Newly minted ABC president Channing Dungey will be tempted to not renew the low-rated series “Marvel’s Agent Carter.” But letting the show die would be a serious mistake, for the network and for the bigger Disney-ABC conglomerate.
Keeping “Agent Carter” — perhaps just for the Watch ABC app or ABC.com — would show that Dungey, who has said that she is deeply committed to diversity, truly does care about a program that showcases a female hero and has two female showrunners (executive producers Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas).
That’s a laudable reason, but there’s a bigger picture to consider as well. These days, entertainment properties have to be viewed not just through the lens of their ratings (admittedly weak for “Agent Carter”). They have to be evaluated within the context of the overall value they bring to any entertainment colossus, and what “Agent Carter” adds to Disney-ABC is simply too valuable to give up.
Even if it doesn’t stay in the ABC family, the company should do everything in its power to make sure it lives on elsewhere, in part because it brings something different to the company’s superhero portfolio.
Marvel has released a string of straight-ahead, big-budget superhero movies and has plenty more on the way, but it has also made space for loopier fare like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and (literally and figuratively) small offerings like “Ant-Man.” DC is readying the very serious-looking “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” but in the TV arena, the company offers the warm-hearted CW series “The Flash” and CBS’ even more optimistic “Supergirl.” Comic-book fans and pop-culture consumers enjoy all kinds of tones, worlds and characters, which is why it’s wise for these media behemoths to offer a varied array of settings and themes.
Unlike most superhero and superhero-adjacent properties, “Agent Carter” is light, semi-comedic and has a jaunty tone. And there’s no doubt that the show works like gangbusters as presently constituted. “Carter” made a charming impression when it arrived in January 2015, and the show and its cast only improved on their admirable track record in the delightful second season, which ends Tuesday. There’s nothing to fix here, let alone improve — aside from the overnight ratings.
But the show’s low viewership is most likely the result of the questionable scheduling decisions made by Dungey’s predecessor, Paul Lee. “Agent Carter” took over the slot of “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” — a much-improved show that has its own ratings woes — and Peggy Carter’s drama has received lackluster promotion, especially this year. The botched rollout of Season 2 included a changed premiere date and episodes that were difficult to access in advance on Marvel’s dreadful media site. Capping the mishandling is the fact that the full first season was only made available on ABC.com days before Season 2 began, which frustrated viewers who might have wanted to jump on board in advance.
The good news is, we’re past the point where ratings alone are the main determining factor regarding a show’s cancellation or renewal chances. Marvel has sunk millions of dollars into the 18 hours of “Agent Carter” it has already made, and it should build on that investment with a Season 3.
Fans of super-heroic storytelling already flock to Netflix, which has released Marvel’s “Jessica Jones” and “Daredevil.” Adding “Agent Carter” would give the streaming giant a family-friendly Marvel drama, which it now lacks. “Jessica Jones” and “Daredevil” have their adherents, for good reason, but there’s an optimism to “Carter” that sets it apart from Marvel’s darker Netflix fare.
It’s also worth noting that “Agent Carter’s” status as a period piece — which may have harmed it on broadcast — could be a real draw for Netflix viewers (a reminder that “Downton Abbey” grew into a huge hit partly because its first season was one of Netflix’s hottest offerings at the time).
Gender is an important consideration for Marvel as well. It shouldn’t keep the show on the air simply because it has a female lead, but because Peggy Carter is a wonderfully nuanced and complex female character, one who’s imbued with exceptional charisma and charm by star Hayley Atwell. Having just one major female lead in the Marvel TV universe — Jessica Jones — is not enough, and settling for that state of affairs smacks of tokenism. That is not the route a company that’s been hammered for its lack of female representation wants to take.
Marvel’s lag in this arena is especially apparent in the wake of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which is, in large part, the story of a well-conceived female character coming into her own. Peggy Carter is not unlike Rey — they’re both scrappy, resourceful, thoughtful women who rely more on their wits and bravery than on any superpowers. You’d think the success of “The Force Awakens” — which, like the second season of “Agent Carter,” gave a prominent role to a black actor — would serve as proof of the hunger for the kinds of characters that have been underrepresented in the past.
When it comes to keeping the show going, ABC and Netflix aren’t the only options, of course. Perhaps Marvel could copy what CBS is doing with “Star Trek” by making “Agent Carter” an attractive part of a subscription service. Consumers could pay a monthly subscription to access parts of the company’s comics library and some of its movies and TV shows — as well as premium exclusives like a third season of “Agent Carter.” I’d certainly fork over a monthly fee to re-read Marvel classics and see what Peggy and Jarvis (the fantastic James D’Arcy) get up to next. Yes, there are practical considerations to be dealt with here: Atwell has signed on as the lead of a new ABC drama. But there’s no reason she couldn’t head to work on a new round of Peggy Carter adventures once that show wrapped.
A third “Agent Carter” season could help solidify Marvel’s standing not just with female fans, but with everyone who appreciates excellent and adventurous storytelling. As Peggy Carter might say, “Don’t make a fuss — just carry on.”
There’s a discussion of “Agent Carter” (as well as “The Carmichael Show,” “Of Kings and Prophets,” “And Then There Were None” and “The Americans”) on the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here and on iTunes.