By Jim Sabataso
When “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” premiered on ABC in 2013, it showed promise. It looked as if it could be the connective tissue of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — the series that lived in the spaces between the studio’s tentpole movies and explored the more obscure corners of Marvel’s vast comic book universe. Five seasons in, the series has only shown intermittent moments of greatness amid a whole lot of bland wheel spinning.
For newbies, the series follows the adventures of a team of agents working for the clandestine spy outfit S.H.I.E.L.D., led by agent and sometimes director Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Once a major player in the MCU, the agency is now embattled and struggling to rebuild after being infiltrated several seasons back by Hydra, an evil, quasi-Nazi organization/mystical cult.
Last season did solid work to break up the monotony of previous seasons by featuring two distinct yet connected story arcs rather than one season-long, 20-plus episode arc. The move gave the series a comic-book feel and added a welcome dose of energy as it wove together the disparate stories in a surprising way. (For an excellent example of serialized comic-book storytelling on TV, I highly recommend CW’s “The Flash,” which, after four seasons, continues to be a damn delight.)
The first arc had a fun supernatural vibe that brought in the Marvel character Ghost Rider. The second saw the team besieged by android duplicates of themselves called life model decoys and ultimately trapped inside a Matrix-like virtual landscape called the Framework. Just really fun comic-book stuff.
A season-ending cliffhanger scene in which Coulson wakes up aboard a ship in deep space left the series in an intriguing place that is picked up in season five. Straightaway, we learn the team was abducted by aliens and sent to space to fulfill a vague prophecy foretold in the drawings of a precognitive toddler. You know, that old chestnut.
From a practical perspective, it makes sense to get the team off planet ahead of this spring’s epic “Avengers: Infinity War.” Heretofore, the MCU firewall between film and TV has been pretty tight; “Agents” occasionally makes passing references to the events of the films, but there is very little interaction despite existing in the same extended universe. Given the sprawling nature of “Infinity War,” it would be narratively impossible for the show to ignore it. It makes sense, then, to take the team off the board until it’s over.
The shakeup of status quo also breathes fresh air into the series, which has felt stale even through last season’s solid output. The ragtag band of spies trying to save a world that no longer trusts them was reaching a point of diminishing returns. Breaking up that routine and putting the characters in a totally different environment — onboard a space station with the desperate human population being ruled over by the authoritarian Kree alien race — presents new opportunities for conflict and puts characters in new roles.
Faced with the cruel conditions the Kree have imposed on the humans, Coulson and company inevitably find themselves doing the do-gooder thing and getting themselves in trouble along the way. The goal of the season seems to save the humans and find their way home. A twist in the second episode complicates the latter and presents an interesting problem to be solved.
Visually, the show is hit or miss. CGI effects occasionally suffer from network TV budget constraints. The show smartly keeps things confined to the dingy space station and away from deep-space forays. The grimy, low-tech vibe on the space station will feel familiar to fans of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” series. (Whedon’s brother Jed is co-showrunner here, along with Maurissa Tancharoen.)
Fight choreography remains a strength of the series when it puts in the effort. Some scenes are messy and confusing, but, as with other seasons, there are standouts.
Character development continues to be weak. While the cast is likable and fun, attempts to add depth often feel clunky. The star-crossed romantic relationship between Agents Fits and Simmons (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge) continues to be the series’s best. Last season did good work bringing them together, only to tear them apart in a truly heartbreaking (and very comic-booky) way. This season has the couple separated once again, however, it’s their drive to be reunited that ultimately may save the entire team.
Through it all “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” remains the workhorse of the MCU. It keeps chugging along and telling its stories. If not for the Disney mandate to keep the show alive, it’s likely it would have been canceled long ago. That it is able to exist in such a way — without regard to low ratings or middling reviews — presents an opportunity for the showrunners to take bigger risks, or, at the very least, get weirder. Porting the cast into space for a season is a good start. Hopefully, the rest of season five will bring more welcome surprises.
CHECK IT OUT
“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on ABC.