‘Agents of SHIELD’ as ‘Firefly 2.0′ – Why It Isn’t Working

Published 2 years ago by , Updated October 25th, 2013 at 9:49 am,

Firefly Agents of Shield Discussion Agents of SHIELD as Firefly 2.0   Why It Isnt Working

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.

The Story

firefly cast science channel Agents of SHIELD as Firefly 2.0   Why It Isnt Working

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.

agents shield tv show joss whedon Agents of SHIELD as Firefly 2.0   Why It Isnt Working

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.

agents of shield episode 2 plane Agents of SHIELD as Firefly 2.0   Why It Isnt Working

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.


Next: Why The Characters Aren’t Working…


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  1. AoS is bland, and from what I’ve seen in the comments, most people want this supposed”show not about superheroes”… to have bunches of superheroes appear throughout the show.
    Through my life, everytime I’ve seen Shield appear… comics or movies… they’ve been incredibly efficient and prepared, because they have to be in order to deal with the scale of events they’re presented with.
    But this show is like those TV cartoons that feature little kid versions of superheroes… I think both DC and Marvel characters have done this.
    And so we get Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby … but instead of a cool, retro van, they travel from mystery to mystery in a big, honking jet. I can’t wait for the episode where Coulson and Skye pull the mask off the monster, and they all shout in unison, “…It’s the caretaker, Mr. Johnson!”

  2. It isn’t working because it is a horrible idea. Nobody wants to see the Special Agent Humans in a world filled with super powered mutants, gods, extra-dimensional beings, etc. Joss Whedon isn’t as good as people give him credit for. Beyond Firefly, I haven’t liked anything he’s done. Avengers is 2+ hours of special effects with all of the character development being handed to him from better directors/screenwriters in 2+ hour run ups.

    Brannagh made Thor actually enjoyable. I was sad to see him leave the director’s chair for Thor 2, and even more saddened to see hipster Whedon get Avengers over many more capable storytellers/directors. Guess it could have been worse. Could have always been Abrams or Lucas.

    • Interesting point about Whedon not really having to do any character development for Avengers.

      • Avengers was amusing enough, but nothing really happened. Without Loki to actually interact with the protagonists the movie would have really just been a by the numbers aliens invade Earth and destroy a city. The characters were already established and the actors knew what they needed to do for the most part. Whedon directing the Avengers was like Phil Jackson coaching a loaded basketball team to a Championship, all you really have to do is make sure everyone shows up and not screw up.

    • You do make some good points but you sound like a little kid that likes to go the opposite way of what the majority thinks. You sound very ignorant. You can say what you want about Lucas after Star Wars, but Abrams’ storytelling/directing is almost always amazing.

      • You think Abrams’s storytelling is amazing? First, that’s a matter of opinion. Therefore, there is no ignorance or maturity to factor in. It is purely a matter of taste.

        Second, I will tell you what makes me sick just about his wrecking of Star Trek. Star Trek is at its heart a series of stories about various crews on spaceships light-years away from Earth, and quite often away from everyone. The loneliness, the inescapable nature of their predicaments, is what has always made them so compelling. Abrams destroyed that in the first of his two movies with “Transwarp Teleportation” and warp voyages that we can assume lasted only minutes as 1 conversation is started and finished by characters before the trip ends. He made these weaknesses the centerpiece of his second movie, following bad ideas with even more of the same bad ideas. Even worse, he set out to remake the Star Trek universe and instead only altered stories that are in some cases 50 years old.

        What Abrams does do well is original work. I really enjoyed Cloverfield (except for the camera) and Super 8 was this generation’s ET (I don’t say mine as I saw ET in the theaters as a child). What Abrams does not do well is expand/alter other peoples’ ideas. That’s not a horrible thing, it is just a limitation. However, his seemingly poor grasp of the scope of space gives me great concern when it comes to Star Wars and his assistance on Star Trek movies/universe going forward. The adagé “In space, no one can hear you scream” works well for a reason: it is accurate not only in the audiological sense of things, but it perfectly embodies the vast emptiness and compounds upon the exploratory factor of “If we’re going to succeed, we’re going to have to do this on our own and with what we have.” That journeyman/renaissance/buccaneer style does not exist in Abrams’s Star Trek, and cannot whenever light-years of distance are always within easy reach.

        In conclusion, if you want to get a great feeling of Star Trek and how the space genre can be properly addressed, I suggest watching Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Best of Both Worlds Parts 1 & 2. When the Borg Cube speeds off toward Earth and the Enterprise is unable to pursue, it is impossible to not feel the helplessness of their situation as they receive communications from Star Fleet before and during the battle. The vastness of Space is one of the key elements that makes it so remarkable, and so inherently scary while having no ill-intent.

        P.S. The ad hominem attack was unnecessary. I’d much sooner prefer actually discussing why you think Abrams is so amazing.

      • Agreed. I was reading the comments, respectfully disagreeing in my head, until I got to the Abrams/Lucas dis and then thought, “Ooook, do not take seriously.”

    • I agree big time. Most people can’t think for themselves so as soon as someone comes up with the phrase “Whedonesque” or whatever that crap is, everyone jumps on the bandwagon. What did he actually do that was so special with Avengers?? He ruined Hawkeye, underused Thor, and put in some idiotic reason on why Hulk can transform. Plus the ending battle was nothing spectacular, no sense of danger. Sorry I digress, we were talking about AoS … better not get started on that crap!

    • Have you watched the show here are no gods or extra-dimensional beings

  3. The first thing I said when they announced the cast and released promo pictures was “these people look waaaay to young to be top agents for the most secret of secret agencies.” Coulson’s presence feels obligatory, contractual: “I’m agent Coulson, I’m here because you recognize me from the movies.”

    • Agreed !!

    • I looked at one of the promo posters all the way home on the subway before the show aired and without the Marvel and S.H.I.E.L.D. logo everywhere this could have been a random cop show.

  4. “Again, we’re not claiming that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. should emulate Firefly out of residual bitterness”

    Yes you are.

  5. The problem is ABC. The problem is Disney. Hand them a pitbull and they’ll neuter it down to a chiwawa due to their family friendly ethos. I can’t really judge the show itself because I haven’t watched a single episode. But I had my suspiscions that this would happen. I’m not saying that AoS needs to go all grimdark to be successful, but there’s just to much fluffiness around the Mouse House for anything to be taken seriously.

    • The most current episode has a guy get a hole blown through his chest and then 5 minutes later they have a girl get hit by a fireball and then screams and burns to ash, i don’t think that’s “fluffiness”.

    • The main bad guy is the Mandarin, you know the guys that iron fought in the recently released iron man 3? It’s obvious they are trying to tie it into that. There are a few random episodes but some of them seem to be setting up for a future enemy and such down the line.

  6. AOS isn’t as slick or cool as what the comics made SHIELD out to be. It seems like a science project every week. SHIELD was supposed to be futuristic mixed with a little espionage and action. Coulson can’t carry a movie by himself. His character is too mild mannered. Nick Fury should have been the main character (whether it’s Sam Jackson or not). These characters are afraid to make the cross over from the kids programming to the prime time programming. Instead of making the tall guy Coulson’s inferior, put an eye patch on him and make him Fury.

  7. I’m sure if Joss were more personally involved and the network removed their very obvious fingers from the show it would be much better. After all the networks didn’t want “Firefly” because it didn’t fit their “demographics”! Allow more mature action and dialog and get ride of the interminably bland Ward, Fitz and Simmons (these three scream Disney!).

  8. I opined in a comment of another article, that the showrunners of AoS should take a page from Alias if they really wanted to improve AoS. Maybe Dyce could do an analysis of Alias compared to Firefly and post of for us… in the hope the AoS showrunners and scriptwriters might be inspired.

    • * it

  9. Simply put, it’s not a fun show for me and I’m even finding myself stop watching the show on the dvr and come back and resume the rest later, because again, it’s boring. I’m watching it to be entertained. I find I’m only watching it to see what type of tie ins they do with it and the movies, that’s only going to keep me going for about 1 more episode, since I’m NOT, having FuN.

  10. The problem with the show is the campy feel it has to it, they somehow took campy and mistook it for humour. It just feels like a B-series that would have been dropped already if it weren’t for the Marvel/Avengers association.

    It was the last episode where I decided to stop watching this how. the one where the “Lone wolf top-notch spy” guy “got made” by that rising tide hacker. It was just over the top ridiculous (and not in a good way). He’s supposed to be an elite spy, how would he get made by some hacker who doesn’t know jack about real life surveillance.

    Also, the show needs more grimdark/realistic feel to it, the characters just feel like something from a Saturday morning cartoon. I’m not saying that I want to see gore or anything but at least get rid of the campy nonsense.

  11. TV is better than movies as character development can actually be done. In most movies character development is one dimensional.

    ScreenRant prefers movies.

    I think maybe some of the latter commenters have a point, Revolution was crap during the save Danny storyline but after that it hit its mark (for a little while). I think the first 6-8 episodes have to be a soft sell to get studios onboard then if they last any longer, the real stories can be told.

    As for some of the names that you want to see, there is no reason they can’t make a TV appearance first, the catch will be if that same actor plays the role in a movie – that’s a big catch!

    • It is ironic that you mention this show in the same breath as Revolution. That show is circling the drain ratings wise right now and Screenrant does not even review it at this point.

  12. “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”

    … sounds like Han Solo.

    • Not surprising…as they talk about this being Han Solo if the rebellion DIDN’T win.

  13. Might as well have titled the article: “Apple juice… why can’t we get it from squeezing an orange?”

    It’s becoming glaringly obvious the only tv shows that can win the internet have already been cancelled and/or finalized. It’s really become a sad dichotomy: every new thing that comes out gets unfavorably compared to something that came before it… but then the same people complain when Hollywood gives them what they want in the form of remakes/reboots and sequels.

    Give unto me a break. One or the other please.

    I loved Firefly as much as anyone, and a lot more than most. But there is nothing similar about the 2 premises beyond having a fairly sizeable core cast that is based on a ship.

    Mal was a survivor and a realist who followed his own moral code and just wanted to live his life free from the establishment (Alliance) he fought so hard against; Coulson is a willing believer in, and tireless defender of, the establishment. So, Mal is comparable to Coulson in about the same way that Han Solo is comparable to Captain Kirk/Picard.

    The rest of the motivations of the crew of Serenity that we knew of were largely pretty thin however, and are getting romanticized as being so deep by the same crowd who I have no problem believing would be tearing them apart if the exact same show was getting aired today.
    I enjoy AoS. Sure, it has some issues. I’ve found, however, that most shows don’t feel complete in their first season, especially when they have a larger cast who have yet to develop a chemistry with one another, and it can take even talented writers some time to “get” the characters they’re writing and really refine those characters and plot accordingly.

    I don’t get a lot of the main criticisms I’ve seen either. A shadow organization who seem to be closing in on developing a cocktail made from every known scientific way to give super-powers isn’t a worthy potential long-term nemesis? Do people actually believe AoS is focusing on SHIELD’s A-team? To me it seems like they’re easing Coulson (if it is indeed the real Coulson)back into action, maybe even testing him, with the typical group of misfits he’s meant to mold into a team to see if he’s ready to get put back into what they’d consider the front lines.

    But we’ll see. Or I’ll see and everyone else will be on forums complaining it isn’t gritty and “realistic” enough. Which is another thing I don’t get, and hope I never do. When I want ‘real’ I watch the news… not a show based on a comic book. When I want dark and gritty I turn on Breaking Bad or Walking Dead. Darker =/= better, nor does it equal “more realistic”, not unless you live in the slums next to a meth lab. Every so often I want pure escapist entertainment, though; so personally, I’m glad that Marvel has, generally, kept their tone lighter than DC has chosen to and glad that AoS has kept up that trend.

    • *This. Give it a season at least, before ripping it apart.

  14. The main bad guy is the Mandarin, you know the guys that iron fought in the recently released iron man 3? It’s obvious they are trying to tie it into that. There are a few random episodes but some of them seem to be setting up for a future enemy and such down the line.

  15. I have never watched that much firefly so this was an interesting read. I do think that everyone is jumping the gun a bit on Agents of Shield. Why not give them some time to tell their story and then rant about how the show sucks? I just don’t get why everyone wants all the answers upfront without the storytelling. I don’t have problem waiting another 5-10 episodes to flesh things out some more. Then, and only then, can we say whether the show is doomed to fail or a success.

  16. The analysis is so spot on. It feels like they Disnified the Whedon formula just as they did to Pixar films like Cars 2. Thankfully, Marvel Studios if still allowed to function separately.

  17. Hmmmm. While the critique is persuasive, on the whole, I’d have to say that commenters Hyperion Havoc and Hank have nailed it. The series is still in prologue. I think that it is unfair to dismiss something so early. It’s like looking at all the ingredients for a meal and saying that they lack subtlety. Ya gotta cook ’em first!
    Also, from what I’ve seen, freedom is actually the central theme of Whedon’s work – or to be more precise, the illusory nature of freedom.

  18. “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.”

    I wish you would have lead with this. A show that made 1 season and 14 episodes “worked so well? Had I have read that first I could have saved my other 9 minuets jacking off or doing something useful. If you don’t like the show fine but don’t make a 3 page rant comparing it to a show that you “feel” is great that didn’t even run all the episodes ordered.