Joss Whedon was the last person in the world who should have directed The Avengers. But somehow he got picked for the job and accepted it, probably out of his love for comic books (which he sometimes writes), and turned it into the single most successful movie of 2012. The Avengers was a high-budget action movie of the superhero variety and, as such, emphasized spectacle, explosions and stunning CGI special effects. The irony is that this really isn’t the kind of thing that Whedon is best at, though obviously he can do it when he tries. I’m beginning to suspect that any hack director in Hollywood can do a successful CGI blockbuster because most of the REAL work is done during post-production by people other than the director.
What Whedon does well is writing TV shows about quirky, witty, interesting groups of characters with unexpected and gradually revealed backstories, people united by chance and held together by comically dysfunctional yet simultaneously affectionate relationships. If you go back and watch your CD (or Blu-Ray) copy of The Avengers, you’ll notice that it has witty characters with comically dysfunctional relationships, but this fact might have slipped past you on first viewing because these things were being drowned out by explosions and noisy alien invaders. The Avengers was a Michael Bay epic as viewed through the Joss Whedon lens and as such seems to have appealed to the mass audience, a very massive mass audience, the same way that, say, the Transformers films do. I loved it less than many people did not because I don’t enjoy a good action spectacle — I do, actually, though I draw the line at the Transformers films — but because I know that Joss Whedon can do so much more than that. And what he does doesn’t require spectacle, expensively produced action and CGI effects, which is why it’s so perfect for the relatively low-budget medium of television, the medium in which he first became a success.
The success of The Avengers got Whedon, or more properly a team of people supervised remotely by Whedon, the job of creating the TV show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I suspect because the people who run Disney (which owns both ABC, the network the show runs on, and Marvel Studios, which owns the S.H.I.E.L.D. concept) figured that his name along with the S.H.I.E.L.D. name would draw in that massive audience that had flocked to The Avengers. And I suspect it did — at first. But I hear that the ratings numbers are dropping and I’m not surprised, because the show is becoming less and less like the movie and more and more like a Joss Whedon show. And that’s what I’m starting to like about it.
At first the TV show looked like it was trying to be the movie, at least a cut-rate version of the movie, even going so far as to have a superhero character of ambiguous intentions in the first episode. (What happened to that character, anyway? Did he just vanish? Will he be back?) But the connection between show and movie has been shrinking and the show is becoming better because of it. In the most recent episode, “The Hub,” it finally became quite good, because it ceased to have much connection with The Avengers and became a true Whedon show, which is to say that it truly became what I referred to in my last blog as a jigsaw puzzle show.
Ostensibly, “The Hub” was about a S.H.I.E.L.D. mission to go to a fictitious Eastern European country and disable something called the Overkill Device, the kind of ridiculous spy-fi name associated with bad James Bond films. (To their credit, the characters even commented on how ridiculous the name was.) But the Overkill Device was really just a MacGuffin, Alfred Hitchcock’s term for an otherwise meaningless object that serves only to bring characters together and let them interact. And that’s exactly what it did, quite well. “The Hub” wasn’t really about television spy action, though there was some of that in it, but about giving the show’s viewers a better sense of who the characters are, what the relationships between them are like, and what kind of mysterious backstories lurk in their secret S.H.I.E.L.D. dossiers.
Jigsaw puzzle shows, as I defined them last time around, are neither serial shows nor standalone shows, but shows that, in each episode, introduce pieces of a puzzle that at first seem almost random and then gradually fit together to form a picture that’s larger than anything in any single episode. In “The Hub,” Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. used the Overkill Device as an excuse for giving its viewers several major pieces of the show’s underlying jigsaw puzzle and the picture that’s starting to form from those pieces suggests that this show is going to have one of the best backstories of any Whedon show yet — and, given that Whedon is a master of backstory, that’s saying quite a lot.
Viewers have already had hints that Agent Coulson didn’t really spend the eight months after his reportedly brief death (depicted in The Avengers) recovering in Tahiti, as he supposedly believes, but now it’s clear that Coulson himself realizes that this is a lie and wants to learn the truth. It’s also clear that the possible solution to this puzzle scares the hell out of Coulson, which makes it that much more tantalizing to viewers, the way that the riddle of Simon and River Tam was so tantalizing to viewers on Whedon’s Firefly. However, “The Hub” also revealed that Skye, the gorgeous terrorist who has been subsumed for no apparent reason into the S.H.I.E.L.D. unit run by Coulson, has a backstory that’s far more interesting than has been hinted at up until now and that she has a preexisting history with S.H.I.E.L.D.: She was left at an orphanage as an infant by a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Why? Nobody’s telling us yet. But it’s another piece of the jigsaw puzzle, one that’s almost as fascinating as the Coulson part of the puzzle.
As I said earlier, Whedon’s major strength besides designing jigsaw puzzles is creating groups of characters who have interesting relationships and the show started doing that in earnest with this episode. We finally got a glimpse of the relationship between Fitz and Simmons, the show’s male-female geek team, and it’s fraught with both sexual and affectionate tension, with a special emphasis on the affectionate part. Unlike, say, Skye and Ward, these aren’t characters you’re dying to see jump into bed together, but the affection between the two of them is so palpable and charming that you just want to give them a great big hug. The objective correlative for that affection in this episode was a prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich with just a hint of aioli and it was used to clever effect. The show also gave us some bonding scenes between the unlikely pair of tough guy Ward and uber-geek Fitz that started out with exactly the sort of friction and incompatibility that you’d expect in such a relationship, but then took a surprising turn toward mutual respect. And while Ward and Fitz were putting themselves in harm’s way, the show did something even more unexpected: it featured a bonding sequence between two of the show’s major female characters, terrorist Skye and Fitz’s female counterpart Simmons, that was deftly comedic and bodes well for the way that all of the character relationships are going to build on this show.
Mostly, though, “The Hub” was the episode that turned S.H.I.E.L.D. into what I’ve wanted it to be all along: a true Joss Whedon show. It’s finally clear that the spy show we thought we were watching up until now was just an excuse for a show about relationships and secret histories, which are the things I’ve loved about Whedon’s shows since Buffy. It’s at last become a show that’s genuinely worth watching and I’m starting to feel the love for it that I’ve wanted to feel since it started. In fact, the only reason I’ve stuck with it this long is that I knew that this was the type of show it would eventually become.
Because Whedon’s shows always do.