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.
If it isn’t clear already, Whedon has gained the colossal cult following he enjoys based on his writing, but specifically for the characters he has created. With Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and again in Firefly and Dollhouse, an ensemble cast of incredibly diverse (and opposing) characters were lumped together, and intent on making things work. That might seem like a fairly broad description, but even from that perspective, AoS is – on an individual character basis – coming up short.
Casual observers and Whedon acolytes alike will credit the writer with crafting ‘quirky’ characters, possessing offbeat or oddball character traits, making them more relatable or at the very least, more entertaining. But what is so often perceived as ‘eccentric’ or ‘quirky’ is the realization of a character that simply can’t be contained in a single stereotype. And although Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s cast may contain direct analogues to Firefly‘s on the surface, weaknesses are starting to show.
Start with leading men: Nathan Fillion’s ‘Malcolm Reynolds’ made the actor into a geek icon, but the character itself is the hardest to define out of the entire show. A professional thief and smuggler with a moral compass, a defeated rebel who demands obedience from his crew, and a man who will do whatever it takes to live another day, but still crack a joke when staring death in the face. That is the kind of character that can carry a series, since viewers will tune in just to see how unpredictable he’ll be.
With Whedon’s current team effort, that load seems to be shared by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Agent Ward (Brett Dalton); Coulson the fearless leader, and Ward, the man of action. The problem: Coulson’s entire character was designed to be so one-note, fans still debate whether giving him the spotlight was good for either the character or the Marvel universe as whole (but that’s a conversation for another day). The only interesting aspect of his character is a mystery that is promised to be explored ‘sooner or later.’
Similarly, Ward fits so easily into the ‘no-nonsense lone wolf’ that there’s little room to work with. And the problems don’t stop there.
Malcolm Reynolds’ right-hand-woman Zoe (Gina Torres) proudly stands as one of Whedon’s Warrior Women, as deadly (if not more so) than her captain, without actually needing to throw a punch – her backstory in the military gets the point across. That same role presumably falls to Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), Coulson’s own right-hand-woman and ‘driver of the bus’ – a character who perfectly illustrates how Whedon’s heroines are much, much more than ‘tough women.’
Zoe was the strong and silent type, but she was also a wife. When the job was done, she returned to her (shorter) husband, revealed vulnerability, and showed an entirely different side of her character. Melinda May has a relationship with no one, a general disdain for having to interact with anyone about anything, and again, exists to fulfill plot requirements.
What’s her story? We’ll get to that eventually. But isn’t she cool when she punches??
The same issues are present with the rest of the cast, with the duo dubbed ‘Fitzsimmons’ knack for science, numbers, and problem-solving – all while being so darn adorable – calling memories of Serenity’s lovesick mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite) to mind. But where Kaylee embodied the naive-but-plucky girl viewers either knew or were, both Fitz and Simmons lack any real dimension, or the implication that they have a life outside of their laboratory; any desire to converse beyond their mission-relevant banter.
It’s hard to say if the ABC/Disney audience and tone is to blame for characters that fit so completely into existing stereotypes (most likely), but the lack of any tangible depth or quirk means the cast can’t be relatable or realistic in any sense – so to endear them to audiences, they have to be funny/goofy/silly/hilariously in over their heads.
Which brings about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most-cited problem: this wisecracking, delightfully unprofessional and out-of-their-depths strike team is a complete departure from the S.H.I.E.L.D. Marvel took four films to establish. An organization that now turns to bloggers and social media experts for new recruits.
Firefly‘s Kaylee might be sweet enough to make your teeth ache, but nobody could bring a broken machine to life like she could (she was able to see the importance in any random gadget – and person… hey, that right there is character development!). Wash (Alan Tudyk) was a pilot whose talents were never questioned, and whose moral compass was often injected into morally grey dilemmas. And even Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the crew’s muscle, was many things, but stupid wasn’t one of them. In many cases, his unsentimental demeanor produced the most practical solution.
But then, each of those characters had something that is lacking from the characters of AoS: dignity. By making each character an expert in their own right, the mutual respect that permeated the crew of the Serenity meant every voice was valued. Ward or Coulson insult, attack or simply dismiss Fitzsimmons – the only cast even hinting at character depth – on a weekly basis, insisting they ‘stay in their lab.’ And don’t get us started on ‘Skye’ (Chloe Bennet).
The respect and expertise handed to every Firefly character meant all voices were welcome, with each scene letting characters show their personality. No respect among the cast of AoS means characters’ opinions aren’t valued outside of their own specialties (if then), leaving the plot to drive all of the events. And the truth is: nobody is watching procedurals just to see the mystery solved.
We don’t need to point out that Whedon successfully set another TV show on a flying ship (with a massive hangar, attached lab… you get the idea) without people totally noticing. But on a more symbolic level, the shortcomings of AoS to nail the formula like Firefly did are embodied in the ships themselves. For starters, Serenity was the home of each of the characters – an important step in establishing the group as a family. Aboard Coulson’s renovated ride, it’s hard to picture any of the cast as even having a home to go.
Sadly, that seems like the perfect premise to bring these characters into a family. Coulson, Ward, May, and Skye are all loners; but instead of them finding strength in one another, the crew remains confined to their respective work areas, associating with each other only when the plot demands it.
Where Firefly took the time to show where each character slept, ate, and spent their free time as a group playing card games, sharing meals, or congregating to discuss the next course of action, AoS never even tries to hide the fact that the characters only exist to advance the plot. What does Simmons do when he’s not in the lab? Are he and Fitz friends? Does May sleep in the cockpit? Does anyone actually exist in between missions?
These may seem like small nitpicks, but with viewers complaining more and more that there is nothing to the show besides truckloads of plot and predictable action, they have an impact. Here’s a mental exercise for those Whedon fans who have actually seen Firefly and at least a few episodes of AoS: picture the average interactions aboard Serenity (permeating throughout, even involving half a dozen characters on the ship’s bridge).
Now picture the average interactions seen on Coulson’s plane (cast members confined to their respective compartments, joining to either show disdain for one another or describe the mission). Now which one of those places would you rather spend an hour a week?
There’s no way around it: Joss Whedon projects have a message. With Buffy, the writer crafted a group of people who were excited by the idea of being led by a woman. With Dollhouse, the idea of what a person’s identity, free will, and memories actually mean was placed in the forefront. And with Firefly, another common theme in each of his projects – including The Avengers – provided the pulse: his fascination with adopted families.
Whedon has explained his approach to Firefly a number of times over the years, claiming his inspiration as a group of people standing on the cusp of a brave new world, and seeing radically different things. In that sense, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has all the potential to do just that – substituting superhumans for space travel. Whedon took things further in his DVD commentary by describing Firefly as “the story of Mal, as told through the eyes of River (Summer Glau).”
So what story is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seeking to tell underneath all the external threats and rag-tag cast?
Marvel wanted a TV show. We’ll get to the message stuff eventually, just stay tuned until then (also, did you know Coulson might be a robot?!).
Again, we’re not claiming that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. should emulate Firefly out of residual bitterness, we’re simply trying to show why a similar formula worked so well before, but is failing to achieve the same results now.
What do you think of Whedon’s latest venture? Is Disney/ABC to blame for watering down his team’s usual brand of writing for a squeaky-clean spectacle? Or do you fail to see the issues we’ve stated above? Either way, there’s no need to panic that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is off to an underwhelming start – we’ve already listed the four changes that could improve the show immediately.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Tuesdays on ABC.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.