Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (from here on out known as Agents because screw those periods) is kicking off its fifth season tomorrow night and I couldn’t be more excited. However, as we learned over the summer, not as many people are as excited as me. The show was almost cancelled before Disney stepped in and told ABC to keep it on for a fifth season. I had known ratings had been slipping, but didn’t realize it was low enough for a cancellation.
And it really shouldn’t be cancelled. By taking an informal poll of the few humans who are willing to talk to me on a daily basis I can tell I may be in the minority as a regular watcher, but I really should not be. Agents is doing some of the best Marvel television around now and we should all be tuning in for season 5.
My headline is a bit of a rhetorical question. I have a good guess why you’re not watching Agents. It’s because you didn’t get through season one or if you did you didn’t get through season two, and it’s hard to blame anyone for that. Season 1 felt dull, cliched, and dragged down by the MCU as a whole. Skye (Chloe Bennet) seemed like a terrible character, and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) didn’t actually seem to be all that great when fleshed out into his own lead. On top of that the entire season seemed to bound from one character cliche to the other with no sense of irony. As Marvel’s first show in the MCU it felt oddly out of touch with the exciting content we were seeing on screen, and, at the same time, all too desperate to show off that it was all in the same universe.
Of course we come to find that much of season 1’s tropes and cliches were in aid of a twist ending that almost no one saw coming — a “Hail Hydra” moment that didn’t wreak of a cheap stunt, but instead a carefully laid out season of misdirection. The problem is if you lose half your audience by pretending to be one thing so you can deliver a twist that half of the audience isn’t going to see the twist anyway. I suppose you could call it a risky move that paid off for those of us still around, but it surely tested the loyalty of fans and drove away those who weren’t committed.
Lets say you did stick around, though. Season 2 lands, and it’s much better. The characters get a chance to be themselves instead of the tropes that season 1 required them to be, and things start to unfold… and unfold… and unfold… and unfold. Suddenly Agents isn’t about the core group of lovable heroes anymore, but instead about Inhumans, and we all know how shows about Inhumans go. Season 2 isn’t terrible, but it gets big and complex and loses itself somewhere along the way (probably when a secret, invisible base of exile Inhumans is revealed). There’s some amazing stuff in there, especially Skye/Daisy and her insane father or with Coulson turning into an actual character and Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) becoming more than a karate kicking person. But there’s so much stuff. It’s all over the place and it feels like it goes on forever, hitting some dull parts throughout the season.
Then there’s the stupid sub-plot that had to tie into Avengers: Age of Ultron. It was the show’s penultimate attempt to truly tie itself in a meaningful way into the movies, and it was horrible. While the effect of Coulson’s secret plan on Age of Ultron is definitely seen it was entirely unneeded, and instead of lending the show a level of credence it distracted from the actual plot. Once again, forcing the show to be part of the MCU while clearly not actually influencing the films hampered its ability to work. Thankfully, the third time the films greatly impact the show is what set it free.
To be fair, I actually enjoyed the second season overall, and attempted to recruit as many people back to the show through it, but thanks to the flaws outlined it wasn’t always easy. What I’m saying is that I understand why you left, but I’m telling you it’s so good now, guys. After season 4 it might be my favorite Marvel show within the MCU (P.S. watch Legion). See, what happened was Captain America: Winter Solider blew up S.H.I.E.L.D. and with it blew up the entire premise of Agents. It was the best thing that could have happened, and led the show to what it is now: a super hero spy thriller that takes chances and focuses on its characters.
Agents learned from its season 2 mistakes, and developed one of the better series of superhero television for season 3. They focused in on the team, greatly expanding almost everyone’s characters, especially Fitz and Simmons, who were always two of the most loved by fans. They ditched a bunch of extra people no one cared about and then they took one of their best villains and made him even better, giving the team an actual big bad to face and delivering the Hive arc, which featured some of the most compelling television on that season. “4,722 Hours” might be one of the best pieces of MCU work period, film or TV. Sadly you can’t just pick the show up on this season as a lot of the emotional punch comes from the build up between characters throughout the first two season, but if you dropped off somewhere in season 2 I might suggest watching a recap of that season and just diving into season 3.
Having finally got their footing and an understanding of how they could function within the MCU, season 4 tore out of the gate correcting the final issue the show had: it could get bogged down over 22 episodes. At the moment Agents is the only Marvel show with a full order like this, and it can suffer (just like the Arrowverse shows can) because of it. So the creators smartly divided the fourth season up into three separate story arcs influenced by comic stories, and, of course bringing in Ghost Rider. The show did a fantastic job redefining the character from the Nicholas Cage joke (which I love in a different way), and turned Ghost Rider into one of the more compelling heroes. Then in the second “series,” they tackled Life Model Decoys in an intriguing way. Finally, they tied all this together with a concluding arc that was basically a take on Marvel’s “What if…” comics. Brilliantly, this last series allowed them to tie into the films without actually tying into the films.
By dividing the season up into three stories the stress of carrying a single opponent throughout the season was gone. While bad guys do continue through the three arcs and in the end it all ties together, this opened up the series to not only focus on its characters even more, but not get bogged down in too much world building. It also allowed for individual episodes to not feel like they had a lot of stuffing in them, instead making each arc into a mini-movie of sorts. This series also finally turned Mack (Henry Simmons) into more than just the big black guy who uses guns, and delivered some of the best Coulson one-liners.
Agents is, of course, not perfect. They still have trouble pulling the team together, and Skye/Daisy/Quake is still all over the place in her actions. She’s sometimes used simply as a plot ploy instead of a character, and it’s harmed her throughout the four seasons. However, it looks like they’ve finally turned her into a hero of some sort, though season 4’s cliffhanger ending leaves a lot up in the air.
There’s also the Inhumans. They’ve used the X-Men style fear of the other to some good effect, but mostly these story lines feel forced. Inhumans are Marvel’s desperate attempt to make a X-Men thing in their universe, but it just feels forced. Even after Civil War the fear of super humans in season 4 of Agents often comes off oddly. Thankfully, it never reaches season 2 levels of desperation to include them, and instead we mostly get views of Inhumans from the perspective of the team, and saving them, not overwhelming the story.
Agents is hitting its swing full force now, and you should really be watching it. I’m not sure what season 5 will bring, but with Infinity War hitting I’m guessing they’ll pull out the big guns. Hopefully this doesn’t mean more forced connectivity, but I’d be happy with the consequences of events trickling down once again to Agents. Marvel might not have known how to pull of a TV show when it first started, but over the past four years or so they’ve turned an intriuging, but clunky series into some of their tightest writing. You may see Agents as less than Netflix’s darker Marvel series, but it’s had the time to develop and open into something that’s more than any of those combined (literally).