Look, stop now.
Stop and consider: I’m about to carelessly blow the lid off of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Spoilers galore!
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is unfathomable.
I mean–that’s not entirely true. It’s like a catchy song you hate, or a tasty food that makes you feel like a terrible human being after eating it, questioning your decision to do it in the first place. I’ve said it before: it’s the Marvel Smallville (dude, Loeb–I don’t know what the fuck happened to you, but get your shit together…)
I’ll remain watching it in morbid fascination for some time, I imagine. Many feel it kicked into gear recently, becoming better than its “pretty good” from inception.
No, it’s just bad.
Of course, one should not mistake this: it’s not bad in any sense that anyone should feel bad for watching, enjoying, or liking it. There aren’t a lot of those things, really. None I really want to talk about–ever–anyway.
But the characters, the acting, the writing–it’s pure melodrama, it’s style over substance in the extreme. It doesn’t help that I’m not watching it in a vacuum, of course. Surrounding it with Farscape (or any of the new shows I watch regularly¹) really, really doesn’t help (as it already highlights the limitations I’ve referred to previously in most serial genre shows and their character writing). It’s a confection, though: the intrigue is in the clearly pre-defined, orchestrated downward spiral (go back and look at my prior footnote–that’s the best show to compare it to, actually), built on the idea of Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” dragged out to the extreme and never really elaborated upon, and sometimes deciding to go for what he suggested was the inferior method of approaching that hypothetical scene.² So-and-so has such-and-such secret. Let’s drag it out. Let’s play a lot of red herring and cat-and-mouse, but it’s all for the audience, not the characters. This is a distinct flaw: it makes it that much more difficult to actually render the characters when the end service is entirely to manifesting this sense of “Don’t open the door!” or “Just tell him you love him!” in the audience.
So we’ve got narrowly, flatly defined characters who show other sides as if they’ve leapt into the air and turned as they came down to be suddenly facing another direction. Gosh, never saw that side! It’s so different! Interesting! But, it’s not interesting–it’s just intriguing. “Where did that come from?” We’ll probably (and often do) get a neatly encapsulated explanation, very much for-the-audience description, rather than organic movement toward something.
I feel kind of bad saying this, but nevermind the rest of the cast: Gregg can’t carry this show. He just can’t. I still can’t nail down who the flaming hell Coulson is. Yeah, he’s sharp-of-tongue, he’s determined, he’s willing to rebel but good at heart. But who the hell is he? Why does he do the things he does? Are they appropriate to him? Yes and no: he’s enough of a slate that we can accept the events that are written on to it, because they are contained within the framework defined as “his character”, but there’s no connective tissue that binds it all together, it’s just a loose jumble–it’s in one box, but it’s just rattling around.
Everyone else is the same–but he’s the character we’ve had for a lot longer, the one leading things. And it’s all telling and no showing, and plenty of time it likes to settle for “not even telling” so that it can run on surprise. I feel sympathy for Coulson’s horror and confusion at how he was brought back, but I don’t know where that sympathy comes from: there are glimpses and flashes in Gregg’s face, but there’s nothing that really tells me why or how Coulson feels or responds to these things. He doesn’t seem to be any different at any moment–nor do the rest. Those boxes, jumbled in contents though they are, remain static.
And it’s one of those times where I just don’t understand how anyone can watch it in a fashion other than at least the way I watch The Following: it’s unbashed reveling, not in its “badness”, but in its predilection for absurdity that it doesn’t want to acknowledge in any self-aware way. It’s a forced suspension of disbelief, but one that takes some effort, or some extreme willingness to discard it entirely for the moments within.
But that’s its own universe: trying to tie Agents of S.H.I.E.LD. into a stellar Marvel outing like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it just makes the glaring inadequacies that much more uncomfortably obvious.
The “What in the hell are they going to do NOW?!” sense will keep me watching regularly, like a hideous trainwreck, but I cannot recommend the show to anyone for anything.
¹I don’t disagree, in general, about The Following. It’s also pretty ridiculous, but the sort of insane, campy and/or grand guignol feeling works for it. It has pretenses about reality or philosophy or darkness it shouldn’t, but the leads can carry it off…somehow. Not sure how…but somehow.
²Hitchcock explained suspense, roughly, thusly: you can have a dinner party, and everyone is having a good time and then, suddenly a bomb explodes! Holy cow! We’re all shocked! We sure didn’t expect that!–or you can show the bomb, show the party, show the bomb, show the party–now we know: “Get out!” we cry, “There’s a bomb!” but they don’t know, and we’re watching them not know what we know.