Thursday, 18 December 2014

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?


I don't want the blog to turn into serial excoriations of the latest bit of entertainment to waste my time. Honestly, I'd far rather read and watch good things (The Shadow Hero, Dirty Snow or Elementary, if you want recent examples) but, having sat through the whole of Agents of SHIELD season one, I feel I owe it to the world to say something.

The great thing about The Winter Soldier is that when you get Fury or other SHIELD agents spouting their ends-justify-the-means doctrine, Cap is there to reground it all with a real moral code - the point of that whole narrative of the movie being, not that a lot of Hydra agents have been pretending to be SHIELD agents, but that SHIELD is Hydra. In the war on terror they have virtually become the same thing.

The TV show, on the other hand, depicts the breakdown of any line between the good and bad guys without apparent irony. On the surface it's about a few stern-parent characters left in charge of a lot of flirty, high-schooly young folks who ought to be partying the night away at the Bronze but instead have been given a plane and as much rope as they like. Agents on both sides are willing, indeed eager, to use or condone torture and killing in cold blood, but Coulson can't provide any counterbalance because he isn't driven by Cap's unalloyed morality. He's your typical self-righteous maverick-with-a-badge who is happy to (ab)use his position of power as he sees fit. It's the kind of show the infantry in Starship Troopers probably watch between battles.

The writing is a curate's egg of the usual Whedonisms (in this case Jed, not Joss). The early episodes have some great unexpected twists such as Coulson's use of the truth serum, but those are quickly forgotten as the story gets bogged down in talk, plans and McGuffins. As the plot spirals in ever-decreasing circles, there's a sense that the writers are barely an episode ahead of their desperate reveals and reversals. By the time we get to the betrayals, which are all easily seen coming, it's starting to feel like Dollhouse season 2 (*Sideshow Bob shudder*)

The plot has become such a mechanical tyrant by the last few episodes that a told relationship like Coulson's and May's is privileged over a shown relationship like Garrett's and Ward's - as if by now the writers had lost any ability to respond organically but were simply sticking to whatever story outline they came up with months earlier. And there is the usual Whedon inability to see a bad guy as anything other than a parrot squawking crazy plans. It's as if, when any character reveals themselves as a Hydra plant, they grow a metaphorical moustache to twirl while gloating. Maybe in a very different show this might have turned into an interesting conflict of ideologies. But no, this is a story in which you are just supposed to root for the people you're told are friends and boo the ones you're told it's okay to despise. The finale is a particularly damp squib, very reminiscent of the Dollhouse finale in fact, and it's not improved for having saved up enough budget to pay for Samuel L Jackson and his gag writer.

Ah yes, gags. In Buffy they served the story. Here, if a funny line occurs to the writers, they use it. Whether it's something that character would actually say, or if it breaks the tension of the story, makes no difference. If only they'd gone the whole hog and remade Get Smart with Maxwell as a SHIELD agent. That might have actually been funnier and more engaging.

When you consider the quality of other shows in the Feds-tackle-weird-shit genre - Fringe and The X-Files especially - Agents of SHIELD looks particularly lame. Its only excuse for existence is to keep the Marvel torch burning between the movies, and great as those movies have been for the most part, so far DC are winning the TV battle by a mile.


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