At the end of last year, I expressed some hope that Disney (NYSE:DIS)/ABC's Marvel's Agents of SHIELD could be redeemed. The mid-season finale, while being far from perfect, at least tied together some loose ends so that the story could finally move forward.
Unfortunately, I spoke too soon. When the show returned on Jan. 7, all of its flaws resurfaced with a vengeance as it drifted farther away from the Marvel Universe and closer toward becoming a second-rate version of Fox's (NASDAQ: FOX) X-Files and Fringe.
SHIELD's Tuesday episode attracted 6.6 million viewers -- slightly higher than the 6.1 million viewers who watched the mid-season finale, but still leaving it completely crushed by CBS' (NYSE:CBS) NCIS, which attracted 20.8 million viewers.
Let's take a look at three big reasons I think Agents of SHIELD simply isn't being as "marvelous" as it could be.
1. Agents of LOST
When ABC's Lost concluded in 2010, a new generation of shows immediately tried to replicate the show's wildly successful formula of introducing new mysteries to keep audiences hooked and guessing.
Most of them -- FlashForward, The Event, Alcatraz, and Joss Whedon's own Dollhouse -- failed because they started off with an interesting premise but had no idea how to expand it into a full series. Instead, these shows made the same mistake Lost did -- piling on more and more mysteries until nothing could be resolved.
Agents of SHIELD has reached that point now.
The big "revelation" that Coulson was actually dead for days, not minutes, just opened the door to even more questions -- is Coulson actually a clone, part machine, or something else entirely?
Meanwhile, other questions remain unanswered. Is Melinda actually Skye's mother? What happened to Graviton? Who is the Clairvoyant, and why does he or she have the power to kill people remotely through a smartphone? By the way, is there an app for that?
While SHIELD's writers clearly intend for these various plot lines to hook viewers, they pale in comparison to the mysterious hatch in Lost or the parallel dimension in Fringe. SHIELD's writers simply a threw a bunch of random questions at viewers to keep them guessing.
2. The show looks cheaper than Once Upon a Time
One thing that continues to baffle me about this show is how cheap everything looks.
I generally don't think CGI makes a great show or film, but the computer-generated plane, the explosions, and the badly choreographed fight scenes in SHIELD constantly remind me of campy shows from the 1990s. By comparison, Fox's Almost Human, another new sci-fi show, looks much more like a show made in 2013.
Perhaps we've been spoiled by the costly CGI effects of AMC's (NASDAQ:AMCX) The Walking Dead or the incredible cinematography of FX's American Horror Story, but these days audiences expect their shows to look more polished.
Then again, this could also be ABC's fault -- viewers of Once Upon a Time have been continuously subjected to hordes of unconvincing CGI fairies, dragons, and giants. Unfortunately, SHIELD looks even cheaper than Once Upon a Time.
Although the current budget per episode of Agents of SHIELD is unknown, the pilot cost a whopping $14 million to make. However, that costly pilot didn't look that much better than the subsequent episodes, in my opinion.
3. What does any of this have to do with Marvel?
Last but not least, the show's writers seem to have the idea that a limited budget means that superpowered heroes or villains don't belong in the world of SHIELD.
While it's true that TV comic book heroes might not match up to their cinematic counterparts, adding known comic book characters into the mix reminds viewers that they are still actually in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
So far, the only indications that this show even takes place in the Marvel Universe are:
The existence of Coulson and brief cameos by Maria Hill, Nick Fury, and Graviton.
Mentioning the Avengers every now and then.
Storylines that tie into the Extremis storyline from Iron Man 3 and the Tesseract storyline from Thor and Captain America.
In other words, the writers are intentionally grounding the show in reality -- letting Skye's hacking skills, Agents Fitz and Simmons' science skills, and Agents Ward and May's brawn replace the supernatural aspects of the Marvel Universe.
Unfortunately, that's simply the wrong approach -- people love Marvel films because they are over-the-top, bombastic affairs filled with recognizable heroes and villains.
What SHIELD means for ABC and Disney
If Agents of SHIELD continues to lag for these reasons, ABC, which accounts for the bulk of Disney's broadcast division, might cancel the show before the second season. Here's why:
Last quarter, Disney's broadcasting revenue (which accounts for 28% of the Media Networks segment's top line) only inched up 1%.
Meanwhile, broadcasting operating income (which accounts for 11% of the Media Network segment's bottom line) plunged 18%.
ABC's lackluster lineup of shows, which includes Agents of SHIELD, Scandal, Revenge, Grey's Anatomy, Once Upon a Time, and Pretty Little Liars, causes the network to be considered less significant than Disney's cable networks (ESPN, the Disney Channels, and A&E) -- which together account for 31% of the company's total revenue.
Yet Disney desperately needs Agents of SHIELD to stay alive, since the majority of its ABC shows are mainly geared toward female viewers. The network also desperately needs a solid contender on Tuesday nights to deal with NCIS, which obviously remains the more popular choice among 18 to 49 year old males.
The bottom line
Despite my complaints about Agents of SHIELD, I'll still keep watching in hopes that it improves. Besides, Stan Lee will reportedly play a major role in an upcoming episode.
There's just so much untapped potential for this show to serve as the glue to hold the Marvel Cinematic Universe together, and it's a shame that the writers aren't making this show as "marvelous" as it could be.
What do you think, dear readers? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!
What's next for the comic book industry?
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Fool contributor Leo Sun owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends AMC Networks and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.