Although the producers of “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” have said this was the plan from the beginning, the Marvel overlords – and their interwoven cinematic universe – have done the ABC series no favors by trying to accommodate the studio’s theatrical blockbusters and incorporating those events into the episodic drama.
Tuesday’s episode (and Spoiler Alert if you haven’t watched, or seen the latest “Captain America” sequel) sought to pick up where the movie subtitled “The Winter Soldier” left off. And since the movie essentially decimated the government organization known as SHIELD, that left the show to take a rather sharp turn, and the promos promising a “game-changing” episode.
Until now, “SHIELD” has primarily been constructed as a villain-of-the-week procedural with a mythological component, as Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his rather bland team of operatives go about neutralizing a different threat each week. There was also the nagging matter of why Coulson – conspicuously killed in “The Avengers” – isn’t dead, the resolution of which wasn’t particularly convincing, but once he was cast that was almost a foregone conclusion.
The problem is the series has to do a lot of business between the movies. And trying to keep working the show into that broader framework occasionally left “Agents of SHIELD” feeling like the writers were killing time between whatever second- or third-tier Marvel characters they were able to borrow. OK, so comic-book nerds might get a kick out of it, but one suspects relatively few viewers went gaga over the inclusion of Lady Sif.
To their credit, the producers have upgraded the cast with some savvy recurring additions, including Bill Paxton, Saffron Burrows and J. August Richards (although again, even having grown up reading the comics, there was some head-scratching to recall exactly who Deathlok is).
Ultimately, “Agents of SHIELD” was always just a way to try turbo-charging a sort of “Mission: Impossible” reboot with all of Marvel’s brand equity and marketing muscle. But these latest moves have taken a show that already was underperforming ratings-wise given the network and studio’s investment and seemingly made it less accessible, not more.
Tuesday’s episode did feature copious amounts of action, but the whole “Who’s with Hydra?” mystery – exposing a key member of Coulson’s team as a traitor – didn’t feel like a “game-changer” so much as an excuse to spend the rest of the season trying to hunt down Hydra operatives, albeit with a touch more intrigue.
Producing a successful TV show is challenging enough. Doing it with all the contortions “Agents of SHIELD” must face – starting with seamless integration into the widely spaced movies that anchor the Marvel universe – is the kind of Herculean feat this show hasn’t consistently exhibited the creative power to handle.
When one of the characters asked near the end, “What are we planning to do next?,” Coulson’s terse response was, “Survive.” Strategically speaking, the simplicity of that plan made as much sense as anything “Agents of SHIELD’s” latest twists could muster.