Agents of SHIELD is currently enjoying a holiday hiatus, with no new episodes until January 14, 2014. That makes this the perfect time to look back over the first ten episodes and see how they stack up.
Marvel Studios' first foray into live action television ended the year as the fall season's fourth highest-rated drama in the 18-49 demographic, yet it's safe to say it hasn't been a critical darling. With at least another twelve episodes guaranteed for next year, has Agents of SHIELD laid the groundwork to grow in 2014? Comics Alliance ranks the first ten episodes from best to... let's call it "least best."
Written by Monica Owusu-Breen, directed by Jonathan Frakes.
In which nutty Pagan supremacists and a bookish immortal warrior fight over an Asgardian artefact.
Perhaps the only episode of the show that felt like what I think Agents of SHIELD can be, with a story that fully and logically exploits the Marvel universe's potential for secret weirdness and super-crime. This was officially the tie-in to Thor: The Dark World, the motion picture, but the connection is unimportant; the episode had its own story to tell. "The Well" also benefits from shining a light on the history of one of its characters, Agent Ward (Brett Dalton).
Written by Jeffrey Bell, directed by Roxann Dawson.
In which an ex-SHIELD agent is forced to steal diamonds using her explosive x-ray eye camera.
A good-looking episode that made full use of location shooting; also the first episode to show the cast relaxing into their roles. It's a bit of a shame that Akela Amadour (Pascale Armand) is my favorite character in Agents of SHIELD given that she's only appeared once, and mostly as an antagonist. A cyborg spy is really the absolute baseline of how crazy this show should be. Amadour really needs to return as one of the main cast, with a new SHIELD cyborg implant in place.
Written by Paul Zbyszewski, directed by Vincent Misiano.
In which the wingycarrier is troubled by an electrostatic alien virus that forces one of the SHIELD agents to jump to her death.
This episode has grown in my estimation since I first saw it, and that's down to Elizabeth Henstridge, who gave the most memorable performance of the season. The image of Henstridge's Agent Simmons shivering and crying on the wingycarrier's rear ramp as she readied herself for death was a powerful moment. The episode suffers from a weak set-up and too much time on the plane, but if this had been the only episode to over-use the show's main set, it would have been a great use of it.
Girl In The Flower Dress (Episode 5)
Written by Brent Fletcher, directed by Jesse Bochco.
In which SHIELD try and fail to save a pyrokinetic who has been abducted by Villain Group Inc.
A cool performance from Ruth Negga as the show's first plausible villain, the titular girl in the flower dress, is the anchor for this episode, which also rushed Skye's (Chloe Bennett) Rising Tide double agent story to a gratifyingly early conclusion. The episode is one of three to focus on the show's arc-villains, "Centipede," but only Negga's Raina offers any level of menace.
Written by Rafe Judkins and Lauren LeFranc, directed by Bobby Roth.
In which two agents are abandoned by SHIELD HQ while attempting to recover a weapon from South Ossetia.
The first episode since the pilot to give a sense of SHIELD as an organization -- a hugely important part of creating a plausible world for these characters to play in. "The Hub" was also a long-delayed exercise in exploring the dynamics between characters, though it also served to expose the weakness of some of the characterization. These characters aren't yet as interesting or rounded as they need to be.
Written by Maurissa Tanchareon and Jed Whedon, directed by Billy Gierhart.
In which the wingycarrier is troubled by a ghostly man with a wrench who accidentally got stranded in a hell dimension.
The use of an Asgardian-looking hell dimension actually ties this episode more closely to Thor: The Dark World than episode eight -- but that doesn't give the episode much of a boost. As the third of three episodes mostly set on the plane, "Repairs" felt very flat, and restricting the lovelorn wrench-wielding villain to such a small location made him seem mundane, a stalker rather than a super-villain. At some point this show needs to show us villains who actually take the initiative rather than being swept along by their powers.
Written by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tanchareon, directed by Joss Whedon.
In which Phil Coulson inexplicably recruits an anti-authoritarian activist hacker into his brand new secret spy team.
Take boring Marvel villain The Power Broker, drain the color out of him, and you've got the premise of Agents of SHIELD's pilot. This opener is astonishing for a couple of reasons. First, it's hard to believe such an over-boiled trudge could come from the same director as The Avengers, which crackled with energy and rocketed along. Second, it's hard to believe that ABC signed off on such a weak storyline and such an obviously awkward cast given how much rested on the pilot's shoulders.
I've seen it said that Agents of SHIELD suffered from high expectations, but really the opposite is true; the show benefited from its expectations, and still does. That's why the pilot drew in an audience of 12 million, and why the show continues to perform decently (around the 6-7 million mark), supported by a pre-sold and forgiving audience of comic fans, Marvel fans and Whedon fans, all of whom expected it to be good and expect it to get better. Agents of SHIELD didn't earn that audience, and it hasn't earned their faith.
Let's bury the myth that this show is a struggling underdog when it's actually an impudent heir squandering daddy's fortune. The show never needed to be amazing; it would have excelled if it was merely good. The pilot didn't pass that bar.
Written by Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tanchareon, directed by Milan Cheylov.
In which Graviton almost happens.
One of two episodes to feature a character introduced in a Marvel comic. (The other is "The Hub," which has Victoria Hand and Jasper Sitwell. One might also tenuously claim Scorch in episode five.) Here the comic character is Franklin Hall, the villain Graviton -- except he never becomes Graviton in the episode. So, here is where I rant about the show's failure to exploit the fictional universe it's built in. Don't mistake me; I don't need this show to have Magneto fighting Spider-Man on the roof of the Baxter Building to tickle my nerdy-bone. The first item on my personal Agents of SHIELD wishlist was Jimmy Woo. That seemed like a modest aspiration!
I don't expect the show to blow its budget on CGI and guest stars; I just want it to commit to big characters and wild ideas - like Fringe, a show that took 22 episodes to score a lower rating than Agents of SHIELD managed in ten, or like The Blacklist or Scandal, both of which beat Agents of SHIELD in the core demo this year. There are police officers and political wives on other shows that feel grander and more operatic than a super villain on this show.
Written by Shalisha Francis, directed by Holly Dale.
In which super-soldier-ish Mike Peterson is brought back as a SHIELD recruit so he can betray the team to Villain Group Inc. and die stupidly.
The only one of the five worst episodes that wasn't written or co-written by the showrunners. That's an alarming reality that I only discovered as I compiled this list. Is this show simply in the wrong hands? "The Bridge" was the big mid-season cliffhanger and the episode that tied the first ten episodes together, and in doing these things it demonstrated how little the show has made me care about its characters or believe in their world. Even if it hadn't had a "he's standing right behind me" joke, this episode would have been a let-down. (No, I'm still not over it.)
Written by Maurissa Tanchareon, Jed Whedon and Jeffrey Bell, directed by David Straiton.
In which the wingycarrier is troubled by Peruvian soldiers and a recovered piece of HYDRA tech.
The second episode maybe carries more of the blame than the pilot for Agents of SHIELD's poor reputation. Pilots are often shaky and burdened by set-up, and much of the audience is always going to switch off when they realise that, good or bad, the show just isn't for them. Second episodes are where we see what shows are made of, and Agents of SHIELD's second episode -- a "bottle" episode with an unconvincing performance by Leonora Varela as the antagonist -- was the absolute weakest.
Most of my hardcore Marvel fanboy friends quit the show with episode two or episode three, and I really can't blame them. The show did get better from here, but it should never have been this bad.
I pray the show doesn't hit this low watermark again. My TV wish for 2014 is that every one of next year's episodes is better than every one of this year's. Because, all evidence to the contrary, I still believe the show can get better. I am that nerd.