S.H.I.E.L.D., spinoffs, and how Marvel can fix its network TV problem

As most of the Internet has finished binge-watching Netflix’s acclaimed new Daredevil series and realized it's absolutely amazing, the project took some of the attention away from the faltering part of Marvel’s television strategy — major networks, and namely, the challenge of building a sustainable series that ties back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The flagship series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has shown flashes of promise during its two-year run, but it remains a hot mess that feels more cartoon-y than epic more often than not. The series seems to jump from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis, spinning its wheels until a tentpole film can introduce some new drama (see: the all-too-brief, excellent run of episodes surrounding Captain America: The Winter Soldier).

Sure, S.H.I.E.L.D. looked like a juggernaut when we were all still fawning over that pilot episode, but the ratings have been cut to almost one-third those numbers in the two years since — and the show has proven it is most definitely not a worthy successor in producer Joss Whedon’s storied catalog of creative hits. With word that Marvel is in the early stages of developing a spinoff series featuring Adrianne Palicki's Mockingbird, it looks like the studio is aiming to double down on that shaky corner of the MCU. For better or worse.

So, what’s the problem? Well, looking to S.H.I.E.L.D., the issues are myriad. From largely forgettable characters to extremely dumb storylines and plot twists, this show has its fair share of problems anyway. But we’d argue the grind of filling a 22-episode order each year might be one of the biggest. S.H.I.E.L.D. has shown that, with a tight focus (i.e. the aftermath of Winter Soldier), it can actually put together some compelling stories. Compared to when it's just meandering through a long season? That’s when things go off the rails. Quickly. 

The series has been hemorrhaging viewers, and it's obvious even huge fans of the Marvel movies are losing interest. Even the addition of storylines that will seemingly tie in to the Inhumans, and show dueling versions of S.H.I.E.L.D., have done little to provide a spark. It feels more like the series is going through the motions, as opposed to telling stories that have a real impact on this world.

Oddly enough, Marvel’s only true critical hit on network television (though the ratings were admittedly in the so-so S.H.I.E.L.D. arena) came with a show that largely follows the cable or Netflix model. The period-set spy tale Agent Carter, which brought Captain America co-star Hayley Attwell back to kick butt and shatter the glass ceiling in the 1940s, was an entertaining romp with a very clean beginning, middle and end. Much like Netflix’s Daredevil, Agent Carter had a very tight focus and told a concise story — and did it all with a smaller episode order (eight, in this case).

In a chat with Comic Book Resources, Daredevil producer Steven DeKnight noted as much in regard to the Netflix model:

"When people can binge-watch you can do that a lot easier. If you're doing that week to week it's a little harder, because people feel "Oh, well, not a lot happened in that episode..." even though there's a lot of human drama that happens. So it was very liberating to do that."

Hopefully, Marvel will learn from the apparent success of Daredevil and (critical) success of Agent Carter when it comes time to gameplan that spinoff pitch. The ratings and critical reviews show Marvel’s network television plan at ABC just isn’t really working. It really represents Marvel’s first stumble in, well, anything. But the big question is whether they’ll learn from the situation and course-correct, or continue down this path in hopes viewers might return, which is a long shot.

The CW and DC have shown spinoffs can be a very good thing with The Flash (which is drawing significantly higher ratings than mothership series Arrow these days), but you have to remember Flash was born from a successful series — not one shedding viewers and slouching toward irrelevance among genre fans. It’d be one heck of a gamble to spin a series out of S.H.I.E.L.D. at this point, and honestly, they’d probably be better off to launch a new show from a separate creative path (much like the Netflix projects).

So, what’s the answer? There isn’t an easy one, but we’d like to see Marvel retool its broadcast network strategy to something more in line with Agent Carter and Daredevil. The studio already experimented with a continuous run concept by subbing Agent Carter into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s timeslot during its hiatus, and we saw the creative quality take an up-tick with the limited episode order. So, why not use that model and turn S.H.I.E.L.D.’s time slot (or a more amenable spot on the schedule) into ABC’s “Marvel Hour,” and fill it with a handful of different shows with 10-12 episode orders?

It’s a bit outside the box, admittedly, but the benefits could be huge. It’d give Marvel a chance to experiment with different concepts (like the period-set Carter), and would give the studio more creative freedom. Instead of being locked into 22 (mostly mediocre) hours of S.H.I.E.L.D. per year, we could have a handful of different stories from within the MCU — and who knows — maybe one of those concepts becomes a bona fide hit. S.H.I.E.L.D. in its current form isn’t the answer, but a retooled version of the show with a tighter focus could be just the jolt it’s needed, along with some other series to keep it fresh.

Year after year, Marvel has proven to have an uncanny ability to churn out hits. For whatever reason, the traditional approach to network television isn’t working. Marvel has never been afraid to try something risky (See: Talking raccoon in a tentpole film), which makes it all the more frustrating to be force-fed a paint-by-numbers series like S.H.I.E.L.D. It makes sense for synergy (ABC and Marvel are both owned by Disney) to have Marvel shows on the air, so let's find a way to make them good.

The Marvel universe is a very big place, and Daredevil has shown those seemingly B and C-list characters can make for some fantastic stories. Here’s hoping Marvel can figure out how to translate those stories into a model that’ll actually work for network TV. If not, it seems this could remain the only apparent chink in Marvel's armor. Oh, well; at least we have Netflix.

What do you think? What would you like to see Marvel do next on ABC? What do you want from a S.H.I.E.L.D. spinoff?

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