Shedding Light On AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D: Why It's Losing The Battle

By Bill Sweeney
additional reporting by Notsocrazy
This show is so "meh", I'm using an image from the Captain America sequel.

ABC's Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D. is loosing viewers almost as fast as the Titanic lost passengers. Personally, I don't blame them for jumping ship, I haven't been this let down by a show since "Al Capone's Vault".  The LATimes recently ran a piece by Ryan Faughnder about just how badly things have gotten for the show in terms of ratings:
"Counting only people who watch on the day of first airing, "S.H.I.E.L.D." has lost about 40% of its total audience and half of its viewers ages 18 to 49, the demographic most cherished by advertisers."

"The Nov. 5 episode of "S.H.I.E.L.D." generated a rating of 3.7 among viewers ages 18 to 49 in the live-plus-three-days category, but that still represents a 42% slide from the premiere."
But wait! A marginal tie to to the Thor sequel swooped in and gave the show an uptick that had Motly Fool's Steve Symington wondering if this was a crossover success:
"Thanks largely to interest in the tie-in with its big screen counterpart, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. successfully broke its seven-week ratings downtrend by garnering 6.89 million live viewers and a 2.4 rating in the overall 18-49 demographic. And while the show only managed to increase its total viewership by 1% over last week, it gained a much more impressive 5% in the key adult 18-49 demographic."
After seeing that episode myself, I don't know that returning fans were likely to be impressed enough to have faith in such crossovers. The fact is, a lot of people are wondering where are all the fan-geeks are going, as if you can throw sub-par product at them and they'll just eat it up. When even the nerdiest of geeklings of Marvel fandom are fleeing a perceived "easy win" like this, it's time to take a real hard look.

If you want a clearer picture of why fans have left the show, the reasons are plentiful, I'll tell you as many as I can from the view point of fan of not only comics but TV as well. A in-depth fan-alysis, if you will...

This Is Not The Show They Were Looking For

First, most fans recognize the fact that we aren’t going to get those Big Hero names jumping on the set of a smaller television series ...except Samuel L. Jackson who is not above doing a Capital One card commercial as well. It's not about us not seeing Iron Man or whomever, popping in for a tune up (and let's be honest - they could include the Hulk smashing in one episode, no one but the FX guys to pay for that). Young kids maybe upset by not seeing The Big Heroes but just about anyone above ten years old knows the deal - it's just not feasible. We really do get this.

"I didn't bring you back from the dead so you could start a daycare."
So, if it's not about that, than what is it?

What realistic fans thought they were getting was a show about S.H.I.E.L.D., the trained bad-ass NSA-On-Steroids spies of the Marvel Universe, a show with names we'd know, missions we remembered... but its only about ...these other Agents.

We thought we'd get professionals doing their jobs, working as a solid team, not confused amateurs asking questions that only serve as badly cloaked exposition. We thought we'd get cool spy missions. We thought we'd get a clever yet subtle mystery of Coulson's resurrection.We thought we'd get a clear definition of this show's Big Bad. We hoped to get a show that would have dug around in the Marvel Tresure Chest for some interesting trinkets.

Because the show chose to go with "newbie" agents, who are green and theoretically easier to relate to, you loose a sense of professionalism and maturity. Coulson is forced to be a Dad/Coach figure too often and he actually seems annoyed by it sometimes.

Maureen Ryan, in wrapping up her dead-on dissection of the show, describes what the show needs but it's actually what many fans were hopeful for at the start:

"They need to infuse it with the character depth and streaks of weirdness that makes Marvel's best and most lasting properties work. They need to let it be goofy and unexpected and complicated and occasionally strange."

Instead, we get a too-glossy, under-considered collection of characters in "adventures" that don't really add up to much. Look, while I may understand that a show has to be given a chance to find it's sea legs, historically many shows don't really find their groove until season two (or so), but most other people don't know this and they don't want to wait around. It's a classic symptom of why some good shows fail after a big premiere, they flounder in the first season just a bit and suddenly hemorrhage viewership.

"So, what catalog is this for again?"
This Show Doesn't Know What It Is Because It's Hands Are Tied

One of the problems for AOS, is that the show wants to serve too many masters: 8o'clock families, new viewers, new Marvel fans of the movies, and the long time Comic Book Fans. It can't be what it should be allowed to be and by trying to hit all those aspects it slips in others. Which is contradictory to Marvel's usual plan.

One of Marvel's proven methods of success with it's movies has been to say, screw it, let's do it exactly as the comic (as much as humanly possible). They make sure that the most key and unique aspects of a property are protected and mined for good character depth.

And that's a problem here.

This show is the first property in this "shared universe" that has been created outside of comics source material. There is no SHIELD: Team Coulson comic book. Hell, there was no Coulson in comics until the movies used him a second time. There is no history to pull from here.

In fairness, comic story-lines about Shield are tough to sift through and almost exclusively revolve around Nick Fury, so the material can be limiting. We'd all love for the writers to pull all kinds of nuggets from the comics - but they can't do that because heaven forbid someone wants to use one of those concepts in a movie one day.

That is just one of many ways the shows hands are tied.

If the show is mostly a reaction to the events of the Grand Shared Marvel Movie Universe, it can't really plant itself in the grand movie mythology by introducing preexisting Marvel lore, things that they may or may not use in the movies. It's a limited sharing. That means the show has to invent wholly new concepts and keep them tame because the show can never step on the toes of the films (hello Rising Tide, a hacker group, kind-sorta-maybe, that SHIELD somehow can't squash on their own).
"lol, I don't even know what I'm doing."

So while we see things that "crossover" from the movies, they have to be fringe or broad concepts. We don't get Iron Man, we get the strength enhancing Extremis. We don't get Thor, we get an nonthreatening Asgardian retiree living as a collage professor and some totally random people hunting down a Strength Enhancing Relic. We can't have mutants (because all those X-Men rights are held FOX), so we end up with some pretty vague "Gifted" status of people who were born with abilities... I think. We knew all this would be the case, but it ends up feeling thin and peripheral.

In order to make the show work outside of the movies, yet within all these parameters, they also have to forgo much of what is special about Shield, going so far as to put Coulson and his team on a giant plane forever burning fuel, miles away from HQ. The show has to put the "team" in a nebulous functionality position where they have no regular interaction with SHIELD command, they call their own shots/missions and can break the rules when Coulson says it's okay.

Sometimes The Tone Is So Comic-Booky, Even Marvel Wouldn't Publish It

If you're an avid comic reader, I want you to imagine you are in a comic shop on a Wednesday, and this exact show exists as a comic in the real world, and you spot it on the shelf. You pick it up and skim it like you would any book. Would you spend $3 on it? That's about the price of an average Marvel comic these days. Chances are you wouldn't have to. It probably wouldn't have made it past pitch phase without some deep changes. Characters would have had to have been given personal motivations and resonant back stories, for instance.

I digress, back to tone. There's a duality to a show's (or film's) overall tone. The visual and the performed story. They always have there own merits, strengths and weaknesses, but it is the way they merge in display before you that means all the difference.

The glassy slickness of the pilot quickly washed off, leaving behind a dulled coating and now the show doesn't feel real in the slightest. Not only does it feel plastic in a very CW/WB kind of way, the action adventure elements feel fresh from the 1980's. It's like A-team without the edge. It is a Saturday Morning Cartoon without the winky-cleverness. Sometimes it's like something straight out of the Action Pack syndicated shows - with a better budget.

The playfulness of the show has lost it's aim as well. If the pilot was aimed at being cool and snappy, the show now seems aimed harder at being fun and chatty. It often feels as fake as its claustrophobic sets and is devoid of any believable gravitas. Even in the shows heaviest moments, when Coulson is reflective about his death and Resurrection-By-Tahiti-Vacation, it's usually feels rushed and undercut by the forced, clipped nature of the scene and the brief time allotted for it.

I'm not expecting the next Breaking Bad here, believe me, but I should care more.

"You did, you started a daycare didn't you?"
Marvel and team Whedon added up nicely at the start, and I refuse to think it's really because Joss isn't there being super hands on - theses are talented, skilled, smart people running the day to day on this. The show is suffering from early choices about overall tone and feel, that don't play as well as they had hoped with the actual core audience. I don't think they meant to, but in the end what they've created feels like a kids show and not like a teens/young adults show.

I'm sure they wrestled with tone behind the scenes, we all know there are a lot of cooks in this kitchen, but is this show were a soup I think all we'd have is a very okay broth. They're attempting a light, PG rated show and wondering why they are diving away 18-34 year olds. Look, kids will ALWAYS like stuff that feels like it's for an older viewer, but adults can only handle so much kid-fluff.  The show has to grow up a little and it's okay if it does.

People Kinda Like Coulson, Eh...The Team... Not So Much
Firstly, Agent Coulson is a rather shadowy dude and I don't even mean the Tahiti stuff - yet. I mean him. This may be a ensemble show, but he's the lead and we know nothing about him in general? Is he married? Kids? I wonder about him. I bet he has a kooky mom.  Yeah. A whole episode about his life. That would be different. Break the mold guys, don't get stuck it this, keeping him at a distance thing. Where's he from? Where does he go when he's not on that plane? Or maybe he never leaves, maybe his job is his life, no spouse, no family, no love interest - fine. Just tell us that, make it a point. Give the guy something besides the missions or Tahiti to talk about.

How about we talk about Tahiti. Yes, by episode eight I expected more from this story-line.

I feel like we just get beat over the head with a big clunk of the same idea reworded 12 different ways: He Died He Came Back And He's Murky About That. Ok, we get it. You can tease gently forever, but if you're going work it hard like they are, it's gotta get results.

It's only mystery for mysteries sake - especially if it never really goes anywhere. And sorry, but dreams don't count as progress.

The real mystery is why his superiors and co-workers simultaneously trust/don't trust his judgement on this team but let him run it anyway. Phil Coulson's superiors have every right to be nervous, he's been weird since he got back as they all mention and his team doesn't even make sense. The collection of "agents" has one hacker who keeps has to wear a tracking device to keep her out of trouble, two science will-they-or-won't-they flirty love birds, a tall action guy until recently didn't seem to have emotions, and a badass agent who may not want to be there. That line up would make me shut down the whole thing. It's stretching believability in a way that makes the rest of the agency seems dolt-ish.

My Tahiti Theory is Coulson's can't be an Life Model Decoy - something "more" definitely happened to him in Tahiti, but I highly doubt the show runners here would ever have him be anything less than human. People would feel like they were cheated. If he does turn out to be a LMD it will only be because the real Coulson "returns" after he was hooked up to machines in a vat chamber under Nick Fury's lone eye of purview).

Good News, The Last Two Episodes Were Better Than Previous

Ep.7 - The Hub

PROs- The best thing about this ep is that we're introduced to The Hub, Shield's Something-Something Center, and it's special director Agent Red Streaks aka Victoria Hand giving us a peek at the larger operation.
"Red extensions, at you're age? You're a rebel."
CONs- Cold open teaser is that Coulson's been taken capture (on purpose?) - but the team rescues him. This is actually a story I want to see - Coulson on assignment? And we skip it so we get a 40 minute lesson on the Shield Hierarchy of Authorized Clearance Levels. Yes, There's this whole thing where science boy goes on a field mission with Agent Hunky. Dilthium Converter repair or something? We get a peek the bigger SHIELD operation but its so fleeting you don't get time to care.

Ep.8 - The Well (the "tie-in" episode to the THOR: The Dark World)

PROs- . The show improves a bit here - but only in small strides and mostly as it relates to pacing and execution. It was nice that by episode 8 something happened to Agent Hunky Ward as we got a murky peek into a single facet of his life/backstory. Unclear to me, is which kid he is during the flashback. Most presume he's the kid peeking into the well, not the kid in the well. What would be interesting is if he was the mean bully kid who came over and said not to throw the rope down. What if he's been trying to "amend" his days as a dark and mean kid? 

CONs- There comes a conversation that shows most members of the Coulson Team dismissing Asgardians as not being gods but aliens. So when they are not on Earth they have this big cosplay type renaissance fest where they call each other gods? Stupid. It's supposed to be how scientists would be dismissive of anything purported to be God-like, I get it but it comes off snide and arragontly immature of these "smart"characters to be such a bunch of Know-It-All's. Most scientist would probably still be in awe and would be hesitant to wave away the folklore of a being who is at the very least from another dimension/realm. Another con in in this episode is the dream Coulson has at the end. Ultimately pointless. We gleam nothing from it and it was simply fluff that exists only fulfill a promise to "have something cool at the end each week" and to keep the "Tahiti" storyline in play, which is unnecessary... because we know it's in play. It's not like we would have forgotten by next week.
"I left Asgard for this? To work in education?"

Best twist of the show so far is certainly Ward and May hooking up. Didn't see that coming.

More Good News - Turns Out There Was A Plan

There was another big issue I was having, that, outside of Coulson, it's hard to care about this team because we weren't getting to know them fast enough. I had a whole long thing for this section about each character, I had spreadsheets, power point, a phone a friend, ugh, so much. I just deleted it all.

See, as it turns out, this was all part of the plan. Jed Whedon told TVGuide.com wile discussing tonight's episode focusing on (and about dang time), Melinda May and her past:
 "Now that we've gotten the first episodes under our belt and we've established the characters, we have a little bit more freedom to tell singular stories about the characters and dive into story lines like that, which makes us excited about the back half of the season."
This is good to hear. There is great stuff in that article that gives me hope. But it was a risky move. The absence of these back stories is what, I think, partially allowed viewers to wander away from the show. Viewers were not making the type of bonds they should have. These are the bonds that help a new show get through the first season. These bonds will help them overlook other aspects they don't care for. Some viewers will stay with a character they like, even if they don't really like the show. People are weird like that. We're suckers for personality and charm and sad-sack hard luck stories. We really didn't get much.  I hope it's not too late and I hope this remaining block of episodes are good enough to generate some real buzz.

Conclusion & How To Fix It

Nevr let it be said I don't offer options. I lot of people on the web will write something like this but not suggest how to actually fix anything. At least I bring Ideas to the table.

Hold on to something, this is gonna hurt.

Retool the whole series during season two. Adjust the tone and put it on an hour later. Move a little closer to the buracracy of Shield. Stop fearing the Marvel Mythology.

Ditch the plane, move base of operations to The Hub, maybe the bosses start looking into this team and pulling people in to ask about Coulson? An investigation into the teams activities raises too many questions him. Drop LMD hints and references. Wrap up the Rising Tide stuff (if not already done) - it was all a cover for the Yakuza and Hydra! Coulson loses his team and has to start over, some die, some leave, it's another huge thing for him, he goes back to Tahiti for personal answers in finale and he gets them!

Only Coulson and May come back for S.H.E.I.L.D. Team Coulson 3.0 - The New Crew Adventures 
Which ties a little closer to SHIELD cannon by starting a full blown LMD, we-don't-know-who's-a-copy, story line from the older comics.

It ain't much but it's a start. 

That's it. That's all I got. I've said enough. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am in the comments below.

"Anybody else exhausted after reading all that?"


  1. Good article Bill, I watched the show because of all the hype over it at San Diego Comic Con. I agree totally with your assessment of the show. It lost me after the first episode.

    1. Ultimately it feels to me like if they had just gone for being "Cool Spy Show" more than "Slick Comic Book on TV", other aspects would have fallen in place and it would have resonated better.