Judging a Show by its Pilot: Why I’m on Board With Agents of SHIELD

agents of shieldAs I was avoiding Tweets about last night’s Agents of SHIELD premiere, particularly those that felt snide or pretentious (it’s a spy show based on a comic book franchise, for crying out loud, not Breaking Bad), I started to realize that most of my favorite long-term shows were not aces out of the gate. While I have a tendency to fall for high-concept shows that die halfway through their first season, a lot of the shows that I came to love later in their lives had less than stellar pilots.

This is especially true for what we tend to call ‘cult favorites,’ the staples of Comic-Con. Community‘s pilot, aside from Abed’s spectacular Breakfast Club speech, is pretty average. A lot of fans agree that the show didn’t really become something special until the second half of the season with “Contemporary American Poultry.” Fringe‘s slow burn was a turn-off to a lot of viewers who bailed before the show pulled off a game-changer in the first season finale that made the rest of the show a wild ride. A number of people who fell for Firefly didn’t even see the pilot until the DVD was released. So why do we, audiences and critics, put so much stock in beginnings?

It’s a marketing thing, of course. We’re quick to judge because we have to be. The way the system works – still, despite the move towards a new model – is that a network television show has to prove it can perform. It has to produce the numbers to survive to the point where we suddenly can’t stop watching. So the pilot has to bring in the viewers, and it has to ensure that those viewers will return the next week.

There’s list of very specific things it needs to do: it needs to introduce the characters and set up the premise, and it needs to tell a self-contained story to get the show rolling – an hour of exposition without a B-plot won’t keep an audience’s attention. The pilot has to not bore you to tears or offend you so thoroughly that you’re turned off forever. It needs to make a viewer think, ‘Okay, I’ll be back.’ It needs to be watchable.

Agents of SHIELD did all those things. I loved it. There, I said it. It wasn’t perfect because it was a 45 minute pilot with a lot to accomplish. But it entertained me, it made me grin, it was full of Marvel universe Easter eggs, and there’s an awkward Scottish tech geek, which is pretty much a direct line to my heart. I knew before I saw it that I was going to love it, but instead of sharing my love, it feels like people of the internet are trying to poke holes in my enjoyment. I know that’s silly, that people are only expressing their opinions the same as me, and those opinions don’t have to affect mine, but what’s actually starting to affect me is the realization that most of those opinions aren’t a reaction to the episode, but a reaction to the hype.

Compare Agents of SHIELD and Sleepy Hollow; to me, they have a similar spirit. A certain level of absurdity built-in because they’re genre shows that have to exist in a world of skeptics. The key difference in how they’ve been received is that no one expected good things from Sleepy Hollow. No one really thought it would be a fun trip, X-Files-meets-Supernatural with a hero from 1775. But Agents of SHIELD, everyone’s been piling on the pressure since the show was announced. In a certain sense, the outcome was inevitable. There are those who love it, and those who want to sneer at it because it fell short of expectations – the same response to any addition in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Me? I’m on board. I Trust in Joss. Besides television tends to be much better in retrospect, when you have the chance to actually understand what the writers are trying to accomplish instead of judging and entire concept on one script.

And considering SHIELD brought in 11.9 million viewers and handily won the key demographic (against NCIS and The Voice), those who are upset that one episode didn’t deliver everything they wanted should relax and give it a week. Or two.

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