|Adrianne Palicki and Nick Blood join an expanded cast for the improved second season.|
It’s been intriguing to watch the evolution of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D from passable entertainment into a thrilling genre series. The much-anticipated show premiered to great fanfare in the fall of 2013 but lost viewers by slipping into the “monster of the week” format. Comic book fans expecting fireworks on par with the Marvel films were disappointed by the formulaic start. Despite a solid mix of respected veterans and fresh faces in the cast, the scripts just weren’t that interesting. The turning point came during the crossover with Captain America: The Winter Solider this past spring. The events of the movie and show wound into each other and brought higher stakes for everyone involved. There were real surprises, particularly the team’s betrayal by Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) and the mustache-twirling villainy of Bill Paxton’s John Garrett. The second season has built on this foundation and employed the formula that served a past great. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has become Alias, and I can’t think of a better model.
Premiering in September 2001 and created by J.J. Abrams, Alias depicted an intricate world of spies, betrayals, and supernatural phenomena. Jennifer Garner starred as Sydney Bristow, a brilliant agent who believed she worked for the CIA. She actually served a criminal organization named SD-6 and worked to thwart their plans after learning about the deception. What made the series work were the personal stakes in the middle of the spy thriller. Sydney’s father Jack (Victor Garber) was tied to the conspiracy, and her relationship with CIA handler Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan) grew into romance. The ongoing arc was driven by the inventions of a 15th-century genius named Milo Rambaldi. His remarkable devices kept the story moving as both the heroes and villains battled to find them. While Rambaldi’s gadgets made fewer appearances in later seasons, his presence lingered all the way to the final episode. The formula worked thanks to a sharp cast that included Kevin Weisman as lovable Marshal Flinkman, Carl Lumbly as Marcus Dixon, plus Merrin Dungey and a young Bradley Cooper as Sydney’s pals Francie and Will. Her friends helped make the first two seasons about more than the adventure.
Alias thrived because of a breakneck pace that crammed so much plot and character into every story. The first season ended nearly every episode with a cliffhanger, and there was a real forward momentum that’s extremely rare. A similar pace has taken hold on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. starting with the 16th episode “End of the Beginning”. The Winter Soldier crossover initiated a stunning run that carried right through the season finale. That excitement has continued into season two and only grown with new characters added to the mix. Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) group feels like a real team that’s pushing back the forces of the villainous Hydra. They’ve grown stronger and more cohesive, and giving them a real mission has changed the entire tone. Making Coulson lead S.H.I.E.LD. and introducing formidable antagonists like the ageless Daniel Whitehall (Reed Diamond) has grounded the show by creating real stakes.
|Brett Dalton's Grant Ward has become a lot more interesting since he betrayed the team.|
Another reason for the success is characters with unclear motivations. The best example is Ward, who seemed like a bland soldier until his true colors appeared. Following Garrett’s demise, he’s a free agent playing both sides. A good comparison is Alias’ wonderful Julian Sark (David Anders), who flipped allegiances regularly. He recognized when the tide was turning and bolted at an opportune time. Sydney’s mom Irina Derevko (Lena Olin) also only served her own goals despite caring for her daughter. The family dynamic between Sydney, Jack, and Irina along with Ron Rifkin’s Arvin Sloane raised the emotional stakes to much greater heights. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. includes a growing father/daughter relationship between Coulson and Skye (Chloe Bennet) while she searches for her biological dad. He turns out to be a seriously unhinged Kyle MacLachlan, who transforms into a monstrous killer (Mr. Hyde) when he becomes angry. This family drama works a lot better than you might expect.
I’m certainly not the first person to make this comparison. Charlie Jane Anders described the parallels at io9 back in October 2013. The connections were present at the start, but they’ve grown a lot stronger this season. Co-executive Producers/Writers Jeffrey Bell and Monica Breen played similar roles on Alias during its later years, and it’s likely that their influence has pervaded this series. There are some major differences between the shows, however. Alias focused on the growing relationship between Sydney and Vaughn. The ups-and-downs of their romance often dominated and seemed forced at times. It worked during the first season because the love was beneath the surface. Once it became a focal point and the writers threw obstacles in their way, the results were inconsistent. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn’t spent much time on the romance, though the connection between Ward and Skye has received attention. The other major relationship is between Fitz (Iain De Caistecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge). The science experts have a close friendship, but friction has arisen between the dynamic duo. Both actors are charming and sell the relationship, yet it’s still unclear whether the attention will pay off in the end.
Beyond the specific characters, it’s the tonal similarities that connect the two series. Both find time for humor despite the high stakes. Co-creators Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen worked on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and know Joss Whedon’s voice. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn’t reached the heights of his best work, but it feels at home in the Whedonverse. There’s also a cool sleekness to “the bus” (their high-tech plane) that wouldn’t seem out of place in Sydney’s world, especially APO in the later seasons. The sets are designed more to look striking than serve a function. The production design combines with the music to raise the tension. Michael Giacchino and Bear McCreary rank among the best composers working today, and both understand the type of show they’re supporting. McCreary has found the right tone for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is emitting a lot more confidence this season.
|It's been great fun to watch Kyle MacLachan chew the scenery as Skye's mad father.|
The mid-season finale “What They Become” was a telling example of the ways Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has thrived this fall. It culminated ongoing arcs like Skye’s search for her father and locating the underground city. Coulson’s and Whitehall’s forces converged on the pivotal spot, and not everyone survived. Comic book fans recognized clues to the identities of Skye and her dad plus connections to other Marvel properties. It’s a relief that the show doesn’t suffer if you miss these references. It deepens the story to learn more about the comics’ background, but it’s hardly necessary. Alias built a complex mythology with Rambaldi, but remembering every device wasn’t needed to enjoy the mayhem. This depth can reward longtime fans and introduce multiple layers that weren’t present at the start. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to surprise and has built the foundation to keep getting better.