TV critics weigh in on how big a megahit S.H.I.E.L.D. could become

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Sep 23, 2013

After months of hype and speculation, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finally premieres tomorrow night on ABC. 

With the full weight of the Disney/Marvel marketing machine behind it, and the pedigree of being a spinoff of the third biggest motion picture of all time, The Avengers, not to mention created and developed by Joss Whedon, the show seems poised to become a success right out of the chute. But just how big a success will it be? Will decent ratings, warm reviews and a solid if unspectacular following be enough? 

Or does Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. need to be -- and can it be -- the kind of breakout genre smash that the broadcast networks have been anxiously looking for ever since Lost went into the light? There are plenty of hit shows on the networks, ranging from Arrow to Once Upon a Time, but none of them seem to have the same buzz as cable offerings like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones (it's all about Breaking Bad's final episodes this week -- that's all anyone is talking about). 

That legendary show that everyone wants to discuss the following morning -- the so-called "water cooler" series -- has been elusive at the broadcast networks in recent years. The question is whether Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which in the end has its origins in comic books, can become that kind of show.

"I do think the bar will be somewhat higher than normal for this show, given the connection to the Marvel cinematic universe," says Maureen Ryan, TV critic for the Huffington Post, who adds that the networks will take what they can get in terms of ratings these days. "Put it this way, if S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't one of ABC's best-debuting scripted dramas of the last few years, a lot of people will be surprised. It certainly has to do significantly better than whatever was in that ABC time slot last year. That said, it's going up against NCIS and The Voice, so it may just do respectably. I think a respectable performance will be OK with ABC, and obviously if it's a smash hit, that will make the network very happy."

Hollywood Reporter senior editor Marc Bernardin agrees that expectations for the show are high due to the Avengers connection, but adds that there are many ways in which Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can be considered a hit. "Did it premiere to the biggest audience of any fall tv show? Did it win the night, in the ratings? Did it win the timeslot? Did it win the coveted 18-35 demographic?" he offers. "It's like on radio (remember radio?) where every station could claim to be the number one in something. The expectations are huge, but only ABC knows what numbers it needs to hit to be an actual success. It's safe to say that it needs to clear at least 13 million viewers -- more than any other ABC drama."

Like Ryan, TV Guide senior TV critic Matt Roush believes that first hurdle facing S.H.I.E.L.D. is its competition in its Tuesday, 8 p.m. timeslot. "I would say that if S.H.I.E.L.D. comes in #2 to NCIS, that won't look like a failure," says Roush, who declines to predict hard viewership numbers. "If it's a strong #2 with robust young demographics, ABC will look at it as a win, because up to now they can't budge the needle in that time period. The real test will be how the show performs down the line and whether S.H.I.E.L.D. shows growth potential as it builds its world through the first season."

That's where the "water cooler" aspect comes in. Assuming that S.H.I.E.L.D. is first of all a good show (and all indications from the pilot are promising), it has to have good word of mouth as it progresses from episode to episode, presumably telling compelling individual stories while expanding upon an already rich mythology. "Strangely enough, this has the opportunity to be the rare cult show that's also massive," theorizes Bernardin. "I mean, so many people saw The Avengers, that if even half of them tune in for the premiere and no one else, it'd be a hit. They don't really need to expand beyond the base. Of course, they'd like to, but it doesn't feel like it's necessary. And that's not even counting the Whedon faithful -- who, of course, weren't legion enough to keep Firefly or Dollhouse on the air, but still number in the millions."

Ryan believes that the series can reach beyond fans of The Avengers, Marvel Comics and Joss Whedon, "because S.H.I.E.L.D. has a lot in common with various kinds of procedurals. There's a problem to solve each week, each member of the team has a different role to play in the solving of that problem, and most of the characters in S.H.I.E.L.D. do not have any special powers." But she adds, "It'll be tougher to draw those folks in, and one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s biggest challenges will be bridging the gap between Whedon fans who want to see signs of the emotional and thematic sophistication of his earlier shows, and non-Whedon, non-Marvel fans who just want to watch a fun, cool show with exciting action and cool tech. I think that balance can be achieved, but the show won't have all that long to establish it."  

"Whether it can reach critical mass and become an enduring pop-culture sensation like Lost or The X-Files -- the jury is very much out on that and I wouldn't want to guesstimate, because we rarely see those sorts of things coming," says Roush. "Until we see how Whedon and his team build out this universe, I'd ratchet back expectations to say this may live more comfortably in the zone of being 'cool' rather than 'hot,' not unlike its central character of Agent Coulson. The pilot is great fun, but it's not exactly explosively innovative -- but then, The X-Files was a slow build as well."

"Fun" seems to be the operative word when it comes to describing the S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot, which has the same sense of adventure and intrigue as The Avengers in addition to Whedon's trademark banter and snappy dialogue. "TV could use more shows that offer lavish escapist entertainment without a self-conscious or pretentious patina of angst, and that appears to be S.H.I.E.L.D.'s goal," says Roush when asked if success for the series could lead the networks away from the darker, more oppressive fare they've been offering lately. "If it does turn out to be the hit that we would all like it to be, S.H.I.E.L.D. will almost certainly influence the way genre shows are developed or tweaked. Most could use a dose of that wry, quirky, self-reflexive Whedon-esque humor."

While Ryan thinks that S.H.I.E.L.D.'s main impact if it's a hit will be that "many networks and studios will order a lot more superhero-flavored shows," she doesn't necessarily feel that it will lead to a major wave of lighter fare: "Given how many of the best one-hour dramas air on cable, which is generally fairly dark, I don't think we're in for a happy-shiny makeover of television -- even genre television -- any time soon. And I think, given the team working on the show, there could be some real darkness in S.H.I.E.L.D. Whedon and his collaborators have shown in their previous work that they enjoy going for the emotional jugular, and I don't expect that to change."

"My gut is that S.H.I.E.L.D. will be something of an anomaly, because it's hoped-for success could be attributed to any number of non-repeatable things," says Bernardin. "Nothing else in development will have a billion-dollar movie as a lead-in. Nothing will have the Whedon stamp of approval. It does feel like we're cycling out of the Era of Darkness that began with The Sopranos and is, in a real way, coming to a close with the final seasons of Breaking Bad and Dexter -- and shows that are a little frothier might find some purchase -- but who knows how much of that we'll be able to lay at S.H.I.E.L.D.'s feet."

Our view? Shows that truly make a mark on pop culture -- with Lost and The X-Files being two of the best examples -- usually capture the imagination of the public with a single, powerful idea. The concept of a government agency that deals with threats no other authority can handle -- and which most people have a hard time even believing exist -- certainly has that potential, and it's up to Whedon and his crew to deliver that idea with clarity, wit and excitement. 

Fans already know what Whedon and the S.H.I.E.L.D. mythology itself are capable of, and will support both to the end; but when your sister-in-law or Uncle Bill start talking about Phil Coulson around the dinner table this Thanksgiving, then you'll know the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have infiltrated more than just some super-villain's lair. 

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