Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is finally good, but is it too little, too late?

It took almost the entire first season, but Marvel’s small-screen experiment Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is finally becoming a pretty compelling sci-fi series. But is it too little, too late?

With the addition of some cool comic-based storylines, buoyed by a game-changing crossover with box-office hit Captain America: Winter Soldier, the series is finally becoming the kind of show Marvel movie fans might actually want to watch. It’s firing on all cylinders, but the problem is that there just aren’t enough people left watching to realize the show is actually pretty good.

One look at the ratings, which are teetering around a series low this week, and it would seem the majority of viewers have already decided it might already be too late. The latest episode pulled in a ho-hum 5.37 million viewers, down more than half from the series’ 12.12 million debut. It’s sad to say, but at this point, the series represents Marvel’s first real misstep — judging solely by how much it's been embraced by a viewing audience -- in comparison to the string of insanely successful box-office hits.

The real shame in all of this? The 5 million people who hung on long enough for Deathlok to show up and for HYDRA to make a play for S.H.I.E.L.D.’s soul actually found a damn good series telling some compelling stories that enhance and enrich the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It shone through in Winter Soldier, as little threads connected to remind us Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was an extension of that universe, albeit a lower-budget corner.

Sadly, most fans tuned out as the series treaded water for its first dozen episodes, slowly introducing a cast of characters who weren’t very compelling at the time (outside of Clark Gregg’s returning Agent Coulson, of course). The show was lacking stakes as we watched Coulson’s team sleepwalk through mildly interesting case after mildly interesting case with nary any momentum to tie it together. Looking back, you can see where they were planting some seeds, but that doesn’t excuse the poor effort in tilling the field.

The series finally showed signs of life when it reintroduced J. August Richards’ Mike Peterson, who is manipulated into becoming a new version of Deathlok and starts wreaking havoc on S.H.I.E.L.D. Then the long-gestating Clarivoyant storyline and mystery of Coulson’s resurrection finally started paying off with the well-played, WTF-inducing introduction of a mysterious blue alien. Honestly, the blue alien was a turning point, and was just the type of big-swing Marvel move we’d expect from the house The Avengers built.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, producer Jeph Loeb said he believes the latest episode, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” was only so compelling because they’d spent the first 16 episodes setting it up. That’s true, but we still maintain that laying groundwork doesn’t have to be so boring. Great intent, but marred execution:

“And the fun of the show was taking our time in order to let you get to know our characters and hopefully fall in love with them. One of the things that makes our job both challenging and very exciting is the movies — these gigantic tentpoles — that have the widescreen adventure that we obviously can’t do every week on a television budget and television schedule,” Loeb said. “But what we can do is create an intimacy with the audience and create characters that our audience is invested in, so when you find out that someone on the team is not who you think they are — at least now, not to say there aren’t more twists to come — that’s the fun of it. We’re hoping that the reason you’ve had this visceral reaction to the reveal is because you are invested in those people. We have told 16 stories to get you to a place where the 17th story turns 17 all on its head. And then what happens? Because that’s not the end. This isn’t the season finale. We have a long way to go, six big more episodes.”

Considering the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s only fitting that it took a blockbuster movie to finally get the series on track. Winter Soldier imploded the Marvel universe with the shocking reveal that HYDRA has been hiding out in S.H.I.E.L.D. for decades, and saw Cap take down the whole agency. There’s no way that plot twist could be ignored on a series essentially focused on the agency, so Marvel took another big swing and decided to connect the two — in real time.

The latest episode of the series essentially ran in parallel to the events of Winter Soldier, and it finally turned S.H.I.E.L.D. into a series with some real stakes. Producer Joss Whedon built his career on TV shows about small groups up against the world, and with the massive resources of Nick Fury’s agency behind them, S.H.I.E.L.D. could never capture that Firefly or Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque sense of ragtag excitement. It told a smaller story in concert with the larger narrative, and they actually pulled it off.

With S.H.I.E.L.D. falling apart, and Coulson’s team isolated and on the run, the show has finally figured out what it needs to be. Heck, they turned a series regular into an (apparent) cold-blooded killer and sleeper HYDRA agent. That’s gutsy (assuming it sticks). If only they’d made some ambitious moves like this 16 episodes ago, those 12 million people might still be watching. 

Producer Jeffrey Bell seems to get that. He told Entertainment Weekly they’ll be using the events of Winter Soldier as a means to essentially retool the series into a wild battle against HYDRA, with Coulson’s team forced to rely on each other instead of the limitless resources of S.H.I.E.L.D. It makes you wonder: If they’d waited until now to actually launch the series, would the ratings still be an issue?

“We can’t wait for next season. Here’s the thing: Hydra is now loose. A lot of things that we couldn’t talk about in the first 2/3 of the season are now our in our world,” Bell said. “S.H.I.E.L.D. has fallen apart, we’re trying to figure who we can and cannot trust, and all the bad things that S.H.I.E.L.D. has ever caught have been loosed upon the world. Hydra’s out there, nobody trusts us…we can’t wait to tell those stories.”

Now, that’s a show we want to watch. If nothing else, we’re actually on the edge of our seats to see what happens in the final five episodes — and that’s something I never thought I’d have said just a few episodes ago. It’s going to be close, but the series will likely get a shot at a second season to actually tell those stories, if only because ABC has bet so big on it up to this point — but even that patience won’t be enough if viewers don’t come back to realize the show is actually worth watching now.

It’s worth noting: Not many shows have managed a turnaround after losing this many viewers, but Marvel isn’t most studios. The odds are long, but we wouldn’t want to bet against Coulson and his team just yet. They’ve managed to build some excitement among the core fans, but it’ll have to spread far and wide to become relevant again. Good luck, Joss — and Hail Hydra.