Tuesday Texture: What IS This?

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Photo by Gene'O

Photo by Gene’O

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Agents of SHIELD now that we’ve seen Agent Carter

Agent Carter took a week off last week, and I’m assuming it was for the State of the Union address. Since Agent Carter is running as a mid-season show for Agents of SHIELD, I thought I would take a mid-season break from the one show to talk about the other in relation to the former… well, whatever, they make sense to compare to one another, right?

There are lots of comparisons that came to mind about the content of the show in the early days, or even before Agent Carter aired. Different eras, relationships to movies, these sorts of things – and I blogged some of my thoughts on that early on. Now that there’s been a few episodes of Agent Carter, the differences seem really stark (pun intended?). So let me look at a few features that I think really stand out between the two, now that they are both officially on the air and part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe!

The Ensemble versus the Protagonist

It’s inherent in the name, I suppose, but Agents of SHIELD is not the story of one person, with no central hero. Sure, the original and ongoing draw to the show is Agent Phil Coulson, brought back from the dead to give us a known leader and a mystery plot – namely, how is he back from the dead?

But he is by no means the only character on the show, just the only known character. Around him he collected a group of agents, who fly the plane, fight the battles, solve the mysteries, hack the computers, solve the genomes (Gene’O’s?), and build the tech. It was not a small team, and they took a lot of time – as they probably needed to – introducing us to all of these agents (and new ones, over time). While Phil Coulson was ever-present, so were the rest of the team.

Agent Carter is much different from that. Sure, she’s not the only character running around, but she is the one we are focusing on. Her partner is not even a fellow agent, but a butler. And there are characters we are getting to know more about – especially Jarvis in the third episode – but not all of them.

For instance, she has some friends she has made outside of work, women who have also been neighbors or roommates. Well, one is dead and the others we might suspect of having nefarious intentions for their friendship – who can we trust? There are also her fellow SSR agents, but they exist to be contrasted with Peggy Carter, to be cliches and stereotypes and not all to be fleshed out and explored.

Sure, part of that is the 8-episode nature of the season: you can’t do it all in that time. But we have solid evidence that we aren’t going to get to know them all, as one of the agents was assassinated at the end of the third episode. That’s a number of friendlies killed in just three episodes – it’s a risky business being in that show! All we know is Agent Carter and Jarvis make it out at the end, everyone else is at risk!

The Marvel Cinematic Universe

Beyond Agent Coulson, the real draw for Agents of SHIELD is its connection to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. These got better over time. There was a ho-hum episode after Thor: The Dark World was out in theaters, with a vague connection to Asgard. Then there was a far better episode with the Lady Sif, and the Asgardian Lorelei. I think this sort of cameo was the sort of thing audiences may have been expecting or wanting more of in the show, and this episode at least showed that it could be done, and done well!

Then the ball dropped with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The SHIELD focus in the movie bled into the show, and the last few episodes of the first season, airing after the movie started playing in theaters, were really incredible, giving a payoff for a lot of the ensemble-cast character development that they had spent so much time on. I think by the end pretty much all of the cast got to be heroes and found their way into our hearts – or at least, more than they had been before.

Season 2 has more seriously delved into the mystery of the Once and Future Phil Coulson, his death and return. After Guardians of the Galaxy, audiences at least knew more about the aliens of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – even if the characters don’t know. So when it starts to turn out that maybe all these mysteries are alien in nature – and we might know who these aliens are and what they might be like! – it got pretty good. The mid-season break ended in some jaw-dropping turns of events, the implications of which have us wondering just how much this will all be a set-up for some of the upcoming Marvel movies – especially The Inhumans, who may need the most setup.

But here’s the thing: with all of that, I think it’s safe to say that Agents of SHIELD is best in the way that it relates to the larger universe. The events of the mid-season-2-finale were great and all, but the implications were better. The minutes of my wife Holly and I theorizing and guessing after the episode was done were a lot of fun, and worth keeping up with the show – but you can’t really say the show and its contents alone were what made us enjoy it so much.

Okay, that’s a lot about Agents of SHIELD. So let me keep my comment on Agent Carter here brief: it hasn’t been like that at all. The connections to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe have largely just been in the characters who come from it: Peggy Carter, Howard Stark, and Jarvis – known before just as a name and an A.I. named after him. There have been a lot of references to Captain America, largely just in the fact that Peggy and he were almost an item and now he’s gone. And that’s it – so the show is having to stand on its own, and not lean on the films for interest and intrigue.

So What Makes Good Television?

Oh man, what am I doing asking a big question like that? Well, I guess I mean that it is a show you can watch, and it’s good, and it entertains you. In and of itself. There are plenty of shows that people hang on to and watch for a variety of reasons – hoping it gets good again, wanting to know the answer to its mysteries, for love of an actor or actress or cast. If I were to try to define “good television” it would be something where it doesn’t have to rely on you “hanging on” – you just watch it and it’s good and stays there.

I think Agents of SHIELD has created a whole new category of reasons to hang on, because it really is an experiment in shared universe, between movies and film. Sure, there are shows based on movies, but generally as a re-telling – shows like Bates Motel or Fargo come to mind as recent examples. Sure, there are movies based on shows, both as re-tellings and often as end-notes, conclusions to the story or continuation. Star Trek movies seem like the best example of this. But Agents of SHIELD was a show set in the universe of the movies, not a re-telling, but a real-time continuation to keep you hyped and excited between movies.

As such, though, it does not stand on its own as “good television.” You can’t just pick up and watch an episode (or a season) of Agents of SHIELD and watch it and be like “hey that was all pretty great.” I don’t think that was ever going to be possible, but it’s an entirely new thing and as a fan, I am happy it exists and have enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s had rough patches and seemingly filler-episodes, but so have shows like Battlestar Galactica, which I followed all the way through its run.

By following an entirely different formula with Agent Carter, they have escaped that same new type of show that Agents of SHIELD belongs to. It’s a show following a movie (Captain America), but beyond that, it’s just a good, period-piece mystery show. It’s just good television. Not into comics? Not a problem, you can still get into Agent Carter. Okay, if you don’t like mystery shows or spy stuff like James Bond, maybe you won’t like Agent Carter. But no show is for everyone, right?

It’s a great mystery show so far, and if you haven’t been watching, there’s only 3 episodes to catch up on right now – out of only 8 this season! Not a lot to catch up on, so give it a chance! I’ll be back next Tuesday with my review of episode 4 – The Blitzkrieg Button!