‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’ Review: We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Origin Stories (on TV)

By  · Published on November 13th, 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the kind of show you’d suspect of insulting your intelligence, except you’re pretty sure it’s just that dumb. “The Hub” is a perfect example of the writers thinking they’re pulling one over us, except they have all the subtlety of Godzilla in Tokyo. “Trust the system.” “I like following the rules and doing what’s expected of me.” “The people who put these ops together are the best of the best.” That Coulson and Company would turn against their Big Brother org (workplace morale must be so low there) was obvious from the episode’s first few minutes – hell, from the show’s first couple of episodes. The question is, what took them so long?

Lots of serialized shows use a first season mystery to keep viewers invested in new characters. Every serial killer show is guilty of this. Mad Men did this with Don Draper’s secret past, and Homeland with the question of Brody’s allegiances. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is obviously trying to do this with Coulson’s death and the identities of Skye’s parents – which, based on last night, seem not to be Coulson and the Cavalry anymore. But as with so many things on this show, the pacing is off and the characters aren’t well-defined enough for us to care. It all feels inconsequential. Coulson may have some issues with his employers when he finally learns what happened to him during the “Battle of New York,” but he’s still going to be a part of S.H.I.E.L.D. (He definitely isn’t ready to give up that sweet jet.) And Skye isn’t interesting enough for me to wonder about her superhero origin story.

Do origin stories even matter in TV, though? They certainly do in films, where we can see the trajectory of, say, how a nerdy boy scientist gained the confidence (and radioactive spider powers) to become the comics world’s most sassy superhero. (I’m thinking of the Tobey Maguire version here, not the too-cool-for-school Andrew Garfield reboot.) In Spider-Man, the origin story is important insofar as it outlines the emotional journey Peter Parker undergoes in learning that just because he was a loser in high school doesn’t mean he has to be a loser forever. Once he attains superhero status, the movie, or at least the first installment, ends.

But on TV, the show goes on. And dwelling on that origin story rarely leads to anything as satisfying as what’s going on in the present. Mad Men’s more recent flashback scenes of Don on his boyhood farm and childhood years in a brothel have added very little to do the show , except to underline over and over that he grew up pretty poor. (Quelle horreur!) Sure, there are episodes of how a gang came to be the gang – I’m thinking of Firefly’s awesome “how everyone met everyone” episode – but those are one-offs. And characters needn’t have elaborate back stories to be rich and fascinating. The TV version of Buffy, for example, always only had the barest sketch of how she came to be a slayer. And the show never suffered because of that.

It also doesn’t help that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is relying on the “mysterious tragic past” narrative crutch for not just Skye and Coulson, but also Ward and May. The only one who seems to get a happy childhood is Simmons, since Fitz’s long-standing jealousy of Ward’s manly-manness finally burst through the surface last night. (Maybe lift some weights once in awhile, Fitz? And get rid of those 1997 Justin Timberlake curls?)

“The Hub,” ultimately, was yet another tease for a mystery the writers won’t solve anytime soon. Based on the show’s track record so far, it’s impossible to imagine that it’ll be worth the wait.