I'm almost a week behind, but I finally got a chance to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier last night. When I got home, I immediately watched last week's episode of Agents of SHIELD (well, okay, I watched Game of Thrones first — priorities, people). Since I've spent the past 10 days avoiding online spoilers, this morning I went back and re-read all of the articles, reviews, and recaps I had dodged. They're all pretty universal in their praise, and I mostly agree; but I have a few additional thoughts.
WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR BOTH CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER & AGENTS OF SHIELD!
First, let me give you my mini-review of TWS. I thought it was a fantastic film: well directed, great action, and some terrific performances from Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie, and Sebastian Stan. And that's not to mention the gravitas brought to the whole production by Robert Redford. I personally still think Thor: The Dark World is the best Marvel movie to date, but TWS would be a close second. The reveal that HYDRA had infiltrated SHIELD, and the subsequent shutdown of SHIELD, are major developments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that will have ripple effects on all future projects.
Now to Agents of SHIELD. "Turn, Turn, Turn" was by far the best episode so far, with the previous week's episode probably falling into the second-best slot. It was full of twists and turns, tons of action, and the very fact that it took place simultaneously with TWS elevated it to a new level of cool.
The internet seems to agree with that consensus, based on my reading this morning. But we have to talk about perspective here. These past two episodes were indeed the best episodes of AoS so far, but AoS is NOT a good show. Sure, it's not the worst show on TV, but it's got major problems, most of which continued even into these last two episodes.
Let's start with the characters and the actors who play them. Clark Gregg does a serviceable enough job playing Phil Coulson; as much as we all love him, though, Coulson is not a character that works especially well as a leader, and Gregg is not a masterful enough actor to carry an entire show. Miranda May, on the other hand, is an interesting character, with a mysterious background, but Ming-Na Wen is a TERRIBLE actress. She was the worst part of Stargate Universe and I literally cringed when they announced she'd been cast on AoS. This week's episode gave them both a bit more to work with, and I was impressed with Gregg, but Wen was the same pile of awful she always is.
Agent Ward is my least favorite of the bunch. As a character, he's just so vanilla. I can almost picture the script reading, "INSERT GENERIC SHIELD AGENT HERE." And Brett Dalton brings NOTHING to the role; he's almost as bad an actor as Ming-Na Wen. The reveal at the end of the episode that he's a HYDRA agent COULD make him interesting, but I'm willing to bet it won't. Did you notice how mechanical he looked in that scene, and how he didn't speak a word? If he was really a HYDRA agent, wouldn't the most powerful way to end that scene have been for Ward to utter, "Hail HYDRA"? I think Ward is under some kind of mind control; which means he'll be back to his douchey self soon enough. (I could be wrong, though — we'll see).
And Fitz and Simmons are just wretched. Did I say Agent Ward was my least favorite? No, sorry, it's these two. Terribly written and terribly performed. I sometimes wonder if Elizabeth Henstridge is trying to give the worst performance she can; maybe she's hoping to be fired? Iain De Caestecker is slightly better as Fitz, but not by much. I enjoyed his scene at the beginning of this episode when he refused to open the doors for Coulson or Skye, but I thought the tear during the stand-off with Agent Garrett was ridiculous. This guy's still a SHIELD agent, right? Why is he crying like an 8-year-old boy who just found out his mom gave away his favorite toy?
That brings us to Skye. Somehow Skye manages to be the best character on the show, even though her story arc makes no sense whatsoever. Chloe Bennett is certainly not going to be winning an Emmy anytime soon, but she's a helluva lot better than the rest of this crew. And the continuing drama concerning her parentage makes her an interesting character to follow. The problem is how quickly she went from a terrorist hacker to a fully-fledged SHIELD agent. Seriously? There's an entire academy where recruits train for years to become agents, but we're supposed to believe that after a couple of weeks of training with Agent Bored—er, Ward, that the SHIELD brass would just hand her a badge?
Much has been said about the writing on the show, and I don't have much to add there. I agree, most of the season's writing has been sub-par...proving that executive producer Joss Whedon actually has no input on this show whatsoever.
But beyond the acting, beyond the writing, there is an element that makes this show so bad, it could be written by Oliver Stone and star Meryl Streep and it would STILL be bad. That flaw lies in the production itself: the direction, the design, and the music.
Let's talk design first, as it's probably the worst offender. Whereas the Marvel films have a gritty, realistic look (even the more fantastical entries, like Thor: The Dark World and the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy), Agents of SHIELD looks like it was filmed on a soundstage. All of the sets are so clean and fake looking; even when they're supposed to be in a dirty, gritty location, it's that 90's Star Trek: Deep Space Nine kind of "gritty."
Beyond the sets, the props and costumes are pretty terrible, too. Did you see Deathlok a few weeks ago?
I'm not saying he needs to look like the comic book version of Deathlok, but look at that outfit! He looks like a reject from a 1987 Captain Power video! Deathlok is certainly the worst offender, but it's indicative of the entire show's design.
The directing on the show is just so lackluster, too. It's what I like to call "soap opera directing." Sure, you get in all the shots that the script requires, but there's no style whatsoever. Every shot is just as flat and boring as it can be. And the lighting is terrible — everything and everyone is always well-lit, no matter their location. Top that off with the lack of any filters and you get footage that often times looks like it could've been filmed on an iPhone.
I won't harp on it long, but the music isn't doing the show any favors either. The over-the-top instrumentals during fights and other critical scenes is just distracting and generic. Again, it all feels very 1990's.
I know what the obvious counter-argument is to all of this. "It's a TV show; they don't have the budget of the Marvel movies." Absolutely. I never said they did. But if that's to work as a successful argument, then explain to me how other shows, some with budgets smaller than AoS, manage to put out well-designed, artfully directed episodes week after week. Look at Hannibal. Or Almost Human. The Walking Dead. Breaking Bad. The greatest example comes from Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This was their first feature film; they spent the bulk of their directing career on episodes of NBC's Community. If that doesn't show that quality directing can come from television, I don't know what does.
All right, I've ranted on long enough. Let me sum this baby up. I'm excited about the events of the last episode and I'm curious to see where the show goes. Patton Oswalt shows up this week (and I LOVE Patton Oswalt), and it's already been confirmed that we'll see Cobie Smulder's Maria Hill and Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury stop by before the end of the season. I'm hoping that they can help move the show in the right direction.
What really needs to happen, though, is that the show needs to do a soft reboot before next season. Improve the production design. Bring in some talented TV directors. And write out all of the annoying and/or terrible characters. Use this opportunity to shake things up by killing off Agents May and Ward. Have Fitz and Simmons leave for a civilian life now that SHIELD is gone. Sign Cobie Smulder's up to play Maria Hill as a weekly main character now that How I Met Your Mother is done. Only then can you improve this show and make it actually great, instead of just "great for an episode of Agents of SHIELD."
In the meantime, I'll probably keep watching. And I'll probably keep bitching.
For more deep thoughts, follow me on Twitter @barryerice.