What ABC's 'Agents of SHIELD' Will Need to Do to Get an Audience - And Save the Network

The obstacles ahead for ABC's high-profile fall season look daunting - and a scheduling decision may not help.
Clark Gregg reprises his movie role

Welcome to the new world order of television when, seemingly out of nowhere, a critic can start worrying about a network series when already surrounded by very distracting high-end fare on cable. See? The job has become just  that disorienting. You can wake up one morning still red-eyed from the sadness of Broadchurch, brighten considerably by remembering how great Sunday's episode of Breaking Bad was, freak the hell out about Duck Dynasty's ratings and then remember something huge that's been nagging at the corners of your subconscious -- is Agents of SHIELD going to be the high-profile hit that helps save ABC or is it going to fizzle, dragging the network down with it?

STORY: Inside Marvel's Secret 'Agents of SHIELD' Security

And hell, if I'm worrying about Agents of SHIELD more than a month before it premieres, what must be going through the minds of those folks at Disney, ABC and Marvel? 

Not long ago I wrote about how ABC could "win" the sad race between it and NBC to stay out of last place -- even though NBC has the powerhouse NFL franchise set to boost its totals. A lot of that analysis was predicated on ABC winning its all-freshman Tuesday nights with Agents of SHIELD, The Goldbergs, Trophy Wife and Lucky 7.

That means getting off to a huge start at 8 p.m. with Agents is essential. But will that happen? I'm worried. And here's why:

It's not The Avengers or any other blockbuster Marvel movie: For all the talk -- from fans of the movies -- about how any TV critic could be worried about Agents having wide appeal when The Avengers was one of the highest grossing movies ever and others in the Marvel franchise family were also huge and made tons of money, the answer is simple: This is another thing entirely. And even if there are strands in the DNA, blockbuster big screen movies don't necessarily drive audiences to television. It's just wish fulfillment  -- and ABC needs viewers not wishes.

So, yes, this is something new and different. The question will be whether people want new and different or just really want more of The Avengers. What they'll find here in the ABC series is that, well, the actual agents are not superheroes. (That was the storytelling allure, according to Joss Whedon, whose name is adding a lot of gravitas to this project.) The lack of super powers is the cool part, he said. They are just characters and that allows a mostly new story to emerge from within them. In the hour viewers meet them, however, the agents don't actually feel like characters you'd watch in an ongoing series so much as they feel like hollowed out movie characters. But hey, it's the pilot, and that can (and probably will) change and they will become more fleshed-out and nuanced going forward.

And yet, most of the hype for the show doesn't truly focus on the new characters, it focuses on the legacy. Translation: Avengers, Avengers, Marvel characters, Avengers, Whedon, Whedon and, oh yeah, these other characters. I'm not sure that's how you sell a show to either all-in fans or those TV watchers just coming to take a peek.

The pilot is initially confusing, then not all that good: Everyone involved with Agents of SHIELD says that the show must exist as a separate entity from the movies and the comic books. But the beginning of the pilot has all kinds of references to the movies and history and the fact that Clark Gregg's character, Agent Phil Coulson, was killed off in The Avengers but is alive here. That miracle will be part of the story and a mystery going forward. Colbie Smulders, who plays Maria Hill in The Avengers, is also in the pilot though there are no current plans for her to pop up again. While the plot is trying to explain just what an agent of SHIELD does (protects the world?), and what SHIELD stands for (Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division), that creates two separate layers of initial confusion. ABC is most definitely going to need a Marvel primer of some sort if it wants this series to achieve maximum viewership. How to achieve such a primer? l have no idea. ABC, do you?

The premiere week crush is not helping: If ABC had really thought that Marvel/geek newbies might be confused or, on a more granular level -- that its biggest property of the fall needed to truly stand out -- maybe it should have scheduled two episodes back to back, yes? It's not like the two freshman sitcoms that follow Agents on Sept. 24 couldn't launch a different week. After all, decades of throwing everything at viewers in the same week or two has proven so incredibly successful, hasn't it? Why not delay the comedies and allow viewers to watch a not-at-all perfect or even thrilling Agents pilot and immediately give them a second helping (which would be, one hopes, a little more inviting and perhaps sets the hook deeper). This scenario, in case you were wondering, is not going to happen. Viewers will get the pilot, followed by two freshman comedies, followed by a freshman drama. We'll see if Tuesday really does launch. And as I said in the story linked above about avoiding fourth place in a four network race, Tuesdays have to be won by ABC. The night must launch.

Are the core female viewers of ABC series all geeked out to see Agents of SHIELD? That will be an interesting demo number to monitor. Nothing more to be said about that.

Now, to add a dose of positivity to what might be perceived as a worrisome and doubtful little column on what could eventually be a fun show -- I really want Agents of SHIELD to work. I thought the pilot was good, not great. But I want it to work and I will watch a few more times at least.

But I also don't have a Nielsen box. And it's not my network that will implode if it doesn't work. So yes, I remain open to optimism!

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine