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.