I want to talk about why I don’t watch Marvel’s Agents of Shield. The reason I gave it four episodes and then walked away from it in spite of everyone telling me ‘it gets much better about halfway through the series’. I want to talk about why ‘halfway through the series’ isn’t good enough and what I mean when I say I require a show to grab me from episode one. I want to talk about the core dynamic.
It’s not that I never get into a slow burner, I do, but honestly I’d rather rewatch Buffy The Vampire Slayer than waste all those hours convincing myself I like the new thing. In the end I feel something should make me want to go back and watch more of it for some reason, any reason. If it’s horribly flawed I may still love it, but if there is nothing to bring me back in episode one then I am not waiting for episode 11 for that thing to happen. Reality is some shows work even when they shouldn’t.
Buffy Season 1 has some absolute clangers of episodes. The only good thing about the Hyena episode is we get to see Nicholas Brendan show some more subtle acting. The episode early on with the Praying Mantis teacher is ludicrous, obvious and not even all that dramatic. Some of the actors take a while in season one to really hit their strides, the plotting suggests no one really believed it would get a second season so they just had some fun (the swim team episode). Thing is, even going back to it now, when it’s a little more dated on top of everything else, it still works. I still want to see the second episode. I can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that Jesse is later Duke in Haven, but I want more. There is a good reason for this. As well as an ensemble cast that hits the right notes pretty early on and scripts that while clunky at times manage to create a natural feeling for the language gap between generations, it has what for me will always be the secret ingredient. It has a great core dynamic. From the moment a young Buffy walks into the library Sarah Michelle Gellar and Anthony Head nail the dynamic. The tone, the body language, the delivery, even when the script doesn’t quite nail it (and overall it’s pretty good between those two) they get it. The rest of the cast can afford to take a little longer to hit stride, because Buffy and Giles are bang on.
I recently rewatched the first season on the X Files and while Buffy can hide behind being for a younger audience I found myself wondering how some of the early X Files plots ever got the ok, some of the X Files supporting cast were so hammy you could slice them and use them as sandwich filler. Even between the leads there was horrifically clunky dialogue at times. On top of that it was something totally different, a risk. Perhaps that’s part of why it worked, people were ready for different, for aliens and conspiracies, it could just have easily worked against them. The reason I came back every week though was simple. I came back for Mulder and Scully. The close but not romantic relationship was unusual in itself. Male/female leads tended either be combative or romantically linked and from the first moments of awkward conversation they somehow made it work. They were the core dynamic, the driving force of the show and what I was coming back for.
More recently I’ve been watching Agent Carter. I was dubious given my disappointment with Agents of Shield, but Carter hit the ground running, in heels and a fabulous red hat. Peggy Carter had been on screen about 30 seconds before I was a little in love with her. There isn’t really anyone she shares the lead with, no male counterpart, she doesn’t need it. Perfectly cast and I don’t even know what might be wrong with those early episodes because I am so enamoured with the lead. The thing that works so brilliantly of course is again the core dynamic, but in this case it isn’t another cast member, it’s the time period. Here is a woman who has proven herself over and over again being reduced to taking lunch orders by the attitude of the time. That’s what she plays off, that’s what makes her so awesome. It’s a brilliant move. Giving her a male co lead would detract from her, it would be too easy for her to slip into a support role, into being the woman of the pair. Give her a sidekick instead and she is a standout superhero in her own right. Peggy Carter is awesome. Whatever you think of the plot around Stark, whatever you think of the guys she works with or the acting across the board or things they don’t do right for the period, Agent Carter pulls you back each week for one reason, Peggy. It wouldn’t work nearly as well set now. You couldn’t do the same show with the Black Widow, it would have to be much flashier. It works for Peg, living in a ladies only building with strict rules about curfew, heading to work to file and make tea for people far less capable then herself, that’s the core dynamic here. Oh and let’s face it a lot of women can still empathise with being spoken down to and overlooked by less capable men in the workspace.
Conversely there are shows that do everything right and do not work for me. There is always a flipside. I’ve tried watching Fringe twice now, I even bought the first season to box set it. It worked kind of. I can watch episode after episode if it’s in front of me. The last disk, however, remains unwatched because I never got as far as caring. The quality of Fringe is not in question, it’s much better produced , plotted, written and even largely acted than a lot of shows I love. I just didn’t feel it. The interaction of the leads was done well but lacked that hard to define something that brings me back. Chemistry perhaps. I’m the same with Sleepy Hollow which on paper should be perfect for me and which again I can happily watch when it happens to be there. I won’t make any effort though so I see a couple of episodes here and there but never a series. They just haven’t quite captured the character interplay that brings me back again and again.
AoS was worse than those. I was bored in the early episodes. I couldn’t find anyone I gave a hoot about and honestly Coulson is a great side character but he had no one to play off in AoS and it failed for me. No number of assurances can make me inflict those early episodes on myself to see it ‘get better’. They tried to drop an entire ensemble cast in straight away, forgetting how important that central relationship is. It’s like Buffy, if Coulson were Giles and Buffy so the interplay is entirely absent.Without the Buff, the scoobies are just a bunch of slightly dull high schoolers and that is exactly how I feel about the AoS cast. The cast is a bunch of young people who are basically dull and interchangeable and a couple of agents who behave in very un-agenty and random ways and I can’t remember anyone’s name!
So my point, and there is one is this. I am not going to give a series 11+ episodes to get it sorted because if it doesn’t pull me back they missed something fundamental for me as a viewer. It doesn’t have a good core dynamic. It doesn’t matter whether that dynamic is between lovers, brothers (or sisters), a slayer and her watcher or an SSA agent and her time. It doesn’t matter that a dozen other things are wrong with them, if like the premise and I like the leads I am coming back. Otherwise I am moving on.
You may disagree, you may well have other priorities or respond to those dynamics differently, but regardless of what makes a series work for you, the point remains that if something fundamental doesn’t work to start with why should we trust it will work later?
Adele Wearing started Fox Spirit Books in 2012 after several years reviewing. She is a shameless geek, an avid reader and a recent martial artist. Check out Fox Spirit Books latest imprint, Foxglove Books, dedicated to a new range of books about martial arts.