Disney (NYSE:DIS)/ABC's Marvel's Agents of SHIELD seems to have finally stabilized with its 13th episode, "T.R.A.C.K.S.," in terms of both its overall ratings and plot structure.
The episode attracted 6.54 million live viewers, scoring a 2.1 rating among viewers ages 18 to 49. That's still a big drop from the 11.9 million viewers who watched its premiere, but a steady improvement from the 6.37 million viewers who tuned into the 12th episode two weeks ago.
As expected, the show was still overshadowed by CBS' (NYSE:CBS) NCIS, which pulled in 19.3 million viewers with a whopping 3.0 rating.
The good news, however, is that "T.R.A.C.K.S." appeared to have finally put the show back on the right track. (To quote Agent Coulson, "See what I did there?") Better writing, tighter direction, and a more "Marvel-ous" plot finally came together in one of the strongest episodes of the season.
Let's take a look at three things that SHIELD's lucky 13th episode finally did right, and what it could mean for the future of the show.
1. Funnier 'Whedonesque' writing
For fans of Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCS.A)/NBC's Chuck, the setup of "T.R.A.C.K.S." might seem extremely familiar. Both "T.R.A.C.K.S." and Chuck's Season 3 episode, "Chuck vs. The Honeymooners," take place on trains, on which espionage-fueled chaos ensues. And both were written by regular Chuck writers Rafe Judkins and Lauren LeFranc. Both writers had only previously written one episode of SHIELD (Episode 7, "The Hub"). In my opinion, their snappy writing style works very well for the series.
As a result, the characters' banter is much funnier than before, and more on par with Joss Whedon's actual writing.
Agent Simmons dramatically acting out a fake backstory with Coulson's neglected daughter, Agent Fitz, imitating a stereotypical American's culinary tastes ("Some place affordable with big portions"), and Agents Coulson and Ward struggling to operate the holo-desk without Fitz and Simmons were definitely the highlights of the episode.
2. A better continuation of previous plotlines
Meanwhile, the writers continued to tie together some more loose plotlines into a unified plot.
We finally got to see the villainous Quinn get taken down, Mike Peterson reborn as Deathlok, and a few more hints about the Clairvoyant. Even the relationship between Agents Ward and May (which initially felt like a shark-jumping moment) was evolved more naturally.
There were also hints that Graviton, which some viewers had assumed that the writers had forgotten about, will soon return as a major super-powered villain.
More importantly, the show appears to be evolving from a procedural, "monster of the week" format to a more serialized one -- which bodes well for future character development. There are now at least four main questions -- Agent Coulson's revival, Deathlok's future, Skye's fate, and the identity of the Clairvoyant -- which should keep more viewers tuned in.
3. A hint at more Marvel-ous things to come
One of my previous complaints about this show was that it had drifted too far from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Basically, many of the early episodes felt like by-the-numbers imitations of Fox's (NASDAQ:FOX) X-Files and Fringe.
Fortunately, the show seems to be getting back on track. Stan Lee's cameo, for example, bears as much weight as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) or Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) in the earlier episodes. For many Marvel fans, Lee's appearance is a huge stamp of approval for the show.
Meanwhile, SHIELD fans are probably well aware of two other big shots joining the show later -- Bill Paxton as Agent John Garrett and Jaimie Alexander reprising her role as Lady Sif (from the two Thor films).
For those viewers who aren't familiar with the comics, Agent Garrett, like Deathlok, is eventually turned into a cyborg to save his life. Lady Sif's upcoming storyline will deal with Lorelei (played by Elena Satine), an Asgardian villainess who has unrequited feelings for Thor.
Although the show still notably lacks the huge Hollywood cameos from the main cast of The Avengers, it's still shaping up to be a solid comic book show with more robust connections to the Marvel universe.
What does SHIELD mean for Disney?
Meanwhile, ABC's parent company Disney just reported its first quarter earnings, and the results are impressive -- its revenue rose 8.6% year-over-year to $12.31 billion as its net income climbed 33% to $1.84 billion. Both its top and bottom line growth topped Wall Street estimates.
However, Disney's broadcasting (mainly ABC's) revenue, which accounts for 29% of its Media Networks' revenue, declined 2% year-over-year to $1.53 billion. Meanwhile, operating income at the segment, plunged 32% to $178 million, only accounting for 12% of the Media Networks segment's bottom line.
Disney blamed the declines at ABC on higher contractual rates for Modern Family, and an unfavorable comparison to higher revenue from Revenge and Army Wives in the prior year quarter. The slumping network notably finished 2013 in fourth place in overall ratings among 18-49 year olds, behind CBS, Fox, and NBC, in that order.
Agents of SHIELD is one of ABC's rare shows that appeals to both male and female viewers. The majority of the network's primetime lineup consists of female-focused shows such as Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, Revenge, Pretty Little Liars, and Once Upon a Time.
If Agents of SHIELD can at least stabilize its ratings, ABC's next Marvel TV project, Agent Carter, could eventually help ABC catch up to the three leading networks.
The bottom line
In conclusion, I'm encouraged by ABC's efforts to sharpen SHIELD's writing and overall direction. It's far from perfect, but it's definitely a vast improvement over the confused episodes that came before.
What do you think, dear readers? Have the more recent episodes of SHIELD won you over, or are you still disappointed with the direction of the show?