What’s W.R.O.N.G. with ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’?

No new show arrived this fall with more expectations – or punctuation – than ABC’s “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” It was a spin-off of the wildly successful Marvel Comics films. It had Joss Whedon attached as a co-creator (even if he wasn’t going to be around much due to his Marvel movie commitments). ABC was so confident in the thing that it scheduled it opposite “NCIS” and built an entire night of all-new programming around it, under the belief that “S.H.I.E.L.D” would cast a powerful halo around any shows placed near it. It was going to be a blockbuster akin to “Avengers” or “Iron Man,” drawing in viewers from all demographics – and enough of them who weren’t already watching TV in that hour that it could stand on its own opposite TV’s most-watched drama.

It hasn’t turned out that way, however. “SHIELD” debuted to a good-but-not-great audience of around 12 million viewers, but also with a very strong rating among the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demographic. But those numbers have gone down with each installment, and by last week’s fifth episode, the demo rating was only a bit more than half of the premiere audience. And the halo effect? Non-existent. Fellow Tuesday rookie “Lucky 7” was the season’s first cancellation, “Trophy Wife” is barely hanging on and even “The Goldbergs” (which begins seconds after the end of each “SHIELD” episode) is a big disappointment relative to the network’s expectations. “SHIELD” is still a success for ABC, especially when you factor in DVR usage, but it’s not an all-ages phenomenon where people feel compelled to watch live or risk missing out on what people will be excitedly discussing the next day.

Because, to be honest, there hasn’t been a lot about “SHIELD” so far to get excited about. Five episodes is a small sample size, and it’s easy to say that most of Whedon’s previous series took a season or more to truly get their bearings. But even through their early growing pains, there were obvious reasons to stick with them. The “Buffy” pilot, for instance, is a solid introduction to that world, and Whedon and Sarah Michelle Gellar instantly made the main character into someone worth watching, regardless of how clunky cheap some of her early adventures were.

“SHIELD” hasn’t even offered that much. I don’t hate it, but if it wasn’t for residual affection for Marvel that goes back to childhood, and a sense of professional curiosity about whether this big corporate behemoth of a show can be made to work, I suspect it would have been consigned to the same place in my viewing priorities as the various USA and TNT shows I sometimes watch if I’m folding laundry or sorting my mail.

There’s still lots of time for “SHIELD” to course-correct, especially since ABC isn’t getting rid of it anytime soon. But as the show pauses this week to rerun its middling pilot episode, it’s time to look at some of the ways in which the creative team – Joss and Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, not to mention various execs at Marvel, Disney and ABC – went awry when conceiving this show. And since, as Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) noted in the pilot, someone just really wanted the spy agency’s initials to spell “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” let’s see what we can get out of “A.W.R.Y.”

A: Are there any compelling characters? This is the big one, and may ultimately be irreparable without ditching the bulk of the cast and starting over.

The series was presented as a showcase for Phil Coulson, the SHIELD agent whom Clark Gregg had played in most of the Marvel films up to and including “Avengers.” But the writers seem much more interested in what Coulson is – i.e., how he survived being stabbed in the heart by Loki in “Avengers,” or else how he was brought back to life – than in who he is. He’s a mystery, not a man. His unflappable, self-deprecating manner stood out when he was standing toe to toe with gods and monsters and men in metal suits, but outside the context of those movies, he’s come across as fairly bland, despite Gregg’s gift for delivering Whedon-style punchlines.

And it turns out that Coulson is only nominally the series’ lead, anyway. Much more attention has been given to Ward and on Skye (Chloe Bennet), the anarchist hacker whom Coulson recruited for his team in the pilot. The two get a lot of screen time, whether alone or together, we’ve learned more about their backstories than anyone else, and the question of Skye’s loyalties, and whether Ward can turn her into an honest-to-gosh SHIELD agent, has been given much more weight than the occasional cryptic hints about Coulson’s resurrection. And neither the two actors nor the two characters seem up to the task. Ward is a big block of wood; Skye is a cipher whose blandness the show occasionally tries to distract you from by putting Bennet in a skimpy dress (or, last week, her underwear). The idea that Skye thinks of SHIELD as a bad organization with too much power was an interesting one, especially given real-world controversy over NSA surveillance, but the show only really paid lip service to it, then more or less abandoned the idea altogether last week to give us Skye’s much duller, more generic motivation: she wants SHIELD’s help to find out who her parents were.

So the ostensible leads are all problematic, UK scientists Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) barely even qualify as characters at this point, and are just there to banter in different accents, and Ming-Na Wen’s Melinda May gets to entertainingly beat people up once per episode but is yet another character whose backstory and motivations are being held for a later date.

“SHIELD” has been designed as a superpowered tweak on a police procedural, much like the show it airs against on CBS, but “NCIS” works – ditto “Bones,” “Castle,” “The Mentalist” and every other successful show like it – because the audience invests in the investigators. Nine times out of every ten that I watch “NCIS,” I could not care in the slightest about the case the team is working on, but I like Gibbs and enjoy seeing him interact with Di Nozzo, McGee and the rest. As I said, for all the early struggles of “Buffy,” it had Buffy herself. “SHIELD” has worked exactly backwards of that: when the show has a decently-drawn guest character (J. August Richards as 99-percenter with super strength, Louis Ozawa Changchien as a fame-hungry magician who can shoot flames from his hands), it sort of works, and when the guest stars are completely forgettable, so is the episode.

I can see circumstances under which Coulson or May become more compelling in time, and I’ve even seen Joss Whedon work miracles on characters I initially wrote off (like amoral scientist Topher on “Dollhouse”), but if the next episode of “SHIELD” were to open with time-traveling supervillain Kang removing all six of these leads from existence and replacing them with new characters, I don’t know that I’d genuinely miss any of them.

W: Where is the urgency? The Avengers stopped an alien invasion of New York. Captain America kept the Nazis from stockpiling super weapons that would have shifted the balance of World War II. In his latest film, Iron Man prevented a coup of the U.S. government.

Coulson’s team, meanwhile, chases after alien artifacts, or tries to help a new super learn to use his powers, and it all comes with a vibe so casual it’s surprising Coulson hasn’t traded in his blue suit for a Hawaiian shirt and some flip-flops.

Obviously, “SHIELD” can’t have the scope of the Marvel films, but there has to be some kind of intensity to what’s happening here. The members of the team rarely seem like they care all that much about their latest mission – or about bigger arcs like an evil organization trying to master a formula for superpowers – which makes it hard for the rest of us to.

(This is another area where having so many dud heroes hurts; “NCIS” or “Burn Notice” could get away with having the urgency of the best TV drama of 1987 because viewers were engaged with the characters. Not the case here as of yet.)

R: Really? Nick Fury’s here to complain about the repair bill?
In part to goose both live viewing and ratings for “The Goldbergs,” “SHIELD” has revived a mostly-forgotten tradition among TV dramas: the end-of-episode tag, where we get one more scene after the final commercial break. The show has mostly used those tags to tease future storylines, but the second episode concluded with a cameo by Samuel L. Jackson as Coulson’s boss, SHIELD director Nick Fury, who was very unhappy that Coulson and his team had done so much damage to the expensive flying command center Fury had given them. What was designed as an attempt to excite the fans and create more of a connection between the show and the Marvel films instead turned Nick Fury into the world’s most famous example of the Disapproving Black Police Captain archetype, with Coulson just shrugging off all of Fury’s yelling and screaming about the expense. In a couple of minutes, whatever mystique the Marvel films had built around Fury vanished.

In general, “SHIELD” has struggled to draw lines between itself and the movies, not only because Robert Downey Jr. isn’t going to be appearing in a tag anytime soon, but because the show was designed to appeal to a broad audience – some of whom may not have seen “Avengers” or the other films (even though the box office success of those movies made them the definition of mainstream crossover hits) – and therefore the creative team is obviously worried about confusing new-to-Marvel viewers. There are oblique references to the Gamma radiation that created the Hulk, or the Extremis syrum that fueled the “Iron Man 3” villains, but that’s usually as far as it goes. These are just boring spies who occasionally throw around a few keywords related to movies we all enjoyed much more.

Based on the shrinking audience, I would guess that they already lost most of the casual, Marvel-averse audience, and would be wise to play to their strengths. There are 50-plus years of comic book stories about SHIELD, and many, many more stories and characters from the Marvel universe. Don’t resist going nerdy because you’re trying to bring in a big tent audience that’s already abandoned you; be about what you’re actually about, to the best of your ability to do so. More often than not, works of entertainment designed to be accessible by everyone wind up exciting no one. 

Y: You spent how much on this? Look, we know that they don’t have the “Avengers” budget to play with. But this is a show produced for a broadcast network, backed by some huge entertainment conglomerates, and yet it often appears to have been assembled for less money than something on Syfy. The action scenes are usually quick and (other than Melinda May showing off her bonafides) forgettable, the visual effects chintzy. The show’s second episode ever was set largely aboard the team’s plane, which is the sort of cost-saving maneuver a series doesn’t usually have to resort to until it’s late in a season and the budget is getting tight.

On its own, this isn’t a killer problem, but if “SHIELD” isn’t offering interesting protagonists or stories and isn’t taking advantage of its Marvel ties, then the least it could offer is some spectacle. And we’re not getting that, either.

Again, it’s early. All of these episodes were made before anyone involved knew what the ratings were, knew what the audience was or wasn’t responding to, etc. There’s still a chance to make “Agents of SHIELD” into a show worthy of excitement over what it actually is. Right now, though, it’s a show where you can only be excited about what it represents.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com