ABC and Marvel’s “Agents of SHIELD” is moving to a later timeslot in its second season (it’s set to premiere at 9 p.m. on Sept. 23), and that shift exemplifies a small but meaningful recalibration in the show’s mechanics — a transition to an older, wiser and darker version of a series that burst out of the gate with the full weight and expectations of the comicbook faithful behind it last season, only to stumble in its early episodes. While some installments captured the thrills we’ve come to expect from Marvel’s properties, and many intriguing mysteries were introduced, answers didn’t seem to be forthcoming, which left some viewers wondering whether the show might collapse under the weight of its secrets, even as it coyly hinted at ties to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The reason for its travails became clear around episode 17, after the release of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which decimated the show’s titular organization (and initial premise) after it was revealed that terrorist group HYDRA had infiltrated SHIELD up to the highest levels and initiated a coup that left the division’s few loyal members scattered and running for cover, while the government scrambled to destroy the many-headed threat. Once SHIELD was compromised — and Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), one of the core team members, was revealed to be a mole in league with the enemy — the show regained its footing and took off like a shot, building the stakes and the momentum with each new episode and gleefully exploring the altered character dynamics between its fractured team members. At last, the show was delivering on the promise of its concept and its impressive ties to Marvel’s blockbuster movie slate, ending the season with a completely altered status quo.
If the season one finale left things on a high note, the season two premiere elevates the show to another level, demonstrating a newfound confidence in its premise now that it no longer has to navigate the tricky terrain of maintaining “Winter Soldier’s” secrets. New, compelling characters are introduced, a comicbook villain is brought to life with impressive visual flair and the thorny matter of Agent Ward’s betrayal and the far-reaching consequences of his acts are still front-and-center, leading to plenty of compelling character beats. The premiere’s opening minutes are also the closest the series has ever come to capturing the scale and gravitas of the Marvel movies, and it’s thrilling to see the show operating with such swagger. In short, it’s fun, much like many of its big screen cousins.
Last season, the show established a solid ratings base for ABC in live plus same-day numbers (averaging a 2.4 in adults 18-49 and 6.9 million viewers overall), but grew in the live plus seven measure once DVR viewers were factored in, jumping to a 4.0 demo rating and 10.4 million viewers, which helped it tie for fifth place among all broadcast series last year, behind only “The Big Bang Theory,” “Modern Family,” “The Blacklist” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” Whether it can maintain or improve on those numbers in its new berth remains to be seen, but the pieces are in place for a comeback.
Husband-and-wife showrunning team Jed Whedon (brother of Joss) and Maurissa Tancharoen had the unenviable job of establishing “SHIELD” as its own entity while also tying it into the larger Marvel universe, and while the duo conceded that season one had its share of growing pains when they talked to Variety earlier this month, they also seemed confident in their ability to hit the ground running in season two — a confidence that is borne out in the show’s Tuesday opener.
Read on for Whedon and Tancharoen’s take on the challenges and triumphs of “SHIELD’s” first year, their ambitions for its second season and their take on the comicbook adaptation trend, which shows no sign of slowing down.
Entering into season two, do you feel like you’re under less pressure this time around, or is it equivalent to last year in that you’re relaunching the show after a lot of big developments?
Jed Whedon: It’s a little different. There’s always pressure, but season two is definitely different. We did a lot of the heavy lifting and the [first season] starts introducing people to the new characters. None of these characters existed in the comics. Only one of them had appeared in the films. So we had a lot of groundwork to lay early in the last season, whereas this season we can come in and hit the ground running with everybody up to date with who these characters are, having developed feelings, either positive or negative, and you don’t have to spend all that time laying out their bios.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Yeah, I think a huge weight that’s been lifted is that our audience already knows our people, but in season two we are very much operating within a new paradigm. SHIELD has fallen, we’re well aware that HYDRA is out there and has been operating from within, so our team has been forced to basically go underground. We’ll get to explore what that even means, what that’s like for our team. And I’m sure you’ve seen in all the casting news that we have quite a few new faces that we’ve brought into the fold. So there’s that aspect of it as well. There are a lot of new elements that we’re presenting as well as addressing all the questions that have been left unanswered at the last season. But as far as the pressure goes — oh, man, it’s always there.
What is the biggest lesson you learned from season one, looking back?
Whedon: We had a couple bumps in the road in terms of, like we were just saying, establishing the characters. We had a big secret that we had to hold for the whole year. That’s the one thing that felt a little different for our show versus other shows, was that we had a huge part of our mythology that was going to get upended and we weren’t allowed to talk about it. We had to be very careful about it. Other than that, we faced basically the same thing that most new shows face which is you have to find it while you’re on your feet. You cast people and you fill a room with writers and you set out with the stories you know you want to tell or you discover it along the way, and you discover what works and what doesn’t. And we found that when we leaned into the momentum and the serialized elements of our show, it seemed to be easier on us in terms of developing stories, and built up a lot of steam.
Tancharoen: Right, I think last year we were a project comprised of many firsts. It was Marvel and ABC’s first joint venture. It was Marvel’s first live-action television show. So we’ve talked about how there were many eyes on the project and many expectations, and also the reference point that people have were the giant Marvel movies, just as far as live-action content. So with that said, I think we’ve learned over the course of the last season how to achieve the same sort of feelings and wish-fulfillment that are inherent in Marvel properties, as well as grounded stories in our world that does have people with powers and aliens and Gods and monsters in it. But we’ve found our happy place where we know how to balance story with the things that Marvel uses.
Whedon: Yeah, there was a pressure to compete with the films in terms of, you see the Marvel logo flipping at the beginning and you expect to see those heroes. It took a while for us to get to our strengths, which is the long-form of our storytelling. We’re allowed to develop these characters over a long period of time. So that took a little more time for all of those seeds to grow and for that stuff to pay off. But now that we’ve got into season two we can really spend time with these characters and that’s what’s appealing about TV versus film, is the amount of times you can develop storylines.
You truly did have to structure the entire season around the events of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which wasn’t released until after episode 16. What were some of the direct challenges and implications of that?
Tancharoen: As much as we had to keep the HYDRA reveal a big secret, we were able to plant seeds along the way just as far as our team character development [went], specifically with Agent Grant Ward. We got to know who he was and how he functioned as part of the team; there was a little bit of a romantic involvement with him and Skye, and then we just ripped that all apart. And that is something we had planned all along, so in a way as much as it was this very challenging game of chess to play, we were also very excited to finally be able to reveal a number of things, the HYDRA reveal as well as the fact that we had a traitor in our midst the entire time. And once that happened, it was very liberating and I do think you can feel the momentum that took off towards the end.
Whedon: One of the big challenges was, since we had to structure around that point in the season, because SHIELD was betraying itself, we weren’t allowed to have spies within our spy organization — which, on a spy show, all you want to do is have a mole and not know who you can trust. [Laughs.] So we were sort of limited in those types of stories early on, which this show really lends itself to. And the fact that we couldn’t say the word HYDRA, so the Clairvoyant was the creation to help us bridge that gap and it seemed like someone had powers — it was a way for our villain to actually be HYDRA, to actually be a SHIELD agent without us being able to say either of those things. We were able to get the Clairvoyant up and running in episode five and create mystery around it and then the answer to that question was the same answer that was revealed in the film.
Tancharoen: Yeah, it was a blessing and a curse. But there’s the great part about our show and the thing that we like to embrace is that you saw the fallout in “SHIELD,” and in “Captain America too,” in grand fashion — and just seeing the personal fallout amongst the members of our team and really diving into the emotional impact of that is something that we get to explore. And that is very much something that we’re still dealing with as we launch the new season.
As you said, Marvel is the first content producer to really tie all of its properties together across different mediums this way — does that help or hinder you as writers and showrunners?
Tancharoen: You look at it as a privilege. It’s a very unique opportunity for a television show to be able to tie in with those kinds of movies. And yeah, it’s a fun game to play, because we have to structure things and see how it maps out and pick the place where it coincides with what occurs in the future pipeline.
Whedon: Yes, it would be liberating in storylines if we were untethered on it because we can go anywhere, we can do anything, we could kill Iron Man in one episode! We could do whatever we wanted. But the thing that it gives us, is it gives weight to anything that happens. The fact that it is one universe means that when something occurs on our show or a character makes a turn or there’s any sort of plot development, it ripples through the entire universe, which gives it much more weight. It adds the seal of approval of all those other cinematic franchises. A normal moment on another show that just existed in its own bubble, would be maybe interesting, but not as thrilling as feeling like “this is in the universe. This is affecting everything.”
I feel like some of the criticism you guys received in season one related to the lack of crossover between your characters and the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially in terms of your characters crossing over into the movies, as opposed to people like Samuel L. Jackson appearing on “SHIELD.” Is that something you’re going to push into as the show goes on?
Tancharoen: Well, that’s always a possibility… [Laughs.]
Whedon: Yeah, we were born out of the films and we can only hope to have the reverse effect upon the films as they’ve had on us. But as the property exists longer and people become more attached to it, that sort of crossover becomes more likely.
Tancharoen: Yeah, more likely, and also because our audience knows our characters now and has a relationship with them, maybe if someone from the films appears and vice versa, it’s more like an extra added bonus instead of something that people are chomping at the bit to see.
As you mentioned, you have a lot of new faces this year, including casting comicbook characters like Mockingbird (Adrianne Palicki) and Kraken (Reed Diamond) — was that a major goal for you this year? Was it something you had to hold back on in season one just because of the movie ties?
Whedon: Yeah, we have our list of things available to us in terms of Marvel properties. We have a whole database, and we will either start bringing story and then look at the list of characters, seeing who would fit into the ideas we’re having, or look at the list of characters and say what can we do with these people? Mockingbird is a person that we had available to us and thought this would make a nice addition, but it’s always a process in terms of how many properties they are, what they plan on. You’ve seen the Marvel slate, they have movies planned for the next two decades. So there’s a process to us approving characters and getting that through and everything, so we try to pick and choose our moments.
“SHIELD” is probably the most ambitious show on television in terms of effects, but obviously fans have certain expectations because they’re used to the lavish production values on these $200 million superhero films; how do you navigate that on a weekly basis, especially on a TV budget?
Whedon: Yeah, we have about 50 times less money and time. [Laughs.]
Tancharoen: But given that fact, I do feel that we pull off some really great effects and I do feel we have the right amount of “wow” per episode. But again, we don’t start from that place, we start from a place of story and what’s driving our characters forward. And then we put in this flash from there. But we do always make a conscious effort that within each episode, to ask “what is the Marvel element in this episode?” But I do think we found a nice formula for how we operate in that regard, covering all the bases.
Whedon: And the thing that’s great about Marvel as a brand is, it isn’t just “wow.” The most memorable parts of “The Avengers” are the humor and those character moments. So we try to live in that space because we can’t compete with their giant setpieces. We try to live in the space between, where you’re getting to know the people and you’re starting to care about them.
What would you say the overarching goal or theme of season two is? What are you hoping to explore this year?
Tancharoen: There was a question that was posed last season by one of our villain characters, Raina: “What will I become?” The themes of evolution were very apparent towards the end of the season. I do think that we can apply that to the entire show. What will S.H.I.E.L.D. become?
Whedon: Yeah, Coulson is now director, so what will that mean for him? In the wake of everything that happened last year, what will the [team] dynamics be? What is Fitz’s situation, how is he? We know he’s alive but we don’t know what state he’s in, and how will that effect the relationship between him and Simmons? And that sort of applies across the board.
With so many new comicbook shows and movies coming out, do you think we’re reaching the point of oversaturation, or does the genre still have legs?
Whedon: I think it’s just that people have always been excited by that form of storytelling, there’s this wish-fulfillment and these fantasy and sci-fi elements to it. Right now there’s something like 110 scripted one-hour shows on TV. And you could make an argument a while ago that “aren’t we saturated with cop show or aren’t we saturated with dramas?” But if they’re well-done, people find them. I don’t think that we can approach the situation of there being too many, it’s just a question of whether or not they’re good. And if they’re good, they’ll survive, I think.
Obviously, Joss has been a little busy with a small, under the radar movie sequel he’s currently working on, but does he plan to be more hands-on with the show after that?
Whedon: He’s back in town.
Tancharoen: He’s back in town, but we have yet to see him, even on a personal level. He’s a very busy man and will remain a very busy man. But of course, he’s well aware of everything that happens over here and every once in a while, when he gives us a thumbs up about the things that we’re doing, it just makes us continue on that path. [Laughs.]
Whedon: Yeah, the project that he’s working on… To say it’s all-consuming would be an understatement.
What do you think Marvel and ABC are doing differently, or offering fans, that other networks and studios perhaps aren’t at this moment?
Whedon: One of the things that I think sets the Marvel brand apart and one of the reasons that in our first season… right away we knew that we were all trying to make the same show and I think that, that was because everybody was focused on character and on heart. And the thing that I think sets the Marvel brand apart is, it’s not just about “wow,” it’s not just about humor, it’s not just about emotion, and it’s not just about pain, it’s about all of it. And when we were getting our first notes on the show from ABC, it was very much in that vein of, “what are these people going through? What are their emotions and how do they relate to each other?” And you can throw all effects you want on screen and it won’t make it good. I think the focus on character at both ABC and Marvel, and Disney as a whole, is the thing that sets them apart.
What are you most proud of, looking back at season one as a whole?
Tancharoen: Keeping the secret. [Laughs.] I think a big moment for us was returning to Comic-Con this year with the show. Last year when we were there, people had heard rumblings about what the show was, they had seen pictures of our cast. And then [this year] just to see how people, every time each actor would walk out on the stage, were calling out their character names and wearing Agent May costumes or Fitz and Simmons costumes, and just to see the response and how they’ve embraced the characters on the show and our team and the show in general… I think that feels like “mission accomplished.”
Whedon: And another thing is, we’re talking to you, but we have a ton of people working on the show. We have a full writing staff, everybody in production working tirelessly for an entire year, and to get those little rewards of people believing in the show and caring about it, wearing a t-shirts — seeing everybody’s hard work paying off in that way is very rewarding. And the fact that we all came back to the second season with energy and excitement… we’re really proud of the team we put together on this.
Tancharoen: Right, without our writers and all our crew, without our cast, we are nothing.
“Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” premieres Tuesday, Sept. 23 at 9 p.m. on ABC.