Post by contributor Rachel Noelle Wood
Joss Whedon has grown from a figure of cult popularity to a mainstream hit-maker. Those of us following his career for two decades were joined last Tuesday by millions of new fans eager to see his follow up to The Avengers. The pilot episode introduced us to an ensemble cast of agents working to protect humanity from super-villains and aliens. This marks a significant departure for Whedon as his work usually involves government agencies (human-feeding demon mayors!) and shadowy corporations (apocalypse-bringing pharmaceutical companies!) as the enemy. In this age of drone strikes and NSA spying, a secret, powerful, and seemingly unaccountable organization like S.H.E.I.L.D is a hard sell as “the good guys.”
So far, it seems we're just supposed to buy it based on the sweet smiles of a cast of models. With the exception of the older characters, most of the crew has looks and acting abilities better suited to a toothpaste commercial. There's Skye, a hacker girl whose one emotion is “sassy,” a team of fast talking “genuis scientists” who come off as chirpy, attractive nitwits incapable of coherent sentences, and a Ken-doll-esque super-spy who is so dull that he will be referred to in this article as “Bland Guy.” And the cringing doesn't stop there: the early action sequences were cheesy and gimmicky, and we were treated to not one but TWO moralistic good guy speeches.
If anyone else had made this show, I would have already turned the TV off and hidden the remote. But after more than a decade of following Joss Whedon, here's why I'm holding out hope.
Joss Whedon's incredible sense of humor was the saving grace of the first episode. Whedon is the perfect antidote to tedium of the “dark superhero” trend. Instead of letting his characters brood endlessly over self-indulgent identity crises, Whedon knows how to gently tease his characters, making serious points without allowing anyone to take themselves too seriously. In Whedon's hands, “Bland Guy” is less likely to be a male empowerment fantasy, serving instead as the “straight-man” for sly jabs at traditional masculinity.
2. The Twists
Nobody does plot twists like Joss Whedon. I've never screamed “What!/1?!” at a TV screen as much as I did during Dollhouse, but I had to earn it by sticking around. Which leads to point #3.
3. The Slow Build
Remember the frustration that came at the end of Lost? These days, most TV shows are written on the fly with seemingly no long-term plot or goal in mind. Repeat viewers are treated to incoherent story lines and seemingly schizophrenic characters. Whedon's meticulously planned story arcs are his greatest asset and his biggest Achilles heel. The underlying storyline of Dollhouse was revealed two seasons into the series, like a nesting doll of plots that got crazier and crazier at every level, but to get there, you had to make it through the somewhat cringe-worthy first episodes. That's why he's historically been more of a cult favorite, his ideas tragically cut short due to audience ADD. Now that he's starting off with mainstream America's attention, here's hoping he'll get the chance to develop the storyline to whatever insane endpoint he has in mind.
4. The Heroine
Thank God for Joss Whedon's heroine addiction (see what I did there?). Nuanced female action characters are still few and far between, and often when males write them they end up two-dimensional and stereotypical (the bitch or the seductress). Whedon doesn't write good female characters, he writes the best, and in the process explores our society's conceptions of strength and heroism. Buffy turned the stereotype of the valley girl upside-down, and gave us a nuanced portrait of a normal girl coming to terms with tremendous strength and responsibility. Firefly/Serenity turned out to be the most elaborate origin story of all time. Dollhouse explored the meaning of self and identity as it followed a heroine stripped of all memories and personality. What will we find in S.H.E.I.L.D?
No doubt there will be interesting plots for all of the characters, but I'm watching Agent May. In her, we find the perfect complement to his past work. Female action heroes are often the realm of the neophyte. But what happens to the legend? Does she stay 20 forever? When we first meet May (played by Ming-Na Wen a.k.a. the voice of Mulan, who is about to turn 50 and looks great), she's tucked behind a desk and reluctant to leave. But the show quickly drops hints that she's legendary in the spy community. And in a brief, but righteous, fight scene, we get a glimpse of what's to come. I can't wait.
My only fear:
Marvel's Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D has not one but two corporate names attached to it, representing both Marvel and ABC. If you were to write an action story based on Joss Whedon's life, the networks would be the enemy, meddling with his plots and cast to fit their mold of “what sells,” which are usually the kind of icky tropes that Whedon tries to avoid. I think it's very likely that one or both of them dipped their fingers into his pilot episode. It would explain the attractive but wooden cast, the saccharine, moralistic tone, and the overdone good guy speeches. In an age where most quality TV is coming out of cable or Netflix, let's hope his alliance with an old-school network isn't a Faustian bargain. If these companies have any sense, they'll get out of the way and let him work his magic.