His latest challenge is an especially high-profile one: Joining show creators Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen as an executive producer and writer on "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," set in the world of Marvel Studios' massively successful film franchise and entering its third week on air.
With the show's latest episode, "The Asset," debuting 8 p.m. Tuesday, CBR News spoke with Bell about his experience working on "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," the ratings drop between the show's first and second week, capturing a movie feel on a TV budget and introducing comic book elements into the live-action series -- starting with Ian Hart's role as Dr. Franklin Hall (beginning this week), the supervillain known in Marvel Comics lore as Graviton.
CBR News: Jeffrey, you've had a long history in TV, and you've worked with Joss Whedon in the past, but this is your first Marvel project -- did it come fairly natural to you to join the creative team on "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."?
Jeffrey Bell: I felt like this show would be in my wheelhouse, between the sort of stories we told on "The X-Files," "Angel" and "Alias." You have weird things happening, you've got a spy show, and you've got emotional storytelling. I was excited that they asked me come play.
When did you come on board the show? Pretty early on in the process, right?
Yeah. There wasn't a script. Joss and Jed and Maurissa called me. I knew Joss before then, and I worked with Jed and Maurissa on "Spartacus." As they were getting ready to take it to ABC, I guess my name came up on both sides.
Given that, since it's mostly new characters that comprise the main cast other than Agent Coulson, were you there to help shape the main cast?
Joss, Jed and Maurissa created the show. The one thing that they had before I came on were those characters. They had a clear sense of who all those people were. I came on, and was able to help shape the pilot some, and contribute in that way, but who the people were -- the engine behind who they were and how they would interact -- those guys knew pretty early on, which was cool.
Though this is the first Marvel project you're worked on, how much of a fan of Marvel comics and Marvel movies were you?
I read comics all the time as a kid, and then stopped in college, and started again as an adult. When I was on "Angel," everybody was so deeply into it, that also gave me a chance to catch up -- "What did I miss since 'Watchmen'?" There was a lot of great stuff to discover; I think "The Ultimates" was fantastic, and I like a lot of non-superhero books, too.
"Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is certainly a multifaceted prospect -- it's based on the existing world of the movies, which is a hugely successful franchise, and also touches on the world of comics, but it still has to be its own thing. What kind of unique experience has that been for you?
I think what made it easy was that Joss brought a really fun, emotional life to the Marvel characters in "The Avengers." If you took a Venn diagram of Marvel over here, and ABC over here, and you overlap them, that overlapping area is what Joss does really well. There are relationships, there's humor, and there's character, and there's also lots of cool and scale, and the stuff the Marvel fans love. I think he brought both of those together in a great way, and Jed and Maurissa were there to sort of run with that.
Me having worked with all of them before, that part felt pretty natural. Joss has the history of working with the "Buffy" and "Angel" kind of storytelling -- they're genre stories, but they're always about character and emotion. We all agree with that as the kind of stories to tell.
As someone who came into this somewhat removed from the Marvel world, how important is walking the line between drawing from existing mythology, while not bogging it down to make it inaccessible to non-hardcore fans? In just two episodes, there's been an element of creating new material, while also having ties to the larger Marvel world and introducing aspects from comic books.
The challenge from the get-go was telling stories that non-Marvel fans will understand and enjoy, while entertaining all the Marvel fans. There are a few ways we're trying to do that. If we can tie something in from the movies, whether it's Chitauri or [last week's Nick Fury] cameo, which was a cool thing; or whether it's fallout from the battle of New York -- specific Marvel movie stuff -- that's fun, and we try and do that in a way that everyone would understand.
Then we also try and mine the Marvel comic universe. If we're looking for a doctor, we might say, "Is there a doctor in the Marvel Universe, who would be fun if the fans hear that character's name? Can we make it that person and bring that quality to it? Is there a weapon or a cool tech thing from that universe that we could use that is cool on its own, but if you're a Marvel fan, you go, 'Oh my god, they did that!'" So we're trying to do it that way.
If you look at all the Marvel movies, there are only a couple of superheroes, and they're science-based. Both Hulk and [Captain America] are science gone awry, and then you've got Thor, who I guess is technically an alien. For us to have powers every week kind of explodes their movie universe in a way we didn't want to do. Finding occasional characters who are superheroes -- and whether that's someone new like Mike Peterson in the pilot, or whether later on there are a couple of places when people hear the name, that will be meaningful to the Marvel fans. But we have to be judicious, otherwise we've got 20-some new superheroes running around at the end of the first season, and suddenly ["Avengers: Age of Ultron"] is a very different movie.
We're in contact with Marvel Studios; we pitch them the stories we're telling, and they'll give us feedback from that. "Here might be a cool thing," or "We'd rather you not do that, because that's the plot of our next movie." It's a relationship, and Marvel's been very cool about that. Going forward, we'd love to keep finding little things to bring to people, but keeping it so everyone can enjoy it.
Wanted to see if you could put the ratings so far in perspective a little bit -- a lot of outlets seemed to interpret the second week being lower as maybe something to be worried about. Though it must have been expected that there would be something of a drop, and also the overnight numbers didn't factor in DVR viewing and other things that boosted week one. [Reports say three-day playback data bumped up last week's "Agents of S.H.I.EL.D." from a 3.3 to a 4.9 18-49 rating.]
Our first number was a good 4, and then they aired it a second time where millions of more people watched it, and then they factored in DVR plus three [days], and suddenly we had 22 million viewers, or whatever they were saying we had. Which was 50 percent more than anyone ever expected to show up, and that was great.
What I liked was, it went up in the second half. So it was like people started watching it, and they watched more in the second half. I would say this was against the premiere of "The Voice," which is huge, and the biggest drama on TV, "NCIS." I thought that was great.
And then week two, we had more men watching our show in the demo than like, anything on TV, and we were against Major League Baseball, and more "Voice," and "NCIS" was making a big goodbye to one of their characters. I think DVR plus three will help us a lot. I think this is a more realistic number, and this is still, if not the best number on ABC, like, the second best number on ABC. It's a really good number.
And I can't worry about that. On the creative side, all we go is, "Can we make a really good show?" I think we've done that. I think the second episode was very entertaining, and all the ones we've built, I feel really good about. That's the part I can control. Those were crazy numbers the first week. I just don't see that happening in today's world on a weekly basis.
Another interesting challenge of the series is that there must be the desire to have the show consistent with the look and feel of the Marvel Studios movies, but at the same time, those are movies made with some of the biggest budgets imaginable. While surely "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." has a good budget for a TV show, it's still a TV show. How do you approach that challenge? Is it something of an ongoing learning curve on how to best meet expectations?
Both ABC and Marvel have been very generous with our budget. For a network TV show, I can't complain. We want more money so we can tell a bigger show, but it's not like they're being cheap or stingy. And yet, even a show like "Game of Thrones" is more than double our budget, so even on TV, we're competing against shows with giant effects, and they're doing 10 or 13 episodes.
It's different. We decided that if none of us ever slept, ever -- cast, crew, writers -- and we just worked all the time, we could make a bigger, better show. Everybody is working so hard, and I think our visual effects look really cool.
You want those Marvel moments. You want the cool weapon, you want the cool holographic display. At the same time, the way TV lives and breathes is with characters. And we feel like we have six really wonderful actors, and the audience already know and love Agent Coulson, and they're getting to know the other five. And we love them all. We've very happy with them, they're all our first choices, and we expect them to get better and grow, and be more and more cool. Our long game is that you'll care about them.
We'll always have the cool Marvel stuff, and we'll always have as much scope and scale as we can afford, but that's still only about 10 minutes of "Iron Man," y'know? The stuff you remember in "Avengers" is the character stuff. There was a giant, cool action scene at the end with the Chutauri invading and giant flying things, but when you ask people what their favorite part of the movie was, it's "When Banner and Stark were talking in the lab, that was cool," or "When Hulk used Loki as a ragdoll. That was funny." It's always the character moments that stay with people, and that's something TV does really well, and that's something Joss traditionally also does really well. We're trying to mine that as much as possible.
Along with your role as an executive producer, you're also writing some of the episodes -- you co-wrote last week's, "0-8-4" and wrote the fourth episode coming up, "Eye Spy"?
That's what we do. To me, a showrunner is a writer who also takes care of the other stuff. The challenge is, as we get into the series and more and more production happens, it's harder and harder for me and/or Jed and Maurissa to disappear and write. It has to happen at night, or at other times. But the reason you do all the other stupid stuff is because there are stories you want to write and tell. Jed and Maurissa and I did the second, they wrote the third, and I wrote the fourth, and then we all went to sleep.
We have a really good writing staff. We break stories in a room together, and those people go off and write. We wrote those, and somebody else will write five, six, seven, eight, nine; and then we're back in rotation again. At some point Jed and Maurissa will write another one, I'll write another one -- that's if we don't pass out.
I have to ask about the Nick Fury/Samuel L. Jackson cameo in last week's episode -- by Monday, people had started to get a sense of what might happen, but it seems like you guys did a really good job of keeping that under wraps. How did that play out?
The challenge was, in this age of tweets and spoilers, how to make anything secret happen and keep it on the DL for as long as we did. That's Marvel security, who are very efficient, plus everybody here in the cast and crew wanted to keep that secret. It was cool, and hopefully we can find other ways to do different kinds of surprises, but it's always hard in this 24-hour news cycle, never sleep, tweeting world.
Should viewers keep an eye out -- no pun intended -- for more surprises of that nature in the future?
Part of our storytelling on this show is going to be a tag every week. We need people to know about that. The show ends, the S.H.I.E.L.D. eagle comes up, there are nine hours of commercials because it's TV, and then before we go to the next show, we're almost always going to have another minute, minute and a half of something, and those will be different from week to week.
One of the things we want people to know is, "Stick around for the tag." Having a special one like we did early is also to tell you, "Pay attention to that." I know when "Iron Man" did that after all the credits, a lot of the people left and didn't know they should have stayed. Now you watch a Marvel movie, and everybody stays until the end. We're going to be doing that, and we want people to know. Sometimes it'll be funny, sometimes it'll be a mythology thing, sometimes it'll be a self-contained thing, or an extra little reveal about something that was in the episode.
Is there anything you want to tease about this week's episode, "The Asset"?
It's another huge episode. We're doing things in that episode that people don't usually do in TV. I think there's something in it special for Marvel fans. The die-hard Marvel fan will go, "Oh, that's cool!" And make sure they stick around for the tag.
That's the episode where Ian Hart's character, Dr. Franklin Hall -- Graviton in Marvel Comics -- will be introduced, right?
Yes. We have Dr. Franklin Hall, which we think is pretty cool, because of his interesting history.
That's an example -- we talked about a character, and then we found him, and thought, "What if we do this? It'll be a little different, and we can do this instead, but how about that?" And the actor we have is interesting. It's just cool. We try and make every episode funny, sad, wondrous and beautiful. We try to have moments of all of those things. And I think episode three does that.
"Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." airs its third episode, "The Asset," Tuesday, October 8 on ABC.