ABC is desperate to convince viewers that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is finally worth watching. The show is a solid hit, but not the out-of-the-box smash the network was hoping for, and critical reaction remains tepid at best. During the Oscars on Sunday night, the network aired a commercial designed to convince any skeptical viewers to give the show one last chance: “In the coming weeks, the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will experience a seismic shift. As alliances are severed, evil breaks free, and the Marvel Universe is changed forever.” The commercial even re-brands the show “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Uprising,” in an attempt to distinguish this next run of episodes from the ones that came before it.
It's a fine idea for a show that has repeatedly struggled to define itself: Keep whatever was working, and throw out the rest in a quasi-reboot of the show's basic structure and premise. (It's a particularly apt idea for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., as comic books do this all the time.) Best of all, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a potential game-changer already stacked in its deck: Guest-star Bill Paxton as Agent John Garrett, who made his debut in last night's "T.A.H.I.T.I."
With so much potential — and so much at stake — how did Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. botch "T.A.H.I.T.I." so badly? This was an absolute mess of an episode, packed with uneven characterization, bland action, and a go-nowhere story that kept the show in stasis again. If this is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s idea of a reboot, it's already time to reboot again.
It didn't have to be like this. Early in the episode, "T.A.H.I.T.I." briefly toys with an interesting idea when Garrett enters the room to interrogate Quinn. "You have no rights, you have no lawyer," says Garrett to his battered prisoner before threatening to throw him out of the plane.
Whoa! Suddenly we have 24 in the Marvel Universe. Who is this loose cannon Garrett, anyway, and can he really be trusted? How much is S.H.I.E.L.D. really justified to do to Quinn, on both moral and legal grounds? Has Coulson's better judgment been compromised by his affection for Skye? Who, in the end, gets to decide how far to go with Quinn — and what consequences will there be for the team as a whole?
Those are all interesting questions, packed with moral grays that are well worth exploring — so of course, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. dodges them with an utterly nonsensical computer trick that saves our heroes from making any real decisions. Fitz and Simmons discover a picture of their destination within the actual code of the file they're reading. It's off to the Guest House, the super-secret, not-very-well-hidden base in which Agent Coulson was resurrected.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ran a virtually identical story line just three episodes ago, when Agent Coulson was kidnapped by Centipede. It worked much better the first time because that rescue mission was built around an interesting and vital character. Coulson's brief absence left a noticeable void at the center of the show, and forcing the other characters to work without his guidance gave the writers an opportunity to shake up the dynamics of the cast.
Skye's injury doesn't get within a mile of that story. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. keeps trying to convince us that Skye is both incredibly beloved by everyone and vital to the team's success. Unfortunately, that requires pretty much everyone to be out of character. Melinda May — who is normally the group's most ruthlessly pragmatic character — nearly kills Quinn in a fit of rage. Simmons describes how she "can't imagine her life" without Skye, though Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has never really bothered to establish their bond. Quinn actually tells Coulson that the key to the Clairvoyant's master plan is learning how Skye can be resurrected — and Coulson goes through with it anyway!
This isn't the first time I've noted Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s inexplicable Skye problem, but as long as the show fails to fix it, there's not much to do but complain about it. If she hadn't been around since the very beginning of the show, it would be easy to peg Skye as a fan-fiction-level Mary Sue character: untrained but naturally gifted, inexplicably adored by everyone around her, and saddled with a back story that implicitly paints her as one of the most important people in the world.
To save Skye, our heroes infiltrate the Guest House and kill a couple of innocent guards without any particular hand-wringing about it. They manage to recover the mysterious Coulson-resurrecting drug GH-345, but discover that the base is wired with enough Semtex to blow up in ten minutes. Everyone escapes, but not before Coulson discovers something that makes him think twice about using the drug on Skye: The torso of a weird purple (clone?) monster sealed up in an incubation chamber. Simmons uses GH-345 on Skye anyway, and she recovers. Hooray — time for our heroes to go on their next big mission!
But wait a second: How does any of this make sense? S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't going to object to the idea that its own agents infiltrated a base that contains its most closely guarded secret, killed the two guards inside, and blew the whole thing straight to hell? Coulson, having discovered yet another dark secret about his endlessly dark past, is just going to go back to work? Some of those plot threads may pay off down the road — but a show that keeps asking its viewers to trust that it's going somewhere needs to do far more to reward that trust.
Look, I get it. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a big ship, and it's going to take some time to get it turned around. But the show can't just take a month off and come back with a bland, exposition-laden episode that completely wastes a talented guest star and somehow manages to spend an entire hour without moving the plot forward an inch. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. keeps promising it's becoming a better show, and it keeps reneging on that promise. How long does ABC think fans will hang in there?
Let's hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- Skye's problems as a character shouldn't be blamed on actress Chloe Bennett, who has generally improved in the role. Unfortunately, I don't think there's a working actress who could make this character work.
- How long do you think it'll be before Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, Emergency Room (S.H.I.E.L.D.E.R.) hits ABC?
- In the aforementioned Oscar commercial, ABC refers to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s upcoming episode block as a "maximum event" — which is, as far as I can tell, a completely nonsensical term. The first Google result for the term is a website that promises to teach men how to attract women by creating a "maximum you." Enjoy your free plug from ABC, guys!
- Elena Satine makes a brief appearance at the end of the episode as the villainess Lorelei — a close ally of Loki. In next week's episode, she'll be followed to Earth by Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), who appeared in both Thor and Thor: The Dark World. I'm still not convinced that movie cameos are the best way to make Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. feel more vital, but at this point, I'm just glad they're trying something.
- Let's all take our best guesses on what "T.A.H.I.T.I." stands for. I'm going with "Top Agents Heal In This Incubator." (I suspect you can do better.)
- Don't forget to check back here for next week's recap, when we find out if our Asgardian guest stars can breathe a little life into this show.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.