Agents of SHIELD's Tone Problem

Agents of SHIELD's Tone Problem
Season 2 of Agents of SHIELD is coming! Aren’t you excited? No? Oh.

Well, neither was I, really. Not until I heard that Hayley Atwell was in it. Lord knows the regular cast is not enough.

I never gave up on Agents of SHIELD in the sense that I stopped watching it. Not because I wasn’t disappointed with it, not because I had faith. (Faith is why I continued watching Dollhouse.) What was it, then? I think perhaps sheer stubbornness in wanting to finish what I’d started, with a modicum of terror about finding another show for our weekly telly-watching group. But I gave up hope in it improving.

I was kidding myself, to begin with, I said it was getting better. The pilot was quite promising. But what was on screen wasn’t exciting me, and wasn’t engaging me. (And yes, I am old and jaded now, in a way that I wasn’t when I watched Buffy for the first time as a teenager, but I still retain the capacity to be excited by television. 2014 has been the year of my reengagement with television: the year I marathoned Breaking Bad and The Wire, and the year I watched Orphan Black and Community, which got me enthused enough I accidentally volunteered to run a track at a con just so that people can talk about them.)

Let’s look at that early run of episodes in more detail. All along, I’d been wondering how they would manage to pull off a “ragtag group of faceless bureaucrats who control your every move”, and the spoiler was that they didn’t. But this is nothing new for Whedon shows - even as far back as Buffy the Vampire Slayer the Watcher’s Council as ultimately shown should have been providing heavy thaumaturgical support to Buffy from season 1. In Agents of SHIELD our gang has a direct line - several, it turns out - to the main man himself, but they still seem understaffed for their required tasks, with not a platoon, lab assistant, or even a relief pilot on board. And instead of doing serious worldbuilding, 0-8-4, The Asset and Eye Spy have the misfortune of all relying upon the team bumping into or chasing down an old friend (Camilla Reyes, Franklin Hall and Akela Amadour) in a foreign locale (Peru, Malta, Russia), which had the effect of shrinking the show while trying to demonstrate its global reach.

I’m talking about what happens in individual episodes here. I know their names, or at least I know them as discrete narrative chunks. This is interesting. And, in 2014, this is a problem.

Last month, I was on a panel at Worldcon discussing the nominees for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) - or rather, Hugo Award for Best Television Episode or Short Film. Our nominees wer four episodes of Doctor Who and associated paranarratavia; an episode of Orphan Black and an episode of Game of Thrones. The episode of Game of Thrones was pretty memorable as the one where the Red Wedding happens; the Doctor Who episodes are all pretty distinct (but Doctor Who is different like that, being a show uniquely suited to standalone stories). But the Orphan Black episode? Nobody really remembered what happened in that. I really like Orphan Black, I have written Orphan Black fanfiction (sort of). But fucked if I know what happens in each episode. The episode. like the issue in comics, is not a useful unit for review, at least for these newfangled arc-based shows.

Of which Agents of SHIELD is not really one. Not at heart.

It gave it a go. Undoubtedly its best episodes were the multi-episode run at end, dealing with the HYDRA plot and Ward’s betrayal. But before that they were in a bind. There was a character on the show who was just not working (Ward). And they couldn’t get rid of him, or retool him, or do anything really, because of their plan. They couldn’t even bring forward the plan, because it was tied to the release date of the movie. Meanwhile, the arc material focused predominantly on Skye, and on Coulson, and on Centipede. Unfortunately, Centipede’ was an over-obvious a globe-spanning conspiracy of evil conducting medical experiments for reasons of lols and cash; it didn’t get interesting until its status as a spin-off of Hydra was shown to us (although I will put in a good word for Mike Peterson).

Coulson’s arc was just desperate. “How did they bring Coulson back?” we asked, and we got the shocking, shocking answer “with some alien tech!” But in fairness, that was never the smart question, which was “why is Coulson back?” To which the answer is “so he can be lead in this show.” Even at the end, with us and Coulson knowing that he was brought back unethically, against his own will, and with the connivance of Nick Fury, there are no actual consequences to that. Coulson is happy to take instructions from a no-longer-official Fury. Meanwhile Skye’s plot, possibly the most interesting of the three strands, spluttered gradually, and becomes one of the main hooks for season 2.

The thing is, as I pointed out on that panel, it’s not that Orphan Black has a particularly good plot either. (It’s got another all-controlling genericorp doing unethical medical experiments, in case you are wondering.) It’s just that Orphan Black is about things. It’s about control; about the influence of our environment, and about women in their multivarious diversity. Buffy was about things (high school is hell; then later finding your place in the world and becoming an adult). Dollhouse was about things (privacy and consent). Hell, even Babylon 5 was about things (when to take a stand.)

What the fuck is Agents of SHIELD about? Nothing. It has nothing to say. No reason to exist other than to fill an hour on Tuesday evenings on ABC. It’s imitative of all this other stuff. What it perhaps wants to be is about state control and the corruption of large institutions, but it is just not possible to do this intelligently in a monster-of-the-week form, not in a world where The Wire still exists and is making all other television irrelevant.

What could a post-Wire Agents of SHIELD have looked like? Well, how about actually let’s consider SHIELD as a bureaucracy. One of the problems with SHIELD - in the films and comics too - has always been that it has no verisimilitude in its organisational structure.

In The Wire, people are in real jobs and have real lines of managerial reporting. It might be that these get bent a bit, especially if you drift away from that show into more stylised crime dramas, but you always have a sense of what normality should be.

With SHIELD we don't. We know SHIELD is big, we know Coulson’s unit is unusual but how? Coulson was introduced in Iron Man as a field agent. In Iron Man 2 he is babysitting Tony Stark until he is sent away on another field assignment, doing the initial recon on Thor’s hammer, half a continent away.

In Thor, Coulson is suddenly a manager. Sure, he’s a manager who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty, but his role there is to be in charge of the little base they’ve set up on the site of the hammer. How then, was he able to be first responder to a 451, rather than a mobile field unit?

Agents of SHIELD talks a lot about level, but they mean less than the security clearances in Paranoia. We know Coulson is important, high level - he's one of the highest ranking non-HYDRA people who survive. Maybe there are only 100 people who rank like him. Some, like Hill and Hand apear to outrank him. He is in charge of a mobile field unit with 6 people, all basically officers. We are told this is unusual, this was set up specially by Fury from him. But then we see Garrett, his peer, has more or less the same setup.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap has direct access to Fury. In Agents, Coulson (who simply isn’t allowed to contact large parts of shield because he’s dead) can’t get him on the phone. In fact, that's a refrigerator moment - what if he and Cap bump into each other at HQ?

A fuzzy organisational structure is fine if you are doing monster-of-the-week stiuff. But Agents of SHIELD is trying to be more than that. We end up with a political intrigue where is not clear what is at stake or who any of the actors are. And if you do that you need to be very careful, you have to just go for the mood.

Unfortunately the mood that Agents of SHIELD usually has (band of misfits against the world, with jokes) is the exact opposite of the mood that Agents of SHIELD needs to create. In Buffy the lack of worldbuilding was fine, and the mood worked. In Agents of SHIELD the end-of-world hijinx is seriously out of place compared to the films, and it can’t even position itself as a workplace dramedy because those require the workplace to be well-defined.

The joke of that, of course, is that at the end of season 1 that workplace no longer exists. But Coulson is going to set up a new one, creating a new SHIELD using resources that Fury has left for him. What do you reckon the odds are that he'll have an arc about finding that his mates are not necessarily the right things to be departments heads, or about it being difficult of give up day-to-day work? Nope, he's going to keep going in the field and punching people, isn't he? But at least he'll be punching people awesomely.

Agents of SHIELD had to work to someone else's plan last season. The decision to abolish SHIELD did not come out if its writers room, but from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But... At least that was a surprise. Season 2 is also going to be not setting it's own agenda, as it will be working towards the state seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron, where an expanded Avengers, backed by Tony Stark, has already taken over that space.

I would love to watch a season 2 of Agents of SHIELD that was about 2 startups scrambling for market share after a large incumbent had gone under, but I doubt it. Agents of SHIELD wouldn't be able to afford Downey Jr and Paltrow for more than a cameo. Indeed, because of that, there's every chance that Agents of SHIELD will not be allowed to do important emotional beats from it's own story. When are the Avengers going to find out that Coulson lives?

Agents of SHIELD Season 2 debuts on September 23. Abigail will be watching it on Channel 4 a few days later. She's not sure why.