Sunday, 11 May 2014

Stop the press! Is MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D actually good now?

Sunday, 11 May 2014

I've stuck with this show, despite not being a Marvel-head (although I enjoy the films), and while ignoring the harsh critical and audience response. This is mostly because shows like this deserve time to mature into themselves, which today's impatient culture isn't keen to grant. I remember the days when you didn't even expect a new Star Trek series to become good until two years of trial-and-error to refine the formula. People are so quick to judge television nowadays (myself included), although I agree the first half of Agents of SHIELD wasn't the best. I demoted the show to UK-pace viewing by mid-season, and haven't regretted that decision... until now. See, a funny thing's happened in the past few weeks; AoS's storylines have felt more compelling, and a few plot twists have made me excited to watch the next episode. Has AoS become a good show as it races towards its first season finale?

I've seen a few episodes ahead of Channel 4's broadcast now, so won't spoil things beyond last night's "The Only Light in the Darkness" (episode 19). I think the key reason I've started to enjoy it lately is because of how it's moved away from largely trivial case-of-the-week stuff, to a more serialised storyline involving HYDRA infiltrating and dismantling SHIELD in the process. It challenged some perceptions of key characters, suspected of being enemy agents, and in particular improved Agent Ward's (Brett Dalton) character by revealing he was deep undercover and is loyal to HYDRA's infamous Clairvoyant—then revealed to be veteran SHIELD hero Garrett (Bill Paxton).

In the midst of so these big events and twists, it's had to toned down the comedy interplay between Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), which actually works better in brief doses, and has created an interesting side villain in cyborg Deadlok (J August Richards)—the group's erstwhile superhero ally Mike Petersen, whose mid-season injuries were healed with cybernetics. Unfortunately, his survival's come at the cost of his soul, now he's obliged to do HYDRA's bidding like a mechanical puppet.

The only downside to recent episodes has been the writers unavoidably spoiling what I assume were gob-smacking developments from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This is something I've been fearing with the show since it started, because it shares Marvel's cinematic universe, so can't ignore any SHIELD-related changes its big-budget movies make. And, more than any other Avenger, righteous Steve Rogers is so closely affiliated to SHIELD the show couldn't avoid dealing with that sequel's aftermath. I just wonder how much the AoS creators knew about what Captain America 2 had in store, because the title of their new show may not make sense in season 2! Or so it seems right now.

This isn't to say AoS has pulled off a miracle and become an incredible show with no faults in its final leg. Much of what I didn't like about it hasn't changed that much, but it's doing a far better job masking its problems—even if that's sometimes through stunt casting (Heroes' Adrian Pasdar, geek comedian Patton Oswalt, Aliens' Bill Paxton, Thor's Jaime Alexander reprising her film role as Sif). It's also tapped into a good ongoing storyline that, whether planned from the beginning or not, has revitalised Agent Ward's somewhat wooden character and raised the stakes to a level the drama wasn't reaching before. You could say we're just enjoying the pay-off to months of "boring" set-up, sure, but I'm hoping the probable second season will take heed and hit the ground running.

Funnily enough, AoS is yet another sci-fi drama that began trying to be inclusive to casual viewers (not just Marvel fans), but has only really started to work now it's embracing a big serialised story. And we all know how that tends to go: loyal fans will enjoy a much better show, but it will be under threat of cancellation because 40% of the premiere's audience have dropped away. But maybe some will be encouraged to give AoS another chance over the summer, thanks to positive word-of-mouth on the run of episode since mid-season. If the catchup options are good and a box-set is released before season 2, maybe ABC will be surprised by how the figures bounce back for the season 2 finale.

Tuesdays, ABC; Fridays, Channel 4