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On Friday, Agents of SHIELD will air its 100th episode — an achievement not even the creators predicted they would reach.
When Marvel’s first live-action TV series premiered five years ago on ABC, the scripted landscape was completely different — Netflix was on the cusp of bowing its first series with House of Cards and the idea of an entire extended comic book universe on the streamer was unfathomable. Fast-forward five years and Marvel has 12 live-action series across five different networks and more in the works beyond that. And still, SHIELD — the show that started it all — remains alive and kicking in a cluttered scripted landscape expected to top 500 originals this year.
“We were just trying to make it not suck,” executive producer Jed Whedon tells The Hollywood Reporter of launching the series five years ago. Focusing on each episode as it came, the showrunners kept their goals small and attainable. “We really did take it one episode at a time until a couple months ago when we realized, oh man, we’re almost there,” he adds. “It’s too big of a dream to imagine when you first start out.”
That’s especially true when you have the pressure of launching the comic book powerhouse into the live-action scripted space with what would become uber-producer Marvel Television. While SHIELD was important in helping corporate parent in Disney (which owns Marvel and ABC), there was no set plan at the time to expand the Marvel brand into television beyond its first scripted original. To hear the showrunners tell it, they had complete creative freedom to develop SHIELD. Marvel TV head Jeph Loeb says the only corporate mandate handed down to them was “to tell the best story we could and hope that an audience would follow.”
While SHIELD’s linear ratings have fallen over time — the show was moved from its longtime home on Tuesdays to the low-rent Friday slot — the drama is a sturdy performer on DVR with strong international sales and a lucrative Netflix deal. Helping matters, ABC Studios negotiated to reduce the license fee, making SHIELD more financially viable. What’s more, SHIELD‘s continued presence on ABC represents important brand synergy with Marvel and a window into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with which the show has often tied into.
And while the extended Marvel universe thrived on Netflix with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Punisher and The Defenders, ABC struggled to get its own off the ground. Period drama Agent Carter, with Hayley Atwell as the original SHIELD agent, was canceled after two short but well-reviewed seasons, and the SHIELD spinoff with former stars Adrianne Palicki and Nick Blood was ultimately scrapped after being twice developed. Pricey Imax play Inhumans was a critical and ratings bomb and is not expected to return after averaging only 2.65 million viewers and a 0.6 in the demo. That leaves SHIELD as Marvel’s last hero standing at ABC.
“We’re very proud of all of our shows and often saddened by the shows that for whatever reason didn’t continue,” Loeb says. “But that’s the nature of the television business. We’ve had a very good run so far and continue to hope to be able to do that and being able to spread onto other networks like Freeform [with Cloak and Dagger] and Hulu [Runaways] and continue to create titans for us as a Marvel Television entity.”
From the beginning, there was one hard-and-fast rule that SHIELD had to follow: stay within the rules established in the MCU. Initially tie-ins with the greater MCU were overt, anticipated and even expected (and co-showrunner Maurissa Tancharoen did feel “pressure” to deliver on those beats). “That doesn’t mean we always have to tie in to it, but it means that we have to adhere to [and] can’t contradict it,” executive producer Jeff Bell says.
Over time, SHIELD eventually stopped worrying about bringing big-screen characters on board for event episodes. “Once we established our own show, it became much more exciting for us to just follow our own story and make it exist alongside the films as opposed to trying to use them as tentpoles within our seasons,” Whedon says. That’s when SHIELD producers finally found their groove.
As the MCU evolved over five years, so did the guidelines for what SHIELD could explore. “Suddenly you’re in space with Guardians or you’ve got dimensions and magic with Doctor Strange,” Bell adds. “As those doors opened in the movie universe, that also allowed us to tell similar stories and reflect the universe, a lot of stories that really weren’t possible for us early in the show.”
The biggest challenge SHIELD faced was navigating the line between telling a larger story for a broad audience (especially on a female-driven network like ABC), while also trying to appease what comic book diehards wanted from a weekly Marvel TV show. “The only concern was that if you went full blast into comic book geek lore right off the bat that people wouldn’t respond,” Whedon says of their efforts to attract a broad audience.
SHIELD‘s answer: craft a show around characters that don’t exist in the Marvel universe, and then slowly introduce the Marvel lore once viewers were invested in their original characters. “The center of it was Phil Coulson [film staple Clark Gregg] and he built this family around him,” Tancharoen says. Adds Loeb of bringing in non-comic viewers: “Marvel always has prided itself on being able to tell a story about the person behind the mask, behind the cape or behind the cowl.”
Producers are also proud of creating strong, smart, capable female characters that many insiders deemed ahead of their time. Tancharoen especially praises the show’s inclusive casting with Chinese-American actresses Chloe Bennet and Ming-Na Wen. “I may be the only brown woman [among the showrunners] but I’m in good company because we were all like-minded in how we wanted to portray these women, a group of females who are all geniuses in their own fields, they respect one another, they’re kind to one another and their bond is strong,” Tancharoen says.
But what producers believe is the show’s secret weapon to keeping audiences coming back year after year is its overall sense of hope. “What we set out to do at Marvel from the beginning is create a show that was aspirational and inspirational,” Bell says. “That sense of hope you get from watching an hour of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is probably one of the most significant reasons as to why there are 100 episodes and hopefully a lot more after that.”
While the upcoming season five finale is being crafted as a potential series finale as SHIELD remains a perennial bubble show, Whedon says he’s grown used to approaching each season that way. “We’ve only known one year that we were coming back early, so we always design it as a season and/or series finale,” he says. “If/when we hear otherwise, if we need to nudge it a bit, we will. We will make a satisfying end and conclusion regardless.”
As for Friday’s 100th episode, the milestone hour will serve as a “game-changer” for the season while also rewarding longtime fans, Bell says. Expect to see some old faces pop up.
“We’ve come up with a device that grows out of our current storyline and plot that allows us to look back and reflect on where we’ve come from, turn over a couple cards that people will be excited about and then also celebrate the show and people on it,” he says.
Agents of SHIELD airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on ABC.
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