Last week on Agents of SHIELD: An angry Black man threatens to blow up a train station full of innocent people. This week: A mysterious explosive device is found inside an oddly young ‘Incan pyramid’ (it’s described as ‘almost 500 years old,’ ignoring the fact that, er, the Incan Empire was crushed by the Spanish about 500 years ago). Is it mysterious woo-woo Incan technology and an opportunity for a meeting with a Wise Native? No! It’s a secret Nazi plot! Or something. I confess, I started losing track over the course of the second episode of this outstandingly dull and amazingly racist series.
While I have not come to expect the best from Joss Whedon, this appears to be setting a new bar. Keep in mind that the concept behind SHIELD is that it’s a highly secretive agency designed to protect people ‘for their own good’ from things of a supernatural nature that they are not ready to handle, which is already a shaky premise. Given that we live in an era where people have made it abundantly clear that they don’t favour being lied to by their governments, and in an era where the consequences of coverups have become painfully clear, SHIELD feels painfully out of step with reality.
In the pilot episode, the antagonist was a Black man who’d accepted some highly specialized body modifications, giving himself superhero strength…with a catch, namely that the modifications would eventually kill him by effectively turning him into a human bomb. Before that happened, though, we needed to be treated to a series of scenes in which he literally burned with rage until he finally had to be brought down by heroic (white) agents of SHIELD who could take him somewhere to be contained, or managed, or whatever it is one does; the show is a bit unclear on this.
Thus, I was already set to view the show with a rather jaundiced eye, as this was a dramatic showcasing of stereotypes, especially when contrasted with the mostly white SHIELD team, which appears to have jumped straight from bickering to cozy nights tucked in together with hot chocolate. Character building? Team building? Pffft, there’s no time.
This week’s episode had our Great White Saviours flying off to Peru to pick up a mysterious object which it was apparently necessary for them to personally extricate because no Peruvian agency could handle it. Their authority, granted by SHIELD, allowed them to do whatever they wanted, including, apparently, shooting a large number of Peruvian rebels protesting their presence in the area (remember, white=right!) in collusion with Peruvian police supposedly sent to guard the site.
Except, PSYCH!, the police were actually bad guys too, and thus needed to be thrown out the SHIELD plane at high altitude/sent to grim-sounding ‘detention camps’ to be dealt with. What did we learn in this episode? Never trust a brown person, evidently. Oh, and that it’s fine to push over the personal boundaries of women of colour; Melinda May’s desires to not be in combat and not be referred to as ‘The Cavalry,’ respectively, are both flagrantly ignored by her colleagues, who don’t seem to see any problem with treating her like someone who doesn’t deserve autonomy.
Who will it be next week? Scheming Jews? Arab terrorists? Evil North Koreans? Chinese with takeover plans? Corrupt African dictators? I can hardly wait to see what comes up next on the ethnic smorgasboard of racist caricatures!
Politically, Agents of SHIELD is an utter pile of rot, relying on racist stereotypes, Great White Saviourism, unquestioning faith in government agencies (apparently), and a thin rehash of the old idea that agencies work ‘for the good of the people,’ much like any other run of the mill cop show.
Aesthetically, it’s also an utter pile of rot. It’s just not good, and is in fact outstandingly not good for a Whedon production. The show lacks much of the spark found in Whedon dialogue, the characters have no depth and complexity, and nothing about the show is engaging enough to make me want to stay and see what happens next. While there’s a great deal of potential for developing interesting interpersonal relationships and working with the lush backstory of the characters, there doesn’t seem to be any sign that this is the plan; in some ways, Agents of SHIELD almost seems like an attempt to pick up where Firefly left off, with different characters and a totally different settings, expecting viewers to immediately connect with a brand-new team.
What made Firefly work, though, was that the team was born, not made. And that hasn’t happened with this show. Perhaps Whedon expects viewers to approach it with The Avengers in mind, or thinks that skipping over formative moments in the early episodes will allow him to cut to the chase, keeping viewers engaged long enough to suck them into the universe, but he appears to be wrong on both counts.
The show took a sharp ratings hit from 4.7 to 3.1 (adults 18-49) from last week, indicating that people didn’t find much to tune in for. On Twitter and other social networks, viewers, including Whedon fans, are not speaking of the show in favorable terms, and it seems to be losing some of its buzz. While ratings tend to shift between openers and the second episode, the fact that so many people seem so disappointed is not a good sign.
Buffy started out slowly, with the first season containing few standout episodes, but this isn’t the era of Buffy. Networks want shows that perform well right out of the gate, and so do viewers, which means that creators need to adjust their expectations and their strategy to make their work function in a new, and very harsh, television environment. How much of a chance will ABC, and viewers, be willing to give here?
Photo by archer 10 (Dennis), licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.