Midseason Recap: Agents of SHIELD

Hi guys, final midseason recap time. We’ve talked about the writing in Scorpion and Gotham so it’s time to turn our attention to Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.

I have so many mixed feelings about this show. SHIELD is different from previous shows in a couple of ways. First, it’s not in its first season and second it’s a tie in to a much bigger media franchise. These things are not necessarily in the show’s favor.

Series Premise and First Season Recap 

The premise of SHIELD is pretty simple. It’s about a shadow agency, the titular SHIELD, that reacts to paranormal and metahuman situations around the globe and keeps them from hurting people. It’s like The X-Files meets Men In Black, except there’s more than aliens running around and we have Clark Gregg instead of David Duchovny (not exactly a bad trade in my book). All of this ties in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as expressed in movies like the Iron Man franchise and The Avengers. Except now that premise has been put through the wringer for a full season and it’s morphed into something different.

So, a brief recap of Season One. We meet our team, then discover various metahuman and extraterrestrial doohickies and keep bumping into people working to perfect a new supersoldier serum and start cranking out Captain Americas – although probably with less of the moral center. In the middle of the season Captain America: The Winter Soldier comes out and HYDRA infiltrators take over SHIELD and the whole premise takes a serious hit. (Spoilers, by the way.) The SHIELD we’ve started to get a feel for is suddenly ripped out from under us and we have to relearn all the rules of the world and the show. The season ends with Agent Phil Coulson promoted to Director of SHIELD and working to rebuild the organization.

The real problem with Season One is it lacks any kind of focus or cohesion. Several episodes were spent on tie-ins rather than progressing the show’s central plot. Which, by the way, revolves around a character named Skye and her mysterious parentage and history with SHIELD. Skye and the team are ignorant of what happened to her family and Phil decides to do what he can to help her figure that out. We start to see connections between Skye and the people running the supersoldier program… but the tie-ins wreck the pacing of her story and then the sudden HYDRA revolt totally sidelines that mystery for most of the last third of the season.

I’m not saying the HYDRA thing wasn’t good but it really feels like it’s happening at the wrong time in the series. SHIELD probably would have been a stronger TV show if it had either waited for the second season to pull a total revamping of the show’s format or if it had waited half a season and simply begun with Coulson picking up the pieces after HYDRA wrecked most of SHIELD. Status quo must be established before it can be changed up and the show failed to do that before it’s big Season One shake-up. That doesn’t mean the show wasn’t entertaining, it just wasn’t as good as it could have been.

Otherwise the show did a good job with characterization and no single episode was particularly boring. A lot of interesting storylines were set up – although some things that I’d hoped to see, like an episode inside the supervillain prison center or more events inside SHIELD Academy, are obviously not coming to pass now.

All things considered the first season of SHIELD started good and drifted toward high end mediocrity. I approached the second season with trepidation. In fact, I didn’t start watching it until several episodes into the season. I’ve definitely had the most trouble convincing myself I wanted to watch it on a weekly basis out of the shows I’m following this season. That said, there is some good stuff in it. Let’s take a look.

Favorite Character (Honorable Mention) – Phil Coulson 

The answer will probably always be Phil. It’s a combination of many factors, I think, and the excellent performance of Clark Gregg is definitely one of them. I’d like to say there’s great writing behind his character but the fact is Phil is just written as solid, likeable, fatherly and sensible. He’s hard not to like and something about Gregg’s charisma makes it work all the better. But in terms of the show’s writing… Phil isn’t actually written that well. He’s not written badly at all but there’s nothing outstanding there either. So, while I love the character and the way he’s presented, I’m removing him from the running for favorite character because he wins… but more because of the actor and personal preference than actual writing.

Favorite Character – Leo Fitz 

He’s kind of geeky and adorkable which I can sympathize with. But the growth of his character since the rift between him and Jemma Simmons formed combined with his slow recovery from near suffocation makes for some really interesting moments. The most interesting aspect is the way a person who has only really needed one friend has to adapt when his primary relationship is radically and probably irrevocably altered.

While the arc itself is not particularly groundbreaking, each interaction with each character along the way is so well written and so believable that it plays like a dream. Major kudos for handling this whole thing so well.

Least Favorite Character – Daniel Whitehall 

Whedon is great at doing good characters so it’s impossible to pick one that I hate. But there is a character which I don’t like as much as the others and that’s Whitehall. He’s a lackluster villain, feeling much like a generic Dr. Insano kind of a mad scientist. While perpetrating wholesale organ transplants in order to gain renewed youth and vigor certainly establishes him as both vicious and cold we never really get an appreciation for what drives him or what sets him apart from all the other characters matching his archetype, or even his mentor Red Skull.

Whitehall suffers from a distinct lack of development and, particularly with Skye’s father and Grant Ward running around, the series has a lot of better villains casting a shadow over him. That’s a particular weakness given that he’s probably meant as the primary villain of the first half of Season Two. More time should have been spent developing him or, given his current status in the show, less time should have been wasted on him. It’s not a strong dislike but it’s enough that he rates as my least favorite character this season.

Favorite Character Dynamic – Grant/Skye 

The transformation of these two from tentative romance to bitter betrayal and creepy stalker/stalkee relationship is… engaging. It’s not really fun but it does ramp up the suspense and keep you coming back for more. Grant is a very, very warped individual and it’s unclear what caused him to latch on to Skye like he did, or what he might do should he ever find the approval he wants from her.

Skye is a confused person who doesn’t really understand who she is or what she’s capable of, but she’s not going to be manipulated by Grant and it will take more than his attempts to express affection for her to draw her from the side of the angels. The battle of wills between them is tense and hopefully will lead to even better storytelling down the road.

Least Favorite Character Dynamic – Billy and Sam Koening 

Okay, so I’ve played around with the look-alikes with weird relationships a bit in my stories but this one… it just feels a little out of place and weird in this show. Again, not a big gripe, but Whedon does so well with his characters and their interactions that it’s hard not to like them. These two just feel out of place in the larger cast which puts them near the bottom. Hopefully they’ll be more than just quirky background but in the mean time I guess I’ll settle for being mildly exasperated whenever they steal screen time from people I’m more interested in.

Least Favorite Episode – The Things We Bury (S02E08) 

While I like Grant Ward when he’s keeping the pressure on Skye, forcing her to grapple with her own feelings and the realities of the life she’s chosen, on his own he’s kind of a weak character. I’m not sure if it’s because his psychotic fixation makes him predictable or just because he’s not a nice person but he gets old fast. This episode mostly features him and I managed to deduce the outcome, point by point, almost from the beginning and that didn’t sit well with me. I’m inclined to credit that to poor writing, since I think all of this could have been done in a way that made it interesting and effective while still conveying the same events, but I’m not a TV writer and I’m not in a position to judge. It wasn’t a horrible episode but it wasn’t very interesting either.

Favorite Episode – The Writing on the Wall (S02E07) 

This episode was good. The culmination of the TAHITI arc, Coulson regaining sanity and the flashbacks to his efforts to understand fellow TAHITI patients all makes for great character stuff. The episode moves tightly, has good suspense and the reveal shot at the end, when Coulson and the other TAHITI patient who have been searching look down and finally see what they’ve been looking for… that’s a great moment. Yes, the Winter Finale had a powerful climax as well but Coulson’s character resolution for this half of the season resonated more.

Other Stuff 

I’m still on the fence about this show. The incorporation of the inhumans to the MCU before their actual movie is a nice touch and feels much more organic than most of the forced tie-ins from the first season. The reveal that Skye is actually an established DC character (albeit a minor one) is great and, while Bobbi Morse did this first, it’s satisfying to know one of the people who we’ve come all this way with is an established Marvel player.

This will most likely make the character Skye in the Marvel comic SHIELD, which features many of the same characters as the show, substantially different from her MCU counterpart, but we can live with that.

My two biggest problems with the show are as follows. First, the heavy studio hand visible in the first season which resulted in wonky story pacing and poor placement of a major plot twist really hampered the progress of the show. But it seems to be recovering from that.

Second, the beautiful people habit. I mentioned how much I liked Scorpion avoiding that and, to an extent, Gotham has as well. Not as much, but many of the people in Gotham are socialites and others with public images to think of so it’s at least kind of realistic. SHIELD is full of spies and professional hard cases, people who should blend in or be a little on the rough edge of things. But the cast almost universally looks like they’re ready to step onto a photo shoot most of the time. They’re overstylized and it’s a little grating. Only Clark Gregg manages to avoid looking like he’s been spit polished before he stepped onto the set and I suspect that’s more due to his natural charisma than a conscious decision on the part of makeup.

On the other hand, the actors are very good. Clark Gregg I’ve already said I like. Brett Dalton is eerily good at the placid psychotic Grant Ward. But Kyle MacLachlan takes the cake as Skye’s deranged father, teetering wildly between an injured and hurting man and a homicidal wreck bent on vengeance. His jump from one to the other is always believable and, oddly enough, more pitiable than chilling, making his character all the harder to get a handle on. Good work, sir. Good work.

I’m still divided on this show, but my biggest gripe with it was the clear fingerprints of studio interference in the first season. Over time those signs have diminished. Hopefully we won’t have cause to see them again – not that studio direction is bad. But when it stands out too much it can kill a series. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, the good ship SHIELD will not suffer such a fate.

Midseason Recap: Gotham

Time for the second installment of Midseason Recap. Up this week, Fox’s Gotham.

The plot of Gotham revolves around the titular home city of DC superhero Batman. The central character, surprisingly enough, is Jim Gordon, future Police Commissioner but currently a humble detective in the GCPD. The time period is right after the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne. It’s not so much a superhero TV show as it is a prequel to such a show.

Overarching Plot, General Strengths and Weaknesses 

Most of what we’ve seen so far in Gotham is a lot of corruption, infesting the police department, the city government and even Wayne Enterprises, all tying back to the city’s organized crime families and their interest in the renovation work to be done in the Arkham district. It’s not yet clear what the greater game is but the build up to it promises to be interesting.

While the general plot of Gotham is strong and it moves at a really good pace what Gotham lacks is fleshed out characters. The show’s weakness is how one note much of the cast is. Jim is almost always grim and determined, Fish is stylish but angry, Cobblepot is simpering and creepy. Surprisingly enough, with the exception of Harvey (and him only in one episode), the only cast to show great nuance are the younger characters and Alfred. Hopefully as things begin to settle into place we’ll see some improvement on that score. In the mean time, the show is rather young and has a large cast so it’s forgiven. For now.

Favorite Character: Bruce Wayne

Bruce is a supporting character, at least in theory, but his status as future-Batman in the making has assured his character a lot of attention and the show has lavished it’s attention wisely. While he starts as a shellshocked boy grappling with grief in a huge, empty house Bruce quickly begins to transform. First his desire to know what happened to his parents and why prompts him to begin digging into the records of his parents’ business and we begin to see shadows of the world’s greatest detective. From there, other aspects begin to take shape. The incident with The Goat presents him with the idea of a totem animal to strike fear with. Then he goes back to school and realizes he has no idea how to fight. The young man who will travel the world to become Batman is taking shape before our eyes very quickly and I love it.

Least Favorite Character: Barbara Kean 

I don’t know what’s going on with this character and I honestly don’t care. That’s how poorly she’s been executed in this season. I’m not even sure what she does when Jim’s not around, she just seems to exist to be an albatross around his neck. She’s emotionally a huge gaping hole in his armor and she seems to be determined to do everything she can to make that weakness as pronounced as possible and I can’t think of a single thing she’s done to make that okay.

Look, not every character has to be a tower of strength and conviction, make wise choices, be uber personable or what have you. But there has to be something likable about the character or they’re wasting time that could be spent on other characters. Barbara isn’t adding anything to the series right now.

Her attempts to help and support Jim just wind up backfiring and I have no idea what he’s supposed to see in her other than a pretty face. Their relationship is on hiatus as of episode 11 and I’m kind of hoping it stays that way. Yes, a character can grow and evolve over the course of a series and if that happens to Barbara, that’s great. But right now the writers have a long, long way to go.

Barbara’s a big factor in all the things I really disliked about this season so I hope you’re ready to hear a lot more about her… But first!

Favorite Character Dynamic: Bruce Wayne/Selena Kyle 

Honestly I was thinking about putting Jim/Harvey in this spot, or maybe Bruce/Alfred or even Cobblepot/Fish, but then Rogues Gallery came along and completely changed my mind. Bruce and Selena hung out for a few episodes and I enjoyed watching them feel each other out and try and get a grip on their feelings but, in a show that has a lot of interesting character dynamics, they didn’t really stand out.

But when Bruce hit the streets with Selena the conflict between the two went to the next level. It’s funny because while Selena has been on the streets for a long time there’s a lot of ways she’s still more naïve than Bruce, whether by choice (as in the case of her believing her mother is coming back for her) or education (she doesn’t value loyalty or stability like Bruce does because she’s never had them).

At the same time Bruce isn’t a hard enough of a person to deal with the people on the streets in a way they’ll understand. He’ll have to become that person if he’s ever going to be the Batman we know and Selena is rubbing that in at every opportunity. It’s great stuff.

Least Favorite Character Dynamic: Barbara Kean/Jim Gordon 

The Gwen Stacey Fallacy is what occurs when one character in a relationship decides to not talk about how dangerous their relationship is, usually because one of them is influential in some way and the other might be used as leverage against them. I call it this because Peter Parker demonstrates this behavior all through The Amazing Spiderman 2 and many of his other relationships in other continuities. It’s a behavior that frankly drives me nuts.

Barbara and Jim are both demonstrating it in Gotham. I hate the Gwen Stacey Fallacy because it’s such a shortsighted thing to do but more than that, at least in modern storytelling, it’s presented as a positive thing. When talking about Scorpion I mentioned that I loved the relationship between Cabe and his ex-wife in part because it avoided this behavior – Cabe and Rebecca had clearly not only talked about the danger in their lifestyle but planned for it.

Barbara, on the other hand, has recklessly meddled in Jim’s job twice. Once when she leaked information to the press and once when she came back to town and confronted Don Falcone. With no plan or strategy in mind. Both times she compromised Jim’s ability to do his job and then she left him because she couldn’t handle the consequences of her own actions.

For his part, Jim has never sat down and talked with Barbara about the dangers she might face as his fiancée or wife and didn’t support her at all after her attempted abduction by Fish’s men or her later enforced stay at Falcone’s. He’s frequently distracted and rarely affectionate.

Again, I get that overcoming character flaws is important for character growth. But these flaws have little to do with the story of Gotham and just feel distracting. And a romance that overcomes obstacles feels worthwhile. But only when the characters involved are trying to overcome those obstacles – but these two are just sort of muddling along. The whole relationship is annoying, unbelievable and, frankly, disappointing from a series that otherwise has very strong character relationships.

Least Favorite Episode: Penguin’s Umbrella (S01E07) 

This has all the makings of a great episode, the showdown at the police station, Jim going rogue and the reveal of Cobblepot’s duplicity. Problem is, all the feeling of forward motion comes to a screeching halt in the middle when Barbara’s shortsightedness halt’s Jim’s mad rush. It makes it look like Don Falcone won because he was lucky and Jim was unlucky, not because Falcone was a menace capable of exerting any kind of leverage over Jim he wanted. And it ruined the forward momentum of the plot without diverting it into new channels. All in all, a disappointing episode.

Favorite Episode: Lovecraft (S01E10)

This is everything Penguin’s Umbrella was not – great action with a great resolution that still leaves lots of places for the story to go. We see the best of everyone involved from the heroism of Bruce, Alfred and Jim to the deviousness of Cobblepot, Fish and whoever was behind the Wayne murders. If the series is trying to hit a major action beat I’d rather they be more like this.

Other Stuff:

While I don’t think Gotham is quite as well written as Scorpion, mainly because of a certain character who shall remain nameless, it does outdo that show in a number of other respects. Cinematography is beautiful and the slightly dated look of everything is a great touch – it feels like it could be the tale of the last ten years of Gotham history.

Also, the acting is of a universally high quality here. The villains are gleefully loathsome, the heroes manage to portray some depth even in a relentlessly grim story.

Special props are due to David Mazouz and Camren Bicondova for doing a great job portraying a wounded and conflicted young man and a hardened but equally wounded young woman. Serious TV shows shy away from giving younger characters much screen time because finding young people to portray them well is very difficult. Mazouz and Bicondova are both up to the task and make Gotham stand out among competing shows.

All in all, I like Gotham a lot. It has it’s flaws but I’m optimistic that, as time goes by, they will iron themselves out and the show will tell a brilliant coming of age story – for both Jim and Bruce.

Midseason Recap: Scorpion

Hey, let’s talk about TV shows! I haven’t followed any TV shows in a long time but this season I’m watching four, yes four of them. Since it’s the time of year where most shows are on break for the winter (at least while I’m writing this, I think most of these posts will go up after the actual shows start airing again) I thought I’d take a little time to look at the shows I’m watching from a writing perspective. Let’s start with the show that I feel is currently doing the best, writingwise, of those I’m following. That show is Scorpion, which I’ve already talked about some here.

If you want a quick rehash of what the show is about and haven’t watched it, my linked recommendation serves as a good primer and I’m going to skip rehashing the premise of the show but I will talk a bit about format. Scorpion is an episodic show that deals a lot with the mechanics of hi-tech crime, at least in theory, and tries to wrap up each storyline within the course of a show. There are some exceptions, Walter trying to find a cure for his sister and Ralph’s dad coming back into his life for example, but for the most part each episode is a stand alone adventure. This is both a strength and weakness of the show but, as it’s been written so far, I feel like it’s more of a strength.

The fact that there’s no overarching plot in this first season means I’m going to skip an analysis of that so far and just talk about the characters, relationships and episodes I feel were best and worst in this series.

Favorite Character: Cabe Gallo

While Paige is our audience surrogate, the normal person in the herd of geniuses, Cabe is the heroic normal and he’s perfect in the roll. He’s competent, knowledgeable in his field and surprisingly tough for a grumpy old man. Although if Up and Gravity Falls have taught me anything it’s not to underestimate grumpy old men.

What makes Cabe so well written is how well he handles his team. He’s a stern leader when he has to be, and you never get the impression that he’s overly familiar or affectionate. But there are enough glimpses of the compassionate and caring person who values his job as a way to help people to ensure that we never see Cabe as just a suit or a handler. He’s a wise man and mentor of the group and he fills the roll to a T.

Least Favorite Character: Sylvester Dodd 

Now don’t get me wrong, I like Sylvester a lot. He’s funny and sweet and his neurosis remind me a lot of famous fictional detective Adrian Monk. And that’s my biggest problem. Other than age and mathematical acumen, Sylvester doesn’t feel a whole lot different from Monk in the way he’s presented most of the time. Sure, Sylvester smiles more but that’s about it.

Mostly, I feel that Sylvester lacks development. Hopefully as we learn more about his background and see him in new situations he’ll grow and become more interesting but right now he feels a little flat against all the other, louder characters in the group.

Favorite Character Dynamic: Happy/Toby

These two. Happy could just come off as a stereotypical abrasive, angry woman. Toby could just come off as another snarky man with a huge ego. The two together could just feel like clashing personalities in a boring, predictable relationship.

And okay, on occasion they do.

But for the most part the two complement each other well and they’re written with a light touch, not overused, and we see their good sides very often as well. It makes them fun to watch and gives an alternative to the much more vanilla relationship between Paige and Walter.

Least Favorite Character Dynamic: Walter/Drew 

I’m not sure where the relationship between Walter and Ralph’s dad is going, what Walter thinks of it or if we’re supposed to find it touching or disappointing or what. Walter seems just as conflicted about it so that may be intentional but I think it’s cluttering up the show when I’d much rather see the Scorpion team being fleshed out more in their own right. Just not sure this is adding anything to the show right now.

Favorite Episode:  Rogue Element (S01E09) 

This episode introduces us to Cabe’s ex-wife, fills in much of his backstory and lets us see how Cabe’s leadership of the team now is just an extension of who he’s always been. I really like the dynamic we see between Cabe and Rebecca, his ex, and I love the sense of longstanding partnership between the two. Rebecca is obviously a toughminded woman but still charming and thoughtful. It’s easy to see how she and Cabe would have wound up a couple and how Cabe’s regrets over their falling apart would mark him.

I also enjoy the clear signs that Cabe and Rebecca actually thought about what their relationship would mean for each of them as a result of Cabe’s career, avoiding what I like to call the Gwen Stacey Fallacy, but more on that another time.

Least Favorite Episode: Plutonium is Forever (S01E04) 

Did not care for the scenario, antagonist or general direction of this episode. While Scorpion has a theme of great intelligence not necessarily being a blessing, the way this episode tries to portray Walter as a personality waiting to collapse under it’s own genius just doesn’t ring true. Many of the plot points are predictable and the resolution lacks tension. Cabe walking out of the ocean is a really funny scene, though.

Other Stuff

Okay, so that’s the highlights and lowlights of the season’s writing for me, so far. Some other things I like about the show include it’s casting – only Elyes Gabel (Walter) and Katharine McPhee (Paige) fall into the typical Hollywood “beautiful people” range. The rest of the cast, while not unattractive by any means, feel much more like real people and not the over-stylized figures that you typically find in a TV show. Props for that.

Also, the heist-esque elements in many of the episodes are very entertaining, giving what could be a slow-feeling premise (dealing with cybercrime and security) a more lively feel.

On the other hand, the acting is not always all it could be. Robert Patrick (Cabe) and Eddie Kaye Thomas (Toby) do the best most consistently, in my opinion, and this is probably a big part of why I like their characters as much as I do. The other actors aren’t bad, but they don’t feel particularly inspired either. Hopefully as the cast gels more we’ll start to see more engrossing performances from them as well.

Scorpion has had a good first season so far and it promises to be interesting and fun come the new year as well so if you’re not watching it yet give it a shot. It’s good stuff.