How Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Became Marvel's Best-Reviewed TV Show

After a lackluster start, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has become Marvel's best-reviewed series. How has the show's quality improved so dramatically?

Agents of Shield with Defenders and Agent Carter

When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. launched in 2013, few Marvel fans expected the series to still be running five seasons later. Now, the show is about to celebrate its 100th episode, a milestone that any superhero TV series can be proud of. Better yet, S.H.I.E.L.D. has actually become Marvel’s best-reviewed TV series on Rotten Tomatoes, with recent seasons praised by fans and critics alike.

This success is all the more remarkable when you consider that, back in Season 1, nobody was particularly enamored by the show. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a lackluster beginning, with far too many early episodes seeming to be nothing more than setup. Then, in a shocking twist, the series tied in with Captain America: The Winter Soldier – and revealed S.H.I.E.L.D. had been successfully infiltrated by Hydra. It’s never looked back since.

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So, as we approach the 100th episode, it's time to take a look back and understand just how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has become so successful.

This Page: Season 4’s Reinvention

Season 4’s Reinvention Turned Agents of SHIELD Into A New Show

Daisy LMDs

The last two seasons have actually seen Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. benefit from two major strategic decisions. The first was ABC’s decision to move the series to a later timeslot, which allowed S.H.I.E.L.D. to take a much darker, more violent tone. It’s true that S.H.I.E.L.D. occasionally veered towards the gratuitous – the first episode of Season 4 kicked off with Daisy getting dressed – but in general, the show has handled this more mature approach well. There’s no way Season 4’s "Ghost Rider" arc could have worked before 9.00pm, while Yo-Yo’s injury in "All the Comforts of Home" was both heartbreaking and brutal.

The second factor was the decision to split the seasons up into "pods". Although there are clear thematic and narrative links between the sub-arcs, each is characterized by a distinctive central theme. In Season 4, the pods were "Ghost Rider," "LMD," and "Agents of Hydra." The one focused on a sci-fi version of the supernatural, the second centered upon Aida’s LMD program, and the third explored the brilliant concept of the Framework. Season 5 seems to only have two pods, one set in the future and the second back in the present, but it’s already clear the show has pulled it off well again.

As Jeph Loeb explained, they're a way to overcome the problems of TV scheduling. "ABC runs the shows," he noted, "and then needs to take breaks to have specials and things like that, and you go into the holidays or the Olympics or something." Instead of telling one continuous story, with the audience "play[ing] catch-up" after several weeks' break, Marvel decided to break the story up into arcs. This approach allows the show to continually reinvent itself, while also creating potential jumping-on points. It's proven to be tremendously effective, and has given the show an unusual amount of flexibility.

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