Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Agents of SHIELD, Season 1


This post is long overdue. Let me explain why. Being a teacher, I do not have a lot of time for watching television. There are very few series' with which I keep up to date. Doctor Who is one. This past year, Agents of SHIELD has been the only other.

I have the added hurdle of being in Canada, such that the episodes are streamed online by the CTV network for only a week. Twice I fell behind by more than that amount, and it took a bit of digging to get my hands on the missing episode elsewhere. (Stop coming up in searches hulu, you are of no use to me!) But I kept at it, because I was enjoying the characters, and the plot. Also, it reminds me a lot (and I mean a LOT) of my own writing style. More on that below.

This post will be part review, part writing commentary. Expect spoilers. For those not keen on spoilers, do not read below the image. For you, I leave you with this final remark: I find the series is accessible to those with little awareness of Marvel, or superheroes. Well done.

WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW!

Quick context for the ramblings to come: I never grew up reading superhero comics. I read Archie, my interests leaned to time travel, and in college I gained an appreciation for magical girls. The only reason I'm even aware of a distinction between Marvel and DC is through Linkara Atop the Fourth Wall and subsequent readings. From this, you can rightly conclude that I haven't seen many superhero movies - for instance, none of the recent "Batman" or "Captain America" movies, the latter seemingly tying strongly to the SHIELD universe. (I have seen Avengers, and a couple of the movies that led to it.)

Basically, what I'm saying is that while I've heard Agents of SHIELD described as "a superhero series without superheros" - that suits me just fine. In fact, I find it rather clever... these days, aren't we all about looking at what happens behind the scenes? The other draw for me was Joss Whedon, as (based on previous work) I like his style. For reasons that may become apparent.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS


I was cautiously optimistic after the first episode. The idea of "new person joins team, allowing us to explain what regular characters already know" is a bit cliche, but seeing as there was probably stuff in there I didn't know, it felt reasonable. And as the series progressed, there was enough to keep me interested, namely the long running plot lines. Well, the hints of such.

A lot of people say you can skip over the first half dozen episodes. I somewhat agree with that sentiment, in that the overall arcing plot wasn't really impacted by them. But it did help to broaden the universe and set up little pieces (flying car) and characters (Ian Quinn) who would be used later on. Which is good, but more than that --

THIS IS EXACTLY MY WRITING STYLE.

Series 2 of "Taylor's Polynomials" - Para is kidnapped! The reaction of the cast? To sit around and chat about the history of the situation for a dozen episodes before deciding on a plan. Second year of High School for my "Time Trippers" series - chapter one, a mysterious new transfer student! Then? Immediately shuttled to the background for a half dozen entries as I focus on Carrie's temporal powers. 

I can see how, as a reader, this might be somewhat infuriating. The SHIELD writers are somewhat better, in that I think they remind the audience of those long-term elements more frequently. It's something I should probably work on. But I'm the sort of person who likes the extended payoff. The "sweeps week" insanity that we've been building towards. (Such as, gunshot fallout!) Partly for the drama, but more because it allows me to pull in the pieces that I've been littering through the script for a while.

Dollhouse vs. Agents of SHIELD. Huh.
The obvious problem with this style is the "long term" investment is needed. Joss Whedon is well known for having management pull that out from under him (Firefly being the obvious case). I wonder if I'm the same way. You need to engage with me for more than a couple chapters... which I guess is hard, because the writing gets boring? I honestly don't know.

It doesn't help that I have a wickedly good memory for details (Oh, I pretty much knew how Coulson and Skye were going to escape from the Bus even as he was sneaking on board). Meaning I have no idea how much a "regular" person retains from week to week when, say, reading my serial. I only hope that, for them, it's NOT like my memory for names and dates. Because I have zero success there.

THE CHARACTERS


Clark Gregg does an amazing job with Coulson. I have no complaints there; probably helps that he'd developed the character through the movies. Skye. I've seen a number of people out there who don't like her. Me, I don't have any major issues. I don't know if it's because I like tech-savvy characters, because I find Chloe Bennet easy on the eyes, or because her plot line became especially interesting. Maybe it's the mix. Granted, I could do without her tendency to end up in/causing trouble, and found the early "betrayal" angle somewhat forced, but those are minor issues.

I see those two characters as being the lead male/female roles.

It took maybe five or six episodes before I was fully able to distinguish "Fitz" from "Simmons" as characters. Not a good sign. I grant that this might have been the point, and they did come into their own... but I'm also not sure the relationship angle was the best place to take them. Still reserving judgement. Melinda May... oy, did we really need another character with a clouded past? On the other hand, she's woven well into the plot, and I relate to her compartmentalizing of emotions. So she gets a continue.

Grant Ward. There's been some hate on Twitter (among those I follow) for him. I think mainly because he never really stood out from the rest - unless you consider his lack of emotionalism to be a trait. Again, possibly the point of his character, so nothing against Dalton, but I do find Triplett's slightly more casual personality a better fit. I also could have done without the whole Ward/May shipping. (Why do it? I mean, it was explained in plot, but... why?) It will be interesting to see what, if anything, they do with him. J. August Richards probably deserves a mention here too, in that he did a great job with the conflicted role that his character ended up in.

What defines 'cool'?
I'm not going to compare much here. Writing characters for a novel seems (to me) to be different than writing for television. In that the latter has, well, actors. They can add new elements to characters that might not have been otherwise anticipated. To that end, some of the rough start of Season One may also have been the actors getting familiar with the roles and the universe they were in. I also wonder if any new elements came about in later episodes, due to earlier reception. (For instance, how Spike stayed alive so long in "Buffy".) Anyone know? I also wonder about is what makes certain traits stand out in a reader/viewer's mind. If you have answers, drop a comment.

THE PLOT


The main plot was really Skye's, which is partly why I see her as the lead female role. She starts out wanting to take down and expose organizations like SHIELD. The season essentially ends with that as the result! Of course, along the way she has an about face - ironically, the organization ends as she becomes a part of it. Though in a sense she was always a part of it, and her life was saved by their agents (twice?). It's all rather clever.

Of course, that wasn't the only plot, per se. There was also the mystery of Coulson's resurrection. And the identity of "The Clairvoyant". (I wonder if part of the backlash against Skye was because those were seen as "better" plots?) Which brings up one rather key element - SOMEHOW the writers had to coordinate this series with what was happening in the MOVIES at the time. In the case of "Thor 2" that wasn't too tricky, but "Captain America 2" literally rewrote their universe! Damn.

If I believe wikipedia (at least as far as general details), the SHIELD pilot was ordered in late 2012. The script for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" had to have been in place (it started shooting sometime in 2013). Effectively, people were asked to write a show about an organization that was shortly going to undergo a serious reboot. I don't even know how you do that. Though I can see why a hacker as a major character would be important.

How much of this will be relevant later?
This may also be part of the reason why the start of the season was slow - they had to hold back a bit on the world crafting, since it would have to be something that could be torn down. They also had to have slow pacing, in light of when the movie was coming out. Since it also makes sense to have a Hydra agent among the group, perhaps keeping everyone's pasts and motivations a bit of a muddle was intentional, so you couldn't pinpoint who it was. Kind of like writing with an end goal in mind... that you can't fast forward to. So what goes in the middle?

Now, I've done that sort of writing - I suspect many people do. You have this grand vision for a climax. But unless we care about the characters, we can't care about what happens to them, so we have to somehow "get to that end", along a path that allows everyone else to be as invested as you are, as the author. BUT then the path can end up twisting in a completely different direction (plot-wise) from where you wanted. And that can't happen here.

The trick, at least in my mind, is to have only a vague sense of that climax. Few details. For instance, in "Taylor's Polynomials" Series 5, I knew I would arc through with depression, and end with a death, and I was pretty sure I knew who would die, but that's about it. So when it came to building up things around it, the core remained intact even though a lot of other elements shifted. I also tend to have no idea how my climax will resolve. The mind meld in "Taylor's Polynomials" Series 3 was dreamed up pretty far along in the run.

Now, I obviously have no idea if the writing for "Agents of SHIELD" was done in a similar way, but I feel like this writing style would be helpful. Of course, I could be completely wrong.

THE SECOND SEASON


So, will I be returning? It's likely, in part due to the smaller pieces from Season One that have yet to be resolved. Namely Skye's origins and the effects of the serum on Coulson. (Very nice final scene to plant the seeds there, incidentally.) I suppose there's also the building up of SHIELD again, but for me, that's not the central objective. I'm character driven. Though it will be interesting to see how they continue to run it in tandem with their movie universe.

How large? (10 sec.)
Also, one last parallel with my writing - the comedy bits help. Be they occasional one-liners (Coulson's first remarks on the lighting as he steps out of the shadows) or plays on words. As in, the "very large file transfer" is one of the FUNNIEST scenes I've seen in ages. The show is good at playing with expectations like that. Both on a small and large scale.

So there's all that... and the fact that watching may give me added insight to how I do my own writing. That alone makes it worth the effort. But that's me. What are your reasons for returning, or not?

Addendum: Finally saw 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'. I don't feel it was necessary to watch, unless you're hyper anti-spoiler. Though even then, it would have spoiled something for 'Agents'.

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