With four episodes down, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has begun to settle into a groove — and on the surface, it's hard to find much fault with this week's "Eye-Spy." The story sees our heroes travel to Zloda, Belarus, to track down Akela Amodor (Pascale Armand), a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who originally trained under Coulson before she went rogue. As it turns out, Amador is going around the world committing crimes under the orders of a mysterious agency that implanted a strange device in her eye — a device that gives her X-ray vision, but can also be triggered to kill her if she fails to follow her savior/captor's orders. By the end of "Eye-Spy," the agents rescue her from her predicament, but not before the unseen villains have gained access to a mysterious (possibly alien?) equation and faded back into the shadows.
There's a lot to like here: Cool gadgets, quippy dialogue, intriguing hints about a greater villain that looms on the horizon. I'll admit: My dream version of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is much weirder and darker than the version we're currently watching — a chance for Marvel to tell the risky, adult-oriented stories that don't fit into its far more expensive mainstream blockbusters. It would probably have to be on cable. But in principle, I'm still more than content with the ABC-friendly Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. we're actually getting; as a longtime Marvel comics fan, it's still sort of surreal to me that this show exists at all.
But I still think there's a way Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can rise above the par-for-the-course that "Eye-Spy" represents. Over the past few weeks, I've tried very, very hard to avoid drawing any direct comparisons between Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and executive producer Joss Whedon's other TV shows. For starters, I think it's important to judge a new series on its own merits; besides that, it's not even clear how much Whedon has worked on each of the show's individual episodes (and I suspect the answer is generally "not very much").
But if you'll allow me to address the spaceship in the room, we know that a show like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can be better — even on a network — because we've seen it before. Firefly, Joss Whedon's cultishly beloved space Western, continues to have a legacy far greater than its three-month run on Fox in 2002 would imply — and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. should be following its blueprint if it wants to succeed.
The similarities between the two shows begin with their creator, but they certainly don't end there. Like Firefly, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. follows a team tackling missions together as they travel from location to location, with their jet serving as their only consistent refuge. Like Firefly, each Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode offers both a self-contained story and a few hints about a larger, overarching governmental conspiracy.
But those elements, which worked so well in Firefly, are failing to take off here. For one thing, the threats in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. feel far more scattershot. In Firefly, the goal was simple: Make enough money to keep flying. In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., our heroes face a different, potentially earth-shattering threat every week — but as it turns out, four consecutive threats of that magnitude diminish the impact of "earth-shattering" pretty quickly.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. also lacks a clear villain. In Firefly's pilot, the Alliance was established as the show's primary threat, and their looming presence united each of the show's episodes. In just four episodes, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has introduced several potential "big bads": Project Centipede, which hasn't reared its head since the pilot; Rising Tide, the hacker group to which Skye still presumably belongs; the mysterious organization that captured Akela Amodor in tonight's "Eye-Spy," which might end up having ties to either Project Centipede or Rising Tide; and Graviton, a supervillain who represents an existential threat all by himself.
That's more than enough villains for an entire season of television — let alone four episodes of a 22-episode run. And while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s commitment to its own internal mythology is impressive, it's beginning to come at the expense of the part of the show that really needs work: its main characters. Of all the lessons I'd like to see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. learn from Firefly, this is the one that worries me the most, because it's the one I'm least convinced the series is equipped to fix. Firefly thrived on the chemistry of its ensemble cast, which was apparent from the very beginning; every character was interesting, and every actor brought their A-game.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is nowhere near that level, and it's going to take some major course corrections if it's ever going to get there. The best TV shows have growing pains, but the cast just isn't quite gelling; the sexually charged banter between Skye and Agent Ward feels incredibly forced, and Fitz and Simmons are stuck babbling at each other in a lab. Even Coulson, the most interesting character, is too much of a cipher; if he's going work as the (presumptive) lead of this TV series, we're going to need to know a lot more about him. Short of a semi-reboot of the status quo — a new cast member, a good guy turning bad, an unexpected romance between Skye and Fitz or whoever — I'm not sure what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can do, but it needs to find a way to break the already tired archetypes it's set for itself.
Don't get me wrong. Some critics and fans have already jumped ship, but I still think Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is worth hanging in there with. Right now, it's a generally fun show that doesn't know how to be more than generally fun yet — but it's obvious that the show's creative team is aiming higher. I'm still hoping they'll get there.
Let's hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- Squandered opportunity: Brushing Melinda May's decision to defy Coulson's orders under the rug so quickly. If the show is searching for a genuine conflict, there's no reason not to pit its two most interesting characters against one another in a leadership struggle.
- Her fellow agents are quick to dismiss the possibility of E.S.P., but I'm with Skye. The show is set in a world with a demigod and a Hulk. Why wouldn't there be somebody with E.S.P. out there?
- In a cast that's full of unrealized potential, Fitz and Simmons remain the most frustrating. How long before they drop the shtick and get an actual story line?
- "Eye-Spy" ends by revealing that Amador's handler was relatively innocent — a former MI6 agent who was as trapped as she was. Until tonight's episode, I hadn't really considered the idea that other spy agencies existed in the Marvel universe. I wonder how James Bond would fare against Loki.
- Long-shot theory I've been developing since last week's episode: Is there any chance Skye and Ward were lying about the painfully clichéd backstories they mentioned in last week's episode? I suspect it's just bad writing, but I'd like to believe "unloved orphan" and "abused child" are just the latest movies in the lying game that S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to delight in playing.
- Don't forget to check back for next week's recap, when a mysterious man with superpowers shows up to light the agents' fire.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.