I know, before you yell at me, there’s no such thing as a Fake Geek Girl, but that’s how I feel in this case. I’m authentic: I am both a girl and as geeky as they come. But as I explained here last year, I’m a big superhero fan who just can’t get into actual comic books, and that sometimes makes the conversation awkward.
First to clarify what I mean by “superhero fan.” It’s not superheroes themselves, per se. It’s the storylines that come with them, in whatever format (though in my case, not panels). What happens when people have extraordinary powers? How do they use them? How do other people react? How does the existence of the extraordinary play out in a world where some people will use it for good, others for bad, and some are playing with powers they simply can’t control?
That all can be found in my favorite current full-time-not-miniseries TV show, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, even though, technically, only one of the main characters actually has superpowers (and she didn’t even get those until halfway through Season Two). It’s mostly a story of spies in a world with superheroes. SHIELD itself has been part of Marvel comics for decades, but most of the characters on SHIELD-the-TV-Show were created for the show. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t get the attention that other Marvel properties get?
Right, it famously started out a little slow, with lots of people tuning in for the first few weeks, then getting bored in droves, not to be called back even when the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier completely upended SHIELD-the-organization and in turn the show. But from that point on, those of us who’d stuck around were treated to a weekly dose of adventure that at worst was no worse than any other popular genre TV show, and at best—which was much more frequently—was straight up brilliant.
(I’ve been vague about details and tried to avoid spoilers in this article, but if you’re very sensitive to spoilers and you haven’t yet seen season 4—or the back half of season 3—be wary from this point forward.)
This fourth season has possibly been the best season yet. But last spring, my husband, bummed by the departure of Bobbi and Hunter and credibility strained by the Hive plotline, gave up on our weekly TV date night. Certain he’d love this year’s storylines, I keep trying to get him to come back, but he’s simply not interested anymore. Worse yet, I look around the internet and get the strange feeling he’s not the only one. Why, of all my geeky online acquaintances, does only one of them still talk about Agents of SHIELD? Why is she the only other person who feels the need to shout out CAN YOU BELIEVE WHAT JUST HAPPENED after each tense, twisty episode airs? Is anyone else even watching? Is it even possible for them to be, if they don’t remark on these incredible episodes, but discuss other TV shows—shows they apparently are often even annoyed by—aplenty?
What really inspired this rant, though, was not so much the other superhero-TV-show watchers, but the superhero-comics readers. I’ve been watching the Hydra!Cap Secret Empire controversy crash through the feeds of the comics geeks, and although I don’t read comics, I do agree it’s disturbing. I mean, I do know and love Cap, even if only from the screen, and I understand what he stands for. But meanwhile, only in the comments of Agents of SHIELD recaps do I keep seeing people say, “Agents of SHIELD is doing Secret Empire way better than Secret Empire is doing it.” Huh. There’s nothing wrong with calling out a comic book for doing something wrong—have at it! But I wonder why more people aren’t also pointing out how, in contrast, this show is doing that something right? Is it because they haven’t been watching?
For those who haven’t been watching, Agents of SHIELD‘s current arc takes place primarily in a dystopian alternate reality where Hydra has taken over. But unlike Secret Empire, we the audience are in on the falseness. Two of our main characters are fully conscious that this is not reality, and they keep us grounded and on the side of truth as they try to convince their friends to break free from the false reality, too. Like Secret Empire, in this false reality one of our former heroes has become an evil Nazi monster. Putting aside the fact that at least he wasn’t created by two Jewish men to symbolically fight Nazis, we’re also never asked to accept anything about this development. We know our former-hero’s mind has been warped by clearly bad influences, and we’re supposed to want him to come to his senses and remember who he’s supposed to be. He’s a fallen hero to be mourned, not an antihero to be accepted. He’s a, shall we say, damsel in need of a rescue, and the definitely-not-approving-of-this-development P.O.V. of his true love is the one we’re following and cheering for in this story. We still have a genuine hero—and more than one, at that—to root for.
She’s not subtle about it, either. Hydra are definitely the bad guys.
Which is not to say the morality of the characters on SHIELD is in any way simple or black and white. Good people make bad mistakes. Bad people have pure intentions. A few people alternate between heroic and horrible. Some of the villains on this show have been some of the most compelling characters. The heroes develop and change over time, growing with their experiences like people instead of puppets. It’s safe to say that no one is the same person they were when they were introduced, but they’re consistent and believable as they change.
And speaking of the characters, while the diversity on the show is not perfect (the only recurring openly-LGBT character is a guest star who only appeared in season three, for example), it’s miles ahead of most shows, and I don’t think a lack of perfection is enough reason not to celebrate what is there. When people complain about the lack of representation of women and minorities in the MCU, I think why isn’t Agents of SHIELD BIGGER? Why isn’t it held up as an example? Currently on our team, women outnumber the men and racial minorities outnumber whites (and two of the whites aren’t even American). They can do it without it feeling at all forced, so pay attention, studio heads! The other week, as two of our heroes were spotted by a panicked citizen about to report them to the authorities, one tried to brush it off with the line, “Maybe she’s just racist.” Until she drew attention to it, the fact that a Chinese-American woman and a half-Chinese half-white-American woman who aren’t even blood relations were walking and talking together (about something other than a man) had not seemed remarkable in the least. It can be done, so why don’t more creators do it?
And I love the relationships between the characters. Any combination you put into a scene together will have a different dynamic, and for the most part, very few of those dynamics are romantic. No forced love interests! Just relationships that sometimes develop romantically organically! But lots of deep, true friendships and a few perfectly reasonable resentments!
The plotting is tight. The plotholes are few and far between, the secrets are never stretched out too long, the reveals are surprising and yet, in retrospect, inevitable. If you think you see where something is going, either the writers want you to see it to add to the suspense, or they’re about to throw you for a loop. If it’s a cliche, no doubt a character will lampshade it. It’s smartly done and rarely disappointing.
I’m not saying it’s “prestige TV”; even among comic-based TV shows it doesn’t come near the artsy creativity of Legion (then, very little does). I’m not saying it’s never had any dud moments or problematic inconsistencies. I don’t need anyone to “well, actually” the imperfections to me. I’m just saying, there’s so much reason to love this show, so where is everybody? If imperfections are indeed enough to make a generally-way-better-than-average show lose its audience, as so many people insisted was the problem with my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE TV SHOW EVER THANK YOU, Agent Carter, why does anyone watch any TV at all?
It’s not that I would be devastated if SHIELD doesn’t get renewed (assuming it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger). It’s had a good four-year run, and at the rate this season is going, it’d be going out on a high note. It’s more, well, me feeling like the Fake Geek Girl about it, and it’s depressing. These characters ought to be accepted as a real part of the Marvel canon. I know, they have put out a few comics based on the show, and a few of the characters were already part of the canon. But the real comic readers might forget these guys once the series ends. They won’t care that SHIELD had agents like Mack, the mechanic-turned-field-agent-with-his-signature-shotgun-axe-and-a-nickname-habit, or Melinda “the FRICKIN’ CAVALRY” May, second-only-to-Romanov-in-kickbutt-superspying-and-she’s-not-a-Black-Widow-AND-she’s-OVER-FIFTY. It’s a little devastating to think that they might not be accepted in the vast Marvelverse because they were just on some not-particularly-popular TV show once.
Pathetically non-comics-reading as I am, movies and TV are my Marvel. As far as I’m concerned, they’re it. But I don’t get to make the rules. I don’t get to determine what lives forever in the cultural consciousness. That’s why I wish more people were loving the show like I’m loving it: to make it solid, to make it real. To make sure there’s a FitzSimmons in every SHIELD tech division and an Agent Koenig in every… well, everywhere… for as long as there’s a Marvel Entertainment.