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.