May 16, 2013

The Television Will Not Be Revolutionary: How ABC’s SHIELD Changes Nothing

By Paul Krueger

To the surprise of nobody, ABC picked up its Marvel-fueled pilot Agents of SHIELD to full series late last week, and over the weekend the trailer hit airwaves. The footage currently available promises slick direction, dialogue that more than meets the quippiness quota, and the Lazarus treatment of Clark Gregg's deceased character, Agent Coulson (spoilers if you're the one person who didn't see The Avengers. And if that’s you, what the hell is wrong with you?). In other words: all the ingredients necessary to craft the silver bullet ABC means to shoot through the heart of timeslot rival NCIS, plus Clark Gregg.

Conceptually, the show's far from revolutionary. "Investigating the unusual" is familiar territory for TV, from The X-Files to Grimm. And that's to say nothing of Whedon's first two series, Buffy and Angel. The caliber of talent attached is raising industry eyebrows, but none are Big Names. What makes SHIELD noteworthy, theoretically, is its status as an expansion of an unprecedented meta-franchise. I touched on this a bit in a column a few weeks ago, but I want to tackle the situation from a different angle this time: how SHIELD could change broadcast television if it takes off (which it almost certainly will).

Every year during network upfronts week, thinkpieces pop up across the internet like springtime weeds that contemplate whether some new program is "the future of television." If projects like The Jay Leno Show and The Following are any indicator, the answer is usually no. Fox edges towards edgy. The CW takes a new crop of photogenic white youths to market. NBC wishes it was still 1997, and CBS consistently misses the memo that it's not.  So what makes this thinkpiece any different from all the others that have beaten it to the punch?

Mainly the conclusion that meta-franchise or not, SHIELD won’t change a damn thing.

Maybe this opinion stems from the fact that like most people my age, I’ve largely given up on broadcast television.  These days, it’s a buyer’s market for entertainment.  In order to justify their larger reach, the big networks have to offer up sampler platters of every possible thing they can in hopes of reaching the biggest audience.  But it’s like trying to knock down both pins at once when you’re bowling against a 7-10 split: almost every single time, you’re just going to end up missing both of them and underperforming in your timeslot’s 18-34 male age bracket.

SHIELD’s ties to the Marvel movie universe will be minimal at best--can we really expect major names like Samuel L. Jackson or Jeremy Renner to drop in from week to week, just because?  I’ve no doubt the show will drop a lot of names and provide winking references to things.  Hell, we’ll probably get an amusing cameo from Stan Lee.  But this is no different than what NBC’s attempting to do with Hannibal: provoke ratings through name recognition.  It’s a particularly cool attempt, but it’s just business as usual.

Of course, one can hardly blame ABC.  This past season hasn’t been so kind to them, and they’re in dire need of a LOST-level megahit.  Thanks to a lot of foresight on Disney’s part, Marvel and ABC are now corporate siblings, and Marvel’s spent the past five years kicking in the global box office’s teeth.  It’s the kind of ace in the hole that pretty much everyone but CBS is wishing they had right now.  And the subject matter is definitely zeitgeist-y; even forgetting Marvel’s successes in film, right now the most-watched, buzzed about, and pirated shows on the air concern the likes of vampires, zombies, and really badass dwarfs.  

So why do I, ostensibly the target audience of such an endeavor, remain unconvinced?

Maybe it has to do with the fact that broadcast TV will never be able to fully embrace the subject matter.  Comics developed a reputation as kids’ stuff, but the very best examples of the medium are full of liberal distribution of pain, hilarious cultural insensitivity, and general weirdness.  Cable has these things in spades, too--The Walking Dead’s breakout character is a racist in recovery, and possibly the best TV drama of all time has a fried chicken joint laundering a gigantic meth operation.  But you know what doesn’t have that?  Any media service whose raison d’etre is trying to please everyone.

And the crazy thing is, if anyone should know this, it’s Joss Whedon himself, a man who’s resorted to comic book continuations of all his TV projects because his network employers Didn’t Get It.  The same people aren’t in charge now, but networks have yet to put any faith in his concepts, be it a cyberpunk whorehouse or a Chinese-flavored space western that had a whorehouse in one episode.  His longest-lasting effort, Buffy, only got to where it was because another network picked up the show after it was canceled.  Now, he’s about to foist upon ABC a world with living gods, mutants, and the Science Bros...except viewers won’t actually get to see any of those things, just be reminded that they exist in a parallel universe where the budget is bigger.


I’m sure SHIELD will be a perfectly cromulent show.  I’ll definitely watch it.  Hell, I’ll probably love it.  But removing my fan instincts from the equation to step back and take a look at the bigger picture reveals only one thing to me: there isn’t a bigger picture to see.

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