Love it or hate it, you've undoubtedly seen the ratings: other than a couple of spikes, the weekly audience for "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." has declined continually since the show's big September debut that attracted more than 12 million viewers.
Though that may not be uncommon for a show that received so much pre-debut hype, gripes about "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." have never been in short supply -- the Twitterverse, blogs and forums have been littered with complaints about the series ever since the pilot episode aired on Sept. 24. A detailed breakdown of the show's ratings indicate a general decline in viewership aside from two recent upswings, mirroring the online vitriol (by week six, the show had lost 45 percent of its audience from the first episode). So what triggered the mob of furious fanboys to storm the Internet, pitchforks in hand?
One reason could be the fact that the "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." TV show looked like a TV show -- something that is simply unacceptable to many in 2013. Spoiled by mega-budget television events (HBO's "Game of Thrones" comes to mind) fans are growing accustomed to having the big-screen experience at home, and were possibly underwhelmed by ABC's production values.
Another issue might be the lack of recognizable faces. While a few comic book characters like Victoria Hand have appeared, established superheroes from the Marvel canon are nowhere to be seen, which is confusing, especially considering the wealth of source material. With an archive of literally thousands of characters to choose from, why is the audience being introduced to new ones on a weekly basis?
While it's impossible to pinpoint the primary reason for the ratings pattern, I believe the show's biggest obstacle can be summarized with one word: overhype.
Let's face it, the promise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe coming to television whipped us all into a frenzy. After the 2012 box office event that was "The Avengers," viewers expected its spinoff series to have a similar look and feel: a weekly dose of celebrity guest appearances, multimillion dollar set pieces and more Easter eggs than they could jam into an hour-long basket. In reality, I believe that the quality of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s" pilot episode was more or less irrelevant, because anything short of Tony Stark soaring through the sky with AC/DC blaring in the background was going to illicit groans of disappointment.
Television critics, who may or may not have any emotional investment in the Marvel Universe, originally had a more moderate response. Metacritic reports an initial score of 74 overall, which denotes generally favorable takes from reviewers, but the show earned a much harsher 6.0 user score based on ratings from the site's readers. The consensus: good show, disappointed fans -- though an update published Nov. 14 titled "Fall TV 2nd Look: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." detailed that quite a few critics had turned on the show as well.
A slight uptick in ratings happened on Nov. 19 with episode 8, "The Well," which promised a post-"Thor: The Dark World" tie-in. And although more fans tuned in -- hoping, no doubt, to catch a glimpse of The God of Thunder and/or his big-screen Asgardian counterparts -- they were treated to something different: it was, unfortunately, only a great hour of TV. My favorite episode of the season thus far, it had action, special effects, some quiet dramatic moments, and was buoyed by a fantastic guest appearance from Peter MacNicol. Hell, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" alum Jonathan Frakes directed it! If that's not enough to generate some positive buzz from the geekier among us, I don't know what is.
The ratings increased with "The Well" -- 6.89 million, up from 6.67 the week before -- and though that may not have been the boost ABC's execs were hoping for, the following episode, Nov. 26's "Repairs," rose to 9.69 million viewers. Yet that bump didn't carry into Dec. 10 midseason finale "The Bridge," with that episode falling to a series-low 6.11 million viewers.
While fans need a reality check when it comes to the limits of a weekly television offering, the mainstream media sure isn't helping temper their expectations: The Huffington Post's headline "'Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Barely Ties Into 'Thor: The Dark World'" was more of a scolding, when they could have taken the opportunity to praise what the show is (a good program that continues to improve) rather than what it isn't (a free Marvel movie that airs every week).
So while the fans and media were unrealistically ratcheting up expectations, Marvel's "bigger is better" mentality when it comes to their films might ultimately be to blame. Every post-"Avengers" movie has seen a significant boost in their budgets, resulting in more eye candy, and larger returns at the box office. Bigger explosions, more effects and additional guest appearances frequently result in more revenue -- that much is indisputable. While it's resulting in record profits now, this strategy could falter in the long-run: Disney has given themselves the unenviable task of needing to continually one-up themselves with each new offering, or risk disappointment.
So as the bar continues to raise, the question becomes this: how much is enough? Will "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." fade to obscurity because the budget doesn't permit a guest appearance from Robert Downey Jr. every second episode? Will the subsequent sequels to "The Avengers" require more and more superheroes on screen to be considered a success?
Everyone loves hype, and the speculation leading to a new superhero movie or TV show is nearly as exciting as the event itself. But the focus (on the part of fans, the media and marketing departments) needs to shift away from the superfluous, and more towards the substance. The sizzle is becoming more important than the steak -- and that, in the not-too-distant future, is going to lead to an abundance of unhappy viewers when the bar inevitably hits the ceiling.