It remains one of the great tragedies of nerd culture to this day, and as Joss Whedon’s fame and fortune guiding Marvel’s movie universe continues, and his talent at both writing and directing are validated time and again, the cancelling of Firefly grows even more unfortunate. The director’s greatest regret – the chance to tell a sci-fi story of a ship’s crew becoming a family was lost – but luckily, Whedon’s story didn’t end there.
Despite promising to never attempt a story with so many central characters, Whedon found success with The Avengers, and parlayed that into a lengthy studio deal guaranteeing him – no surprise – a TV series focused on yet another ensemble cast, flying through the skies, and growing into a tight-knit unit along the way. Given his past success with that same formula, we have to ask: why isn’t Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. working?
First off, it goes without saying that there are plenty of people credited with every Whedon project, most notably showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. After joining forces with Whedon on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the pair held the reins for the also-doomed sci-fi drama Dollhouse, and now sit at the wheel of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – a show which has progressed from an uneven but fair pilot to… well, five episodes in we’re still not quite sure what’s got us tuning in anymore.
We’re not making the case that Firefly is the greatest scripted drama/comedy ever to appear on television, but with a run of just 14 episodes, the show created a more vocal fan base than any Whedon series to date (even louder than Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Given that, many assumed that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would give Whedon a second kick at the can, and the freedom to tell the kinds of stories his fans lamented being robbed of in the first place.
Here’s why it isn’t turning out to be that simple.
From a pure structure/premise standpoint, Firefly represents a fairly foolproof approach to a serialized story: a group of differing characters are placed against a shadowy organization seeking to track and capture them, with a need to survive week-to-week (both from starvation and additional enemies) the central conflict. The looming enemy provides a season(s)-long threat, ‘monsters-of-the-week’ bring action where needed, and the range of characters each get episodes of their own in which to shine, and explore their backstory.
Take a look at most long-running shows, and you’re likely to find a variant of the above description. Which is largely why when details of AoS began to arrive – an ensemble cast of experts, agents and amateurs tracking down rogue superhumans – it seemed Whedon’s camp was going to be sticking to their tried-and-true formula. But almost half a dozen episodes in, that is not what viewers are getting.
With Firefly, the main conflicts are fairly easy to describe: a corrupt or at least overbearing ‘Alliance’ hunts down the main cast, all of whom possess at least some morally-fueled reason to keep running. In a future where millions live hand-to-mouth, the crew of the Serenity had found their home aboard a single spaceship, and whether the conflict was generated by an Alliance agent or simple backwoods bandits, their home was on the line at every turn.
With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on the other hand, there is no central villain. At least, not one that’s been slightly alluded to by anything more than random story threads. Why were these specific team members selected? That’s never explained. What’s the team’s endgame? Presumably to seek out ‘unregistered gifted’ a.k.a. potential supervillains and turn them to the good side. Again, we’re connecting the dots given miniscule information.
Besides offering a shaky premise for the team’s existence (wouldn’t S.H.I.E.L.D. already have multiple teams doing this exact work?), the lack of a central villain, or personal investment from any of the cast in countering said villain, makes one overarching fact rear its head with every episode: the people on this team don’t want to be here. To make things worse, the only stakes ever raised are their safety – only in danger because they sought out trouble in the first place.
Whedon, Tancharoen, Firefly and Marvel aside, that’s just a poor foundation for any show that hopes to have viewers invest in either the characters or their mission (if the viewers don’t want to be doing what they’re doing, why should an audience care?).
That’s enough of a premise to support a simple ‘monster-of-the-week’ light comedy that never aspires to anything more than slapstick or Scooby Doo-like mystery-solving, but that’s neither what fans of Whedon or Marvel were hoping for, nor what the writer’s team is known for delivering.