utter astonishment. More on that later.
Which brings us to the most recent episode, "Repairs," a ghost story that finally makes good on the expectations I had for Agents of SHIELD in the first place. I'm actually quite stunned by how quickly this show transformed from being almost unwatchable (unless you're a seriously involved Marvel fan or a small child) to being smart and entertaining. And that's down to a sudden change in not just one, but multiple aspects of the show.

Team Building
Even though Joss Whedon is only distantly attached to AoS, it was definitely marketed as a Whedonverse show. As a result, people had certain expectations. Whedonverse shows have snappy dialogue and a smart balance between geeky humour and depth of emotion, but most importantly, they always focus on groups of misfits coming together to form an extraordinary team or family. On a superficial level, the first episode of Agents of SHIELD really did look like it was heading in this direction. Coulson brought together the team like Ocean's Eleven, there was an interesting mix of personality types, and everyone was just as photogenic as your average Whedon show.
However, for the next four episodes they stalled out. Either the team relationships didn't develop at all, or the characters were put in scenarios where they acted like they'd known each other for months, even when we'd seen little to no believable bonding onscreen. They were stuck in limbo between "too close" and "too distant," with few human touches no social middle-ground. With the exception of May and Coulson, most of the team interactions for the first five episodes felt oddly false, so I was surprised by the number of people I saw posting on the Tumblr tag about how much they loved the relationships in AoS. That is, until I realised that most of those fans were either a) very young, or b) not really talking about canon.

We all love found-family stories, and we're so used to reading fanfic or watching TV shows about snarkily affectionate teams that sometimes, we end up extrapolating that dynamic onto relationships that haven't yet been formed in canon. Two recent examples are Teen Wolf and The Avengers. A lot of Teen Wolf fanfic has the main cast of characters acting like a wolf pack full of affectionate, familial relationships, whereas the canonical characters are all split into antagonistic factions who only grudgingly trust each other for short periods of time. The Avengers is slightly different because in many of the comic books, they are really close as a team. But at the time of the 2012 movie, the team are all essentially strangers to each other, and are yet to move in together at Stark Tower. As a result, there was always a pretty big gap between the Avengers team I wanted, and the one that actually existed in "reality".
Obviously I have zero problem with this happening in fanfic because, you know, that's the whole point of fanfic. I just find it kind of baffling to see people reinterpreting canon to fit in with those ideas, but IDK, each to their own. The result with AoS was that until the last handful of episodes, there was a significant divide between the "real" character relationships, and the alternate versions that existed e inside many people's minds. (An imaginary show that I personally would've preferred to be watching, because it sounded way better than the one onscreen.) Luckily, after nine episodes we've finally reached that point in canon. The team now have a believably casual rapport, and they've been through enough perilous situations together that they've had a chance to bond in a realistic way.

Unpredictability

I never had high expectations of AoS being a world-class thriller or boasting the same quality of dramatic writing as, say, Battlestar Galactica or The Good Wife. Still, the first five episodes were so predictable as to be actively frustrating, and that's despite the fact that I personally enjoy this sort of combination between sci-fi and heist caper story elements. The most frustrating episode was "The Girl in the Flower Dress," which focused on a storyline so ancient and stupidly sexist that it seemed like the kind of thing most Whedonverse shows are parodying in the first place. A 30-year-old "girl" acting as a honey trap to seduce an innocent everyman into a life of crime, only for him to be shot down by the Good Guys while she escapes to be sexy and evil another day. In a general sense I'm actually quite interested to see how the Project Centipede story arc pans out, but this was not a good way to introduce it. ("The Girl in the Flower Dress" was one of the only two episodes that was both written and directed exclusively by men, BTW.)
"F.Z.Z.T." (1x06) won me over because it convinced me that they might actually kill off Simmons. Because Fitz and Simmons are the only characters with a pre-existing relationship, they were the ideal choice for the first majorly dangerous scenario of the season. When this episode aired, I remember a friend and I basically being like, "Holy shit, I can't believe this crappy show actually made me tear up." The alien virus was a Chekov's Gun that had to endanger someone by the end of the episode, but the way the story unfolded was satisfyingly unpredictable and emotionally engaging.
My favourite recent development is the May/Ward fuckbuddy relationship, which pleases me on many, many different levels. First of all there's the fact that it makes sense. Neither of them has the time (or the inclination, I suspect) for a serious romantic relationship at the moment, which was one of the reasons why I was dreading the possibility of a Skye/Ward romance. Luckily, the May/Ward thing seriously limits the likelihood of Skye/Ward EVER happening, which frees up Skye to take on a role I've been hoping for from the start: the "kid" of the team, with Coulson as her surrogate dad. I really enjoyed the scene where Skye says that May needs to get laid, and Ward is just like, "..." Sometimes, Skye can be SUCH a tween.

AoS has a surprisingly great attitude toward casual sex, particularly when you remember that the first half of the season felt like a kids' show. May and Ward have an unspoken bond because they're a pair of trained killers in a team of relatively naiive young "civilian" agents, and because they went through the same experience with the Asgardian staff in episode 8. But it's not a romantic bond, and their interactions are never filmed in a ~sexy way, unlike with Skye and her hacker boyfriend, where it made more sense. Finally, it's nice to see such a mature and in-character depiction of a older woman/younger man dynamic. Good luck finding a TV relationship like this where it isn't either played for laughs and/or cougar-related drama, or accompanied by a ton of gratuitous sex scenes.

It took me a long time to warm to Ward because TV is already riddled with good-looking, angsty white male heroes. He's just so unbearably generic. The revelation that he'd had a ~bad childhood~ was the nail in the coffin for me, because it's Hollywood's go-to excuse for the shitty behaviour of every angsty white male action hero of the past bazillion years. It got to the point where I was actively annoyed whenever he came onscreen, because it felt like he was taking up a space that could've been given to a far more interesting type of character. He seemed like a typical example of that thing where family-friendly shows create a flippant, "safe" depiction of a character who, in reality, should be complex and horrifying and not particularly likeable. Ward is a trained killer who works for a morally ambiguous organisation, outside the civilian legal system. The show was treating him like he was a repressed-but-charming jock.

Links to Marvel movie canon

Marvel movieverse stuff in AoS was always going to be an optional extra, rather than a major component of the show. I understand that it's tricky to include many details without messing with canon that's being written by someone else, not to mention the legal issues involved with including anything from the comics. Still, I was hoping that AoS would at least give us a taste of how everyday people are reacting to the superheroic and/or alien additions to their world. Too bad there was probably more of that in the actual Avengers movie than in episodes 2-5 of this show.
I doubt you'll be surprised to learn that I loved the Thor: The Dark World episode. The Asgardian cult were relatively believable (given, you know, the ridiculous subject-matter), and the actual Asgardian guy was hilarious. Not only was he the polar opposite of warrior characters like Thor and Sif, but they added this brilliant detail of him just being this... gross old sex-pest professor who creepily hits on younger women all the time. I really hope he comes back at some point. And I'll be interested to see if Ward's anger issues end up being a recurring thing, because they're definitely the most interesting thing that's happened with him so far. The scene where shirtless Ward freaked out at Skye and FitzSimmons was especially good, because you could really feel the combination of masculine rage-panic (Ward) and fear (everyone else) in the enclosed space of the lab.

In future episodes, I'm hoping to see more of the outside world, and the way normal civilians are experiencing the supernatural (or at least, pseudo-scientifically supernatural) events of the Avengers franchise. I could do with more ~superhero fans~ for example, although the villagers-with-pitchforks scenario of episode 9 was great as well.

Miscellaneous
  • This didn't really fit into any of my categories, but I SUPER LOVE Melinda May now. LOVE HER. Also, her interactions with Coulson are hilarious. He just... talks and talks. And talks. While she stands there and twitches like 0.5 of her facial muscles in long-suffering bemusement. They have such great chemistry.
  • I got WAY too into the "Did I fall asleep?"/"For a little while," exchange in Coulson's dream sequence last week. Realistically I know ths was just a bit of fan-pandering rather than a hint of a serious link to Dollhouse, but I loved it anyway. Whenever someone on TV asks, "Did I fall asleep?" I always expect the answer to be "For a little while," so it was gratifying to see it actually happen, for once.
  • Not to be a raving misandrist or anything, but I note that episodes 7-9, the best so far, were all written or co-written by women, and the upcoming 10th episode is written and directed by women. Good. Very good.
  • Actually, I'd recommend taking a look at the Wikipedia list of writers and directors on this show, it's a really interesting selection. Obviously most of them have worked on vaguely similar shows (Torchwood, X-Files, Whedonverse, etc.) but did you know episode 4 was directed by B'Elanna Torres from Star Trek: Voyager??
  • I can't tell if Skye's dobule-agent hacker status has been resolved yet. I guess maybe they're saving something for the finale?
  • Did I mention how much I loved "Repairs"? Some of the scenes in that episode were seriously creepy. I wonder if Tobias the Stalker Ghost was ending up in Svartalfheim, or what?
  • I think I already said this in one of my reviews, but I'd really appreciate a scene where we see one of the female characters fixing their hair and makeup. May and Skye both wear at least two shades of eyeshadow at all times, and Skye's hair looks incredibly high-maintenance. It would be refreshing to see a show like this acknowledge the work that goes into looking that good, instead of tacitly implying that women find it incredibly easy to look perpetually gorgeous while hacking into the Pentagon or flying a spy plane or whatever.
  • Next week's episode involves Mike Peterson (J. August Richards' character in the pilot episode) in some kind of black leather superhero jumpsuit. You're welcome.

6 comments:

  1. So, I'm one of the hundreds that reads your blog but hasn't really commented before. I actually just happened to fangirlling with a friend over Avengers and wanted to reference a few of your comments on the costuming (yeah.... that ended up being less "referencing" and more "let me just quote this entire website for you" because if you're going to be a total crit-loving geek why not go all out?) and this post popped up right as I was finishing up so absolutely perfect timing.

    I'd honestly assumed that you'd simply given up on the show as I know a lot of fans have (understandable, with the quality of certain episodes... less understandable if they're whining about "but where are all the Marvel superheroes/villains? None of these agents are from the comics and they don't even have powers! What's the point of doing an MCU show if you don't have an actual superhero on the team!?" I'm sorry, do you even understand the basic premise of this show because they've been pretty open about the whole "normal(ish) people in a wonderfully strange and scary new world" angle. Gah, I'm so sorry. That side rant was entirely unnecessary. Sometimes it just frustrates me when people don't understand how themes or budgets work). I definitely missed your reviews which offered some great criticism but still have a positive vibe to them. I don't know if it's just the people I know and the sites I visit but the only response I ever see is negative with the best of them basically being, "there's still time to kill/send off Skye, Ward, Fritz, Simmons and totally rework the team from the ground up!" Even though I am far from in love myself, it's just depresses me when people are so negative. I prefer when people actually enjoy their fandoms and want to spread their interest. You may not fully endorse it but at least I don't feel like leaving the internet afterwards.

    I'm so sorry; that was longer than I intended. I even cut back on my rant against people who dislike the show because it isn't the premise they wanted to see or who honestly seem to think that pulling a soft reset by killing off the majority of your cast and retooling the purpose/direction of the show would be a good idea. I think it must just be the English major in me that just wants to debate these types of point.

    Randomly, "The Hub" and "The Well" were swapped at the request of the network in order to allow people more time to see Thor. Now I really want to rewatch them in filming/writing order. I mean, surely that changes the characterization some. Also, I can't wait for the next two episodes with JAR. He was sooooo good in the first episode, seriously. With a weaker actor that part would have been a disaster and he just nailed it. But then I realize that he's going to be appearing as the single black guy on the team and he's not even really on the team, he's just a guest star.... in a two part special.... as a super powered individual in a show that's whole concept is following the non-powered "bystanders". Oh.... Oh, damnit.

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  2. Melinda May: THE BEST. I hope she starts doing pranks intermittently, because nobody will catch on for MONTHS.

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  3. You just spoke my mind in this post. :) I had decided to give it my usual 3 episodes chance but then it started to get ridiculous and predictable as you've mentioned (I hated the flying car btw), I only kept watching as my bf wanted to keep on with it. Glad I did now, it is getting better now that the relationships have had time to develop, and I share the relief of Ward/May getting it on!

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  4. "I was surprised by the number of people I saw posting on the Tumblr tag
    about how much they loved the relationships in AoS. That is, until I
    realised that most of those fans were either a) very young, or b) not
    really talking about canon."


    ...is it possible that maybe, just maybe, people who liked it just saw things you didn't? And caught things that you didn't?



    Just maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaybe, instead of everyone being idiots for being excited. Like, it didn't click for you until later, that's fine. But that is hardly an objective opinion on the quality of everything.

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  5. Ooh, this recap is making me want to actually watch this show again! I'm a repeating offender of dropping shows that I like and then binge watching it later... Hopefully this show continues on this good path!

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  6. The title of this post entirely sums up my reaction to SHIELD the past few weeks. I kept thinking, "wait, is this even the same show?" I even care about Ward's Tragic Manpain Backstory now, mostly because the flashback sequences gave me nightmares. *shudders* Melinda May is consistently fantastic, I would watch the show just for her, and I am totally invested in Coulson's Tahiti storyline. (And his biceps. Oh myyyy.)

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