Better. Not as good as it needs to be to live up to its namesake. But better.
“0-8-4” largely tidied up a lot of the serious problems that the pilot episode presented; it wasn’t a constant barrage of mind-numbingly awful witticisms (the barrage was only semi-constant this time). It didn’t take itself too seriously to be likable. It also had a sense of focus, something the pilot seriously lacked. But the central problem with “SHIELD” remains: it has yet to develop its own personality. The reason I have enjoyed other new dramas this year despite their grievous flaws is because they had clarity of vision and dedication to an idea. “Agents of SHIELD” is an inkling of an idea that never got to mature into a satisfying concept before being pushed to pilot phase. It has it’s charms, sure, but the characters are clichés, the stories are thin and it doesn’t have a tone or style it can really call its own. But that isn’t what makes “SHIELD” so consistently problematic, the problem is that it tries to fill the space where it’s own personality should be with references to other things that they assume you enjoyed.
“Agents of SHIELD” acts like an unwanted step-father to the audience, it hasn’t put in the time to grow with us or spend quality time figuring our relationship out, so instead it throws things it knows we like at us to distract from the glaring lack of any real connection. “Did you like “Captain America”?! Well here! Here’s a Captain America reference that is completely unnecessary to the plot at hand but we know how much you like it when we say “CAPTAIN AMERICA!”” (Fitz even spells out the connection in that terminology in case the connection was lost on less astute viewers). “Did you like “Thor” and “The Avengers”?! Well Coulson happened to be stabbed in the heart by an “Asgardian” with a “Chitauri Scepter”! Remember? Remember that scene where that happened in that movie we know you liked because you all paid lots of money to see it? Good! Cause we’ll have Coulson spell that out for you in that precise, needlessly awkward manner.” “ALSO, do you like Samuel L. Jackson? Because we’ve got a Nick Fury cameo in this episode for some reason!”
The problem is that Agents of SHIELD isn’t a particularly good show, at least not in its current state. It’s not a labor of love, it’s the result of smart marketing, and the writers know it. They know that their own show doesn’t have the sufficient personality to carry itself, so while they scramble to find a justifiable reason for this series to exist they need to plug that hole in the soul of their show with something. And that something is extensive, obnoxious name-dropping. And that’s what it is, name-dropping. Needlessly referencing titles in order to feign credibility that this show has yet to actually earn.
On the bright side, “0-8-4” did give me a glimmer of hope. The cast who seemed so lifeless last week started to groove a little bit. No, they don’t have the chemistry I would have liked to see from square one, but they’re starting to develop a sense of cohesion, and that is the first step to giving this show a heart. There is a bit of a trade-off though. Though the cast is falling into their roles (Chloe Bennett in particular is almost like night-and-day in comparison to her abysmal performance last week), the characters themselves are as thin as ever. In my review of the pilot I pointed at that the depth of clichés behind each of the characters falls almost into self-parody. Fitz and Simmons, the forgettable science geeks babble on in tech-lingo that the macho and bland Agent Ward doesn’t understand, responding with the most appalling cliché possible: “Fitz, in English”. It also doesn’t help that all of the science BS that comes from Simmons’ mouth sounds like exposition from “The Magic Schoolbus”. Agent Melinda May is still all about that “Agent with a Dark Past” business; “Forgot I was working with The Cavalry” says Agent Ward, referencing some as-of-yet unaddressed event in May’s past, “DON’T ever call me that” she responds harshly, in yet another example of shockingly amateurish writing. And don’t even get me started on Skye, whose schlocky “Hacker” persona feels like it leapt straight out of a mid-nineties internet PSA. That all being said, while each individual part is dull and tired on their own, together they began to work as a unit in this episode. And while I definitely, DEFINITELY want to see more dimensional character writing in the future, group chemistry is a good starting point. For that I credit the cast, not the writers.
Another concern I had from the pilot returns full force in this episode. The lack of budget on this show is painfully, glaringly obvious. Now, ABC is notorious for under budgeting their shows, but for heaven’s sakes, the CGI backdrops in this episode looked positively awful. Like really, really, really awful. It also doesn’t help that this episode is basically a bottle episode, and while the format worked from a writing perspective, from a production perspective it made the show look extremely cheap. Not a good impression on a second outing. I’m concerned for the show’s long-term viability in that respect. The pilot had some very cheap looking moments, but this episode looks like a hack job from the visual effects department.
As an episode by itself, outside of the context of the pilot, “0-8-4” is a mixed bag. Is it entertaining? Yeah, sure, mostly, kinda, sorta. But the writing really feels like its film-school level work, all the way down to the obligatory “good job today gang!” moment the cast shares together at the end while drinking beers and watching the sunset. A scene which begins to sound more and more eye-rollingly stupid the longer I type about it. “0-8-4” has all the narrative subtlety of a Saturday morning cartoon, and as much as I enjoy some cartoons, this just feels too silly and blunt to live up to it’s legacy as Marvel’s big foray into network TV.
“Agents of SHIELD” is a show that wants to have a quick wit but doesn’t seem to understand that quick-wittedness doesn’t sell when the rest of your narrative is so painfully obtuse. Word of advice to the writers: spend less time trying to think up clever one-liners, spend more time coming up with a clever story. That, or spend your time name-dropping crap that Marvel yes-men and dogmatic Whedonites will eat up endlessly. Either one will earn you wide-spread praise and probably viewership. Only one will make your show worth watching.
It’s funny knowing that, were this show to get cancelled in its present state, people would still flip out about what an unappreciated gem it was. Such is the power of Joss Whedon.