Okay, NOW It’s Time to Start Watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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.

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Fitz and Simmons: Not all heroes are super.

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.

Fringe, S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Perils of Jigsaw Puzzle Television

Back in 2008, I stopped watching Fringe after the second episode. That wasn’t because it was bad and I had a feeling that I might start watching it again later, but in the early episodes it wasn’t delivering what I wanted it to, which was something like the amazing shockwave that J.J. Abrams and his staff delivered with the first episode of Lost. In retrospect that may have been a blessing, since the first episode and entire first season of Lost turned out to be a high point that even the show itself was unable to equal in later seasons. Fringe, by contrast, came across as a tepid imitation of The X-Files, a show that I remembered fondly but didn’t want to have to sit through again. It had, after all, been done before.

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The jigsaw puzzle comes together.

Turns out I had it all wrong. Lost was a bomb, a muddled mess of a show that got only one thing (aside from a great cast) right: hooking the viewer so perfectly with its first episode and first season that for a lot of us it was hard to get unhooked. Fringe, on the other hand, is genuinely great television, even though it didn’t look that way at first. I’m now halfway through watching its third season on Netflix Streaming and can already see that it’s a much better show than Lost ever managed to become again after its first season and really isn’t all that much like The X-Files, a show that made only one major mistake: staying on the air too long. However, both shows fall into a category that I’ve only recently begun to realize exists: jigsaw puzzle television. Think of jigsaw puzzle TV as the point where standalone television meets serial TV and produces something that can go back and forth between the two or even gradually morph from one into the other.

The X-Files started at a time (1993) when only a few prime-time shows, like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, had played around with the idea of serial television, introducing plots that weren’t neatly tied up in a single episode but that continued over an entire “arc” of episodes. This was a concept that made television executives so nervous that early on, when Hill Street Blues was getting ratings so low that it probably would have been cancelled if NBC’s overall ratings hadn’t been so bad that the whole network was in danger of getting cancelled, an edict went down from the network heads to the show’s producers demanding that at least one plot (out of many simultaneous ones) be both introduced and resolved in every episode.

The X-Files couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be standalone or serial, so by the second season it was doing both, alternating between standalone “monster of the week” episodes and serial “mythology” episodes, which usually consisted of two or three parts each, which gradually filled in pieces of the backstory. The standalone X-Files and the serial X-Files were almost two different shows, with events in a standalone episode having very little effect on character relationships and plot events in the serial episodes. Both the mytharc and standalone episodes were done very well. But every now and then something would happen in a seemingly standalone episode that would turn out to be a part of the show’s continuing mythology. And that, I would argue, was when jigsaw puzzle television was born.

The two current masters of jigsaw puzzle TV shows are J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon, though those are as much brand names now as they are human beings. Both Abrams and Whedon have gotten too good at making monstrously successful films like the Star Trek reboots and The Avengers to spend the kind of time with television that they used to, but they’ve managed to put together teams of producers and showrunners who can mimic their styles amazingly well and I’m convinced that both men are heavily involved in the creation of their shows and draw up detailed blueprints that their writing staffs can then follow in putting their shows together while the big guys themselves are off making billions of dollars in the more lucrative parts of their empires. In effect, they’re the guys who put together the big pictures that their writing staffs then cut up into the jigsaw puzzle pieces.

Fringe appeared initially to be an X-Files clone simply because the first episode featured a male-female pair of FBI agents who found themselves involved with supernatural and high-tech phenomena. Fortunately, the male half was immediately killed off and Anna Torv’s agent Olivia Dunham never became a clone of The X-Files Dana Scully, which may have come across as bait and switch to X-Files fans who tuned in hoping to see a reboot of their favorite show but was actually a clever move on the part of the showrunners. It allowed the introduction of one of television’s quirkiest teams of leading characters, Dunham and her new partners, the father and son team of Walter and Peter Bishop (John Noble and Joshua Jackson). All three leads are great, but it’s brilliantly crazy scientist Walter, one of the most cleverly conceived and bizarrely gonzo characters on TV, who really makes the show work. The fact that he seems to be part of the show’s mysterious backstory but is simultaneously so batshit crazy that he can’t remember exactly what part of it he is is what keeps the show from being like anything else anywhere on TV, the X-Files included.

The reason Fringe is a jigsaw puzzle show is that the early episodes bear a strong resemblance to standalone episodes of The X-Files, revolving around similar mysterious phenomena like people abruptly melting into warm jello or suddenly finding themselves cut in half, but every episode also adds a surprise piece of the show’s serial continuity, usually at the very end. As it becomes clear that elements like the apparently malevolent corporation Massive Dynamics and its elusive founder William Bell (whose very casting is a delightful surprise in itself) are going to figure into the show in a big way, it also becomes apparent that the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are going to fit together into some kind of stunning and unexpected picture, as indeed they do.

In some ways, Fringe is the polar opposite of Lost. Abrams tried to make Lost a continuous serial. Unfortunately, the show was put together quickly, had a great beginning and great first season, then just became muddled. Completely serial shows like this are almost impossible to do and the only truly great example I can think of is Breaking BadFringe, on the other hand, never really tried to be completely serial, and it was much better for using the jigsaw technique. You could view at least half the episodes as standalone stories, but somebody put a lot of work into creating a terrific picture that would come together out of that jigsaw puzzle. Even if the quality of the show takes a nose dive after the middle of Season Three (which is where I am now), it will still have been a terrific jigsaw puzzle for one and a half seasons longer than Lost was. And I’m told it remains good for much longer than that.

Joss Whedon has elements of the jigsaw puzzle show in his early programs, like Buffy and Angel, but his first true jigsaw puzzle show was Firefly, which unfortunately was only given 14 episodes to put itself together. The jigsaw puzzle pieces in those 14 episodes, though, were interesting enough that Whedon was then given an entire movie, the terrific Serenity, to give us an idea of how wonderful the full puzzle would have turned out to be. The major pieces that we got were Simon and River Tam, a wealthy doctor and his sister on the run from the show’s evil government, the Alliance; Shepherd Book, a mysterious preacher with a very unpreacherlike past combined with a genuinely warm and comforting personality; and the Reavers, savage cannibals of unknown origin who appear unexpectedly in burned-out spaceships to eat the unfortunate populations of entire cities or perhaps even entire planets. Whedon got the chance to complete the parst of the puzzle having to do with the Tams and the Reavers in Serenity and he supposedly explains Shepherd Book’s backstory in a comic book, which I have yet to read. I wish we had gotten to see the completed puzzle lament the way it was meant to be seen, on television, and suspect it was altered considerably to fit a two hour film, but what we got was still great. We can blame the Fox network for not allowing us to see it the way it should have been seen. (Why Whedon did another jigsaw puzzle show, Dollhouse, for Fox is beyond me, but I’m sure there’s an explanation for it somewhere. At least Fox allowed him to wrap Dollhouse up in a second season, but the pieces were put together in such a rush that the completed puzzle was partly brilliant, partly a complete mess, and wasn’t wrapped up nearly as well as Firefly was.)

Whedon’s latest jigsaw puzzle show is Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a sequel of sorts to The Avengers but on a much lower budget. Though I doubt that Joss Whedon has much to do with the show on a day-to-day basis, I’m sure he had a lot to do with putting together the initial jigsaw puzzle before turning it over to his brother Jed Whedon, his sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen and former Angel writer Jeffrey Bell. So far the standalone episodes have only been fair-to-middling, but the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle — what happened to Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) after he “died” in The Avengers; what horrible event occurred to Melinda May (Ming Na Wen) that gave her the hated nickname “the Cavalry;” why strange artifacts keep turning up; and why they’re allowing a known terrorist like Skye (Chloe Bennet), who seems to be a quadruple agent — at least — for S.H.I.E.L.D. and its enemies, fly on their tricked-out jet — look like they could form a pretty interesting picture whenever they start falling together.

The problem with jigsaw puzzle shows is that they start out slow and usually don’t look more than mildly interesting in early episodes, sometimes in early seasons. That’s certainly the case with S.H.I.E.L.D., which could be mistaken for any run of the mill spy-fi show if you aren’t watching closely. I’m watching it because I’m convinced that it’s going to become great when the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fall together. (I might note that, with the possible exception of Firefly, none of Joss Whedon’s shows has ever been more than mildly interesting before its second season, just as J.J. Abram’s Fringe didn’t really become great until its third season.) The question now becomes whether S.H.I.E.L.D. will remain on the air long enough for the pieces of the puzzle to come together and the show to realize its full potential. Ordinarily I’d doubt that it would make it that far, but it’s on ABC, which is owned by Disney, the company that also owns Marvel Studios, so maybe it will be given the chance to develop.

When it does realize its full potential, I truly hope that S.H.I.E.L.D. will be as great a jigsaw puzzle show as Fringe.