Don’t judge a book by its cover. Or so the idiom goes. Yet, it happens all the time. Films are bought based on pitches, books are published based on a two or three paragraph query and a television shows are green lit based on the quality of pilots. The idiom is still true though because most novels and films rarely go from first to final drafts without any editing, however, the same doesn’t really apply to television shows. Of course, TV pilots go through changes too, most notably ABC’s LOST replaced Jack Shephard actor Michael Keaton with Matthew Fox when they decided not to kill him in the first episode.
But pilots are not a good indicator of the quality of the entire series. For a book or movie, the entire product is assessed when a story is edited. That isn’t to say that studios have no control over a show following the first episode but the motivations and intentions are very different. A pilot is originally intended on getting people onboard and interested with where a story can go. If the first episode doesn’t capture the viewer’s attention or whet their appetite for more then the writers and directors are already fighting an uphill battle. They may not abandon the series completely but it will require more work to hold on to their audience.
One month ago, nearly, I posted a blog suggesting that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had the potential to be one of the biggest new programmes out this year. The first episode was good. Not great but it also wasn’t bad. The tone was jovial and fun, the story was logical enough and easy to follow whilst investing the viewer in the plight of the characters. Speaking of, the characters were set up with each taking a role and being defined by it for each of remembering. Brett Dalton was the atypical man’s man, calling himself a lone wolf and being very good at killing things. Of course, Whedon then proceeded to humiliate him and bring him down a peg or two. Ming-Na Wen plays Melinda May, a tough Asian woman who has a reputation for being the best fighter around but doesn’t want to be a field agent anymore. Ian De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstride come as a two for one deal as the scientific duo Fitz and Simmons and rounding out the team is former rival Skye, a hacker played by Chloe Bennet.
The pilot didn’t elaborate too much in regards to the characters or the greater scheme of things but no one expected it to do so. Setting the pieces up for the game was the point of the exercise and it opened up questions to be explored in later episodes such as why Melinda May no longer wants to be a field agent or why Fitz and Simmons are so close. There were plenty of character points that required development that could have gotten the viewers really invested in these character’s histories and personalities. Unfortunately, the second episode failed to really capitalise on any of that.
The team appeared to work much better together in the first week when Skye wasn’t a part of the group. Fitz and Simmons developed a weapon and Dalton’s Grant Ward fired it, suppressing the enemy threat. May, understandably stayed out of the combat. This week though, Ward didn’t do much at all. He blamed his inability on having to look out for the others but that doesn’t make much sense. He is supposed to be a S.H.I.E.L.D. trained black ops agent and a weapons specialist. Are we really supposed to believe that he has never had to extract a civilian from enemy territory? His main role in this episode appeared to be learning a lesson about teamwork and parroting Skye’s words about assimilating the ideas of the many. Did they just forget about all the teamwork that they did last week?
I get the point. Manly men are silly but it undermines the talents of the character if he isn’t given anything to do except learn lessons about how he needs other people. It also undermines your characters if they have the quirk of not wanting to work in the field despite being the combat specialist and yet fight anyway. It isn’t like I thought she should have ran away screaming but it would have been more in line with the characterisation to have her actively avoid countering or returning fire. The Fitz and Simmon’s friendship went unexplained as well. Instead, all we got was a generic ‘dysfunctional team learns to work together’ plot.
Not all the answers will be given in the second episode but give the writers should have given the audience something. There is only so long that a series can rely on surprise guest appearances, snappy one liners and ‘who are they really working for’ twists. That kind of revelation isn’t character development. It shines a new light on the motivations of the character in question but character development would be more like if a good character came to understand the enemy’s mentality and then became a double agent. Suggesting that one character may already be a double agent is not.
Whedon knows character development. Look at Willow. It took two or three seasons for her to fully come out of her shell and in becoming more confident she also made a lot of mistakes. I want to become as invested in these character as I was in Willow’s evolution but that won’t happen if the characters aren’t given time to grow. Though it’s still early days for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and it’s probably harsh to compare it to Buffy the Vampire Slayer already, but there is so much potential for this show and at the moment it is being wasted on quirky characters and generic stories.
At 8 million viewers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still doing extremely well for a new series and there is always a drop between the pilot and the following episodes. The show is still very likable and inoffensive but I’m simply concerned about the direction it’s going. It might live up to its potential or go the way of other Whedon shows, ostracising the mainstream and garnering only a cult following.