I don’t think so many people would be dismissing Agents of SHIELD if Lost had not been such a huge hit. It’s not just SHIELD, it is all science-fiction-leaning dramas. Lost, trained a generation of television watchers to be drunk hard-boiled detectives looking for crooked police chiefs in each act break.
From S1e1, Lost was all about the "mystery. It was why people watched the show. Lost started as a televised puzzle wrapped in a survival drama. For several seasons that followed, NBC, CBS, and Fox tried to emulate Lost’s success by launching their own mystery driven sci-fi dramas.
Off the top of my head, here are a few Lost tip-offs:
- The Event
- The Nine
Heroes ran for 77 episodes. Jericho was renewed for a second season, thanks to a fan campaign, only to be cancelled after those fans didn’t come back. Fringe ran for 100 episodes over 5 seasons and got an actual series finale. The Nine and The Event each got a full season before being cancelled.
The watercooler effect brought many viewers to Lost who had been viewers of science fiction television. Lost set the expectations about what science fiction television ought to be. In the years followed, networks and viewers demanded that the genre fit within the mode set by Lost.
The networks rushed to recreate the magic of Lost. These new science fiction viewers went looking for more crazy mysteries. But all of the clones failed (maybe with the exception of Fringe). Most of the copy-cats failed because they lacked some crucial ingredient that made Lost special.
SHIELD fails to conform to the post-Lost expectations about what television ought to be. As a result, a lot of people who would be fans have rejected the show. Others have tried to keep watching, but have given up.
Most viewers expected SHIELD to follow that same Lost pattern. Through six episodes, we are still meeting characters and developing relationships. The producers have dropped a few signposts pointing towards long-term story lines. We are starting to understand what is motivating Skye, one of the show’s must the two-dimensional characters. Project Centipede has been established as the Whedonesque Big Bad. .
But each of the first six episodes have focused on the team dealing with a singular incident. This is where the issue for viewers lies — it is not a Lost-like sci-fi survival drama, it is a sci-fi procedural set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe . Agent Coulson and his team’s mission is to investigate cases that SHIELD may have a stake in handling.
As the show continues, we will learn more about the over-arching world, its connection with the superhero side of SHIELD and the film franchises. SHIELD has far more in common with NCIS, for example, than it does with Lost. NCIS is a character-driven workplace procedural. In both shows, a small team of law enforcement officials work together to solve some sort of crime. Along the way, we learn about the characters through their interpersonal interactions. It is not about solving big mysteries and taking down a crime syndicate. It is about telling human stories within the context of a workplace. The difference? SHIELD just happens to take place in a world with superheroes and failed alien invasions.
While I personally tend to dislike procedurals, this is a turning point for sci-fi television. For too long we have been stuck in a Lost-clone rut. SHIELD, while far from perfect, is a solid break away from a genre that was growing stale.
The Netflix Factor
Also, Marvel and Netflix just announced a development deal to bring shows based on the characters of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage to the streaming service in 2015. As I argued in an article on Zacks.com last week, producing new shows for Netflix gives Marvel Studios far more creative control than they might have producing for networks.
Each of the characters will appear in a stand-alone 13-episode show, and all four will lead up to a mini-series event. Like Arrested Development, Marvel is pushing the televisual format in ways that are not possible on network or cable television.
In the end, there still is a lot wrong with SHIELD. However, we have to step back from the recent history of the genre and examine our expectations. Since the show is a character-driven procedural, we are going to see a lot of stand-alone episodes. Like X-Files, we will see long-term story lines play out slowly with mythology episodes sprinkled into the season. Will it be as strong or prolific as The X-Files or, arguably, Lost? Maybe not, but it is at least worth watching…for now.
Before the show premiered, there were rumors of production and script problems. Joss Whedon who directed and cowrote the pilot, had been called back in to help with the scripting. As we enter the back half of the season, we will likely see that effort come through. ↩
According log lines released by ABC, S1e8 will tie in with Thor: Dark World ↩