It's definitely been an eventful first few months for "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," the ABC series set in the same world as Marvel Studios' phenomenally profitable films. While the ratings for the highly hyped show started strong and have remained solid, fan and critical reaction has been mixed at best, with responses including TV Guide dubbing the show "this season's biggest disappointment."
"Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." hits a benchmark with this week's "The Bridge," hitting both episode No. 10 and its first midseason finale. The episode, written by Shalisha Francis and directed by Holly Dale, is headlined by the first appearance since the pilot of Mike Peterson, played by Joss Whedon veteran J. August Richards. While events didn't go so well for him last time around -- the episode ended with him taken into custody after a rampage at Union Station in Los Angeles -- this time he's working for S.H.I.E.L.D., who's looking for some superpowered assistance in their season-long conflict with sinister organization Centipede.
In an interview with CBR News, "S.H.I.E.L.D." executive producer Jeffrey Bell said "The Bridge" is also an episode where viewers will begin to see threads from prior episodes coming together, and a larger tapestry will start to emerge. He also predicted that viewers and critics who have claimed the show doesn't feel "Marvel" enough may soon get more of what they're looking for.
"I would say, in general, I think fans will experience the episodes as being a bit more 'Marvel,'" Bell said. "I mean that on several levels."
Bell also discussed the criticism the show has received, the freshly revealed relationship between Agents Ward (Brett Dalton) and May (Ming-Na Wen), and when viewers can expect more hints on the ongoing mystery surrounding series lead Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg)'s return following his apparent death by Loki-inflicted impalement in "The Avengers."
CBR News: Jeffrey, let's start by looking a bit at the season so far as whole. With episode 10 coming up, from your perspective as someone with a lot of TV experience, are things around where you hoped them to be at this point, both creatively and in terms of audience?
Jeffrey Bell: Creatively, yes. One of the things that's interesting for us is doing a 22-episode arc; the pace of telling that story. We have to arc something out over 22 episodes versus 10 or 12. What I think people will see in episode 10 is how things we laid out in episode 1 and episode 3 and episode 4 and episode 5 and other episodes actually all start to come together, and you see pieces come together in 10. For us, that's exciting, and I think people see, "Oh, there's been this plan," and what felt standalone is actually connected, but you can still get into it. That's been fun for us, and I think people will enjoy the episode because of some of the cards we turn over with respect to that.
The thing that's interesting about fan responses is, it's all over the place. There are die-hard Marvel people who wonder why Mike Peterson isn't Luke Cage. "We need more Marvel characters, it needs to be serialized." Then you've got people on the other end who want more kissing. There are a lot of different opinions, but I think in general people are responding well to the show. I can't remember the last time I had so many unsolicited people go, "Oh, you work on that show, I love that show," or, "My wife loves that show," or, "My kid loves that show," or, "My brother loves that show." I feel like there's goodwill in the world for that. So that's been cool.
A 22-episode arc is a long-term investment to an extent -- so is it frustrating for you to see people who might have passed judgement on the show early on, or is it a reaction you were expecting?
I learned a long time ago that the Internet was invented really to disseminate three words, which are, "worst episode ever." There are a lot of haters on the Internet -- not just for our show, but in general. I like to hear people to say, "We're in the construction business. We're building things, we're not tearing things down." I think there are a lot of good shows out there that a lot of people hate on.
I don't think we should be led by fans, I think we should have fans follow. People saying, "faster, more, faster, more" -- you can never go faster, and you can never give them enough. You have to trust the stories that you're wanting to tell, have a plan, and hopefully at the end people will go, "Oh, they knew what they were doing, that was cool, I didn't see that coming, that was really satisfying." That's our goal. And we'll find out! But we think we have cool stuff planned, and from 10 on out, we're starting to turn over cards. If you think of 22 episodes as a movie, we're at the one-hour mark in the movie. Things are picking up. We're still building towards the climax before we get to falling action, but you've set the table for what's going to happen.
Second act type stuff.
Yeah. But also at the one-hour mark in a movie, usually it's like, "oh, the best friend dies," or "the person you thought was dead is alive," or "they finally get together." It's a reset of some type. It's something you didn't see coming, or something you weren't expecting, versus just more plot or a larger threat.
Episode 10 is a big ep, and I feel like we deliver, and we'll hear from folks next week.
Speaking more about the season as a whole in terms of the positive, what are some things you feel that "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." is doing very well, and specifically, that you're not seeing in other shows that are on TV right now -- unique strengths that have been built up in this initial run of episodes?
I like that we are actually an aspirational show. Our show is about hope. We have people full of hope. Sometimes it's going to get dark for their hope to come out of that. In a world where I turn to some other shows that begin with 30 people getting shot up, I like that our show isn't that, frankly. It's kind of refreshing. I think there's been some thoughts that we're soft, and I think part of it is there was a deliberate choice coming in to bring in some newbies onto the team -- Fitz (Ian DeCaestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) had never been in the field, and Skye (Chloe Bennet) had not been part of S.H.I.E.L.D. So part of our process has been putting them through some life lessons, and toughening them up, and giving them expertise, and bringing them to a place where I think people will feel they're deserving to be part of a S.H.I.E.L.D. team. But at the same time, I do like that our characters help people. I do like that our conflict is emotional, and not just violent. I think we do that well, and we'll continue to do that.
We talk about our characters maturing, and I think what we mean by that is bringing them to a level of expertise and confidence. Fitz/Simmons are really experts at what they do, but they haven't done it in the field. That's why when we have gunfire or something, we think it's more interesting to see it's someone who's never been in that situation have to react to it, rather than, "We're all perfectly trained killers who can do this." We have fun with it. We like humor, there are a lot of opportunities for humor. I think we've done a nice job of finding places for humor, hopefully not at the expense of character or suspense.
This week's episode sees the return of J. August Richards' character from the pilot, Mike Peterson, who's presumably in a very different place than the last time we saw him.
He is! J. did such a good job on our pilot, and fan reaction was terrific. We always had an idea of different ways to bring him back. It's a show where we say, "Not all heroes are super," but when we go up against people with punchy jumpy powers like some of the Centipede characters have, it made sense for us to enlist someone who might have a similar skillset so that we just don't get clobbered. Bringing him in, seeing him cleaned up, doing well, is fun. And J. really did a great job of bringing that energy to it. He also feels like this is a guy who has a second shot. The first time he met this team, they could have put a real bullet in his head, and instead they knocked him out. He's grateful for that second chance, and anxious to prove it was worth their doing. I think fans will dig that.
Yeah, it looks like he's in a full-fledged S.H.I.E.L.D. jumpsuit in the promotional pictures.
He’s got a pretty bitchin' [tactical] outfit, which is cool. We're not a show with full-fledged superheroes and costumes and whatnot, but I think the Marvel-esque costumes -- whether it’s Agent May's cool flight suit or Mike’s new tac suit -- are pretty cool.
Speaking of Agent May, wanted to ask about the recent reveal of certainly some type of a relationship between May and Ward, which took a lot of people by surprise. Can you give any commentary about what inspired that pairing, and can viewers look forward to learning more about their dynamic going forward?
It happened kind of naturally, which is fun. If you can have something that's surprising and natural, you go, "Oh, that's a winner." After the Asgardian episode and Ward touching the staff and going to the rage-y dark place, and him really fighting that, hopefully when he gets to the bar at the end you can see Skye is also there for him in a very real way. She offers him a shoulder to cry on -- I don't know about the bars you hang out in, but to me that means, "Here's my shoulder to cry on." The fact that he passed on that, I think not so much because of, she's not attractive or not interesting, but he's sort of trapped in his pain and what he went through. When you go to Agent May, who is also haunted by this past, this pain -- and we got a little bit more into what some of that is in "Repairs" -- I think people sometimes get together to share their pain. "I don't have to talk, I don't have to think, I just have to be." And you understand that. We thought there was a nice shorthand with that that made sense, but was also surprising.
A common thing people seem to want from the show is more characters from the comics incorporated, and more tie-ins with the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- we've seen some of both, but going forward to the next crop of episodes, would you say viewers can expect more of that stuff? Around the same amount?
I would say, in general, I think fans will experience the episodes as being a bit more "Marvel." I mean that on several levels. I think we're always looking to find characters either from the Marvel movie universe or the comic universe that fans would recognize. I think bringing the tension and suspense of the movies is something that we're looking to do as our characters become more confident.
The other thing that seems to be happening, just based on the fact that what felt like standalone were in fact for us setting up a lot of different pieces of the puzzle, I think you're going to feel more momentum from the stories, episode to episode. Occasional cliffhangers, which I feel are more like a Marvel Comic ending than, "it's all neatly tied up in a bow." So I think on a few levels, fans will feel it's moving a bit more in the Marvel direction.
And there will be more hints towards the Coulson mystery coming up, as well?
Yeah. We'll be turning over cards for that in the next few. I'll be curious to hear people's responses to where we're going with that, because everybody has an opinion!
"Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." episode "The Bridge" airs 8 p.m. Tuesday, December 10, on ABC.