When it was first announced that Marvel intended to extend their shared cinematic universe beyond feature films (and companion one-shot shorts) to a network TV series centered on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., expectations were understandably high. Coming off enormous success of The Avengers (to the tune of $1.5 billion in global ticket revenue), fans were eager to see the studio leave behind origin stories and shared universe world-building to play in the much-hyped Phase 2 sandbox.
However, despite $1.2 billion in box office sales, Iron Man 3 became one of the most divisive superhero movies in recent memory – only to be followed months later by lackluster responses to the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot. A problematic feature film can be yesterday’s news but a network TV series has the opportunity to evolve overtime, learning from mistakes, and adjusting to the interests of its audience. To that point, is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. getting better with each episode – even as ratings continue to drop?
This week’s chapter “The Hub” (Season 1, Episode 7) marked the lowest viewership (6.63 million) and ratings (2.2 in the 18-49 demographic) in the series’ admittedly brief history – meaning that while many TV watchers are still happily tuning in for the show (which has managed to cull 22 million pilot views), an ever-increasing number are choosing to opt-out. Interestingly, the ratings drop-off has continued in spite of recent improvements to the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. format – as the writers made it past the initial introduction and began executing on story lines with actual emotional impact.
Last week’s episode in particular, “F.Z.Z.T.” (read our review), pulled triple-duty by telling an engaging character story, tying in shared universe material, and evolving the core dynamics at the heart of this particular S.H.I.E.L.D. team. Many viewers saw the episode as a potential turning point for the show – or, at the very least, a moment of redemption for their continued commitment to the series. Furthermore, the Coulson character has begun to lock back into a more stern, yet charming, profile – ditching some of the more over-the-top and cheeky comedy moments in favor of a more agreeable (as well as subtle) balance between humorous and badass moments.
Yet, despite the episode’s overall quality, and growing interest in the team of characters, the series lost another 400,000 viewers (7.03 to 6.63 million) before airing “The Hub.” To put those numbers in perspective, ABC’s prior (and cancelled after one season) superhero ensemble show, No Ordinary Family had 6.9 million viewers in its seventh episode (300,000 more than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). If the best episode of the series not only fails to retain, much less improve viewership, it’s hard to know what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can do to win-back skeptical TV watchers. So where is the disconnect?
Too Much Hype
Given that the series debuted to exceptionally high ratings, and is still one of Tuesday night’s most-viewed series, the problem could be (at least in part) a matter of perspective – and a few unrealistic expectations. ABC and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show runners are certainly culpable for a number of problems that have prevented Marvel enthusiasts (and casual TV lovers) from embracing the series – especially the campy take on fan-favorite Agent Coulson as well as the clumsy (and downright goofy) demeanor of this “hand-picked” operative team – but few television shows have ever faced this type of hype directly out the gate.
Unlike films, most TV pilots are built around entirely unknown characters (using genre archetypes) with no connection to anything outside of isolated week to week drama. Consequently, viewers will either respond to characters and the central premise – or not. If enough people choose to tune in, the show will go on. Although, in the case of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., viewers already had an idea of what they wanted to see from the series – and how it should, subjectively, tie-into the larger shared universe.
Admittedly, this is the challenge of Marvel’s attempt at binding all these characters together across a variety of mediums – so they’re not off the hook. Yet, just because Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn’t (and still isn’t) succeeding at executing on all of the mind-blowing possibilities and connections that fans might have been hoping to see, doesn’t mean that the series isn’t a worthwhile or entertaining TV product. Ever since the original announcement, Joss Whedon and ABC executives attempted to temper expectations – stating that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was about a ragtag band of people (not superheroes) in The Avengers universe that would face threats both human and superhuman. There were no promises of Avengers cameos or claims that the visual effects and action set pieces would be on-par with Marvel’s feature-film offerings – so it’s hard to blame the show itself for falling short of the scale that movie fans had dreamed-up.
For example, in our own Thor: The Dark World podcast, we discussed the recent news that episode 8 of the TV series (titled “The Well”) would deal with the aftermath of Thor’s battle with Malekith in London. Several entertaining ideas were spitballed, but very few of them – given the budget and limitations of a weekly TV series – were at all realistic; and when the latest TV spot aired, it wasn’t at all surprising to find out that the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. team would NOT be hunting down a giant CGI Frost Beast. Could our expectations for the series be too high, and subsequently are we missing out on a fun (and admittedly cheesy) new drama series simply because it won’t be able to compete with all of the cool shared universe tie-ins that fans had presented in the comment sections of our articles?
After all, regular network TV shows come with plenty of challenges: short development schedules, budgeted visual effects, limited locations to shoot. Just because Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a Marvel TV show, doesn’t mean that ABC can burn through their budget on expensive special effect shots or call Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, and other Avengers in for regular cameos. Consequently, a certain amount of perspective is necessary, since instead of enjoying a fun interconnected storyline that draws parallels between the TV show and big budget Thor movie, via a piece of Asgardian weaponry, fans will (very likely) turn up their noses at the upcoming shared universe effort – simply because it could have been bigger and better than what the show will ultimately deliver.
That said, there are still a lot of valid criticisms that the producers need to address if they hope to recoup viewers. The Captain America: Winter Soldier trailer cast a very bright spotlight on one of the biggest drawbacks of the show so far: Coulson’s hand-picked team is, so far, little more than a batch of likable but amateurish young people – who pale in comparison to the uncompromising efficiency of S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives in Marvel feature films. Some viewers may be able to accept the balance between life/death scenarios and cooky character shenanigans but for a TV series like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to work, viewers must connect with the main characters and believe that they can go toe-to-toe with their colleagues in the larger shared-universe – especially since the final season one episode (allegedly) have connections to the S.H.I.E.L.D.-heavy Captain America 2 plot.
Between minor improvements to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and a full-season order at ABC, it’s unlikely that the show is going anywhere in the near future – since Whedon and his show runners will, without question, attempt to improve and shape the show. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not viewers who previously deleted the show from their DVR’s will give it another chance in the coming months. If not, it’s possible that, despite the best of intentions, a shared-universe TV story on a network budget might have been too ambitious (with too many complications) – even for Disney-owned Marvel.
At least fans won’t have to rely entirely on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for Marvel superheroes on TV – with the recent announcement of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, as well as Iron Fist TV series, and a miniseries event for The Defenders, on Netflix.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns next Tuesday with “The Well” @8pm on ABC.
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future updates on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.