Looking back, the task seems almost impossible: Follow up the biggest movie in the world, bring its vibe to TV, AND hold back a major development in the shared cinematic universe that can’t be revealed until way late in the first season.
Despite the enormity of that ask, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen said yes and thus, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was born. In the five years since, there have been ups and downs; changes in time slots and air dates. Through it all, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has developed a devoted following, which no doubt revels in the series’ milestone 100th episode on Friday night.
With Marvel Comics properties on several networks and streaming services now, it’s difficult to remember what a risk Disney/Marvel were taking by trying to capture some of that movie magic, building a show around a secondary character whose death was a major plot point in their most successful film to date.
The ABC/Disney hype machine went into action, and it didn’t take much to stir up fans of Marvel’s Avengers ,who were craving a weekly dose of superhero excitement. At the time, the only thing remotely like it was The CW’s Arrow, which was going into its second season. Like much that comes out of the DC Comics stable, Arrow was dark, brooding, and drew many of its stories and characters from Batman’s much deeper bench of sidekicks and villains.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a different promise. The “Marvel way” was fun and since the TV show was connected to the events that transpire on the silver screen, fans believed that it was only a matter of time before they’d see a cameo from Captain America, Thor or Iron Man.
The premiere episode was seen by 12 million people, a rousing success by any measure. However ,the cracks in the trophy started to show almost immediately.
Fans whose only exposure to Marvel was through the films, were dumbfounded that the only superheroes in the pilot appeared in toy form. It didn’t help that the first half dozen episodes were largely of the “monster of the week” variety, Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson felt different in large doses than he did in the snippets from the movies, and the rest of the cast — consisting of Ming Na-Wen and a bunch of unknowns (Elizabeth Henstridge, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet and Iain De Caestecker) — had trouble connecting with fans.
The series shed viewers as frustrated fans jumped ship. Unfortunately, just as it was starting to find its legs, the show took a month off for the 2014 Winter Olympics, giving more viewers the excuse to move on to something different.
Fans who stuck with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. after that break were rewarded with episodes that got progressively better, featured more serialized storytelling, and a cast that started to gel. The training wheels were finally taken off in March of 2014, when Captain America: Winter Soldier was released, and the revolutionary HYDRA infiltration plot was revealed. The series ended that first season on a creative upswing, but the damage was already done. Viewers had bailed on the series never to return, despite the impassioned pleas of fans who touted the show’s improvements.
After the way the first season unfolded, it’s a miracle Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. got a second.
A funny thing happened after that first season. The series that struggled to find direction at first, made some tweaks, added more action oriented characters, and ditched story elements that didn’t work. The stories got better. The cast got better. The series wasn’t so closely tethered to what was going on in cinemas. It still wasn’t a superhero epic, but it was more consistent and action oriented, while still maintaining that Marvel charm.
In the four years since, every season has built on the success of the previous. New cast members –- Adrianne Palicki, Nick Blood, B.J. Britt, Henry Simmons and Natalia Cordova-Buckley -– gave the show more diversity, and a shot in the arm in the ass-kicking department.
During the course of these 100 episodes, the agents have been to one end of the universe and back, been thrown through time, and faced gods and monsters that were both scientific and supernatural. No matter how outlandish the scenario, the chemistry the cast has developed has been the glue that brings fans back week after week.
This 100th episode nearly didn’t happen. Reports over the summer stated that ABC was ready to pull the plug on the series after last season, before Disney stepped in. Instead S.H.I.E.L.D. was moved to Fridays, and started late to make room for the disaster that was Marvel’s Inhumans.
Even now, the show’s creators are reportedly hedging their bets ,and setting up this season finale to also serve as a series finale. S.H.I.E.L.D. has faced uncertainty before, and this week’s milestone episode doesn’t have to be a gravestone for the series, given that Disney plans to launch its own streaming service in 2019. Series with a built-in audience of a few million people doesn’t exactly turn heads on network TV, but the lure of new subscribers that a sixth season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might bring could keep this improbable circus around a little while longer.
That is a worry for another day. Friday will be a time for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to celebrate the show they love, and for viewers to be spellbound by what adventures unfold.