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ABC’s Agents of SHIELD may not have turned out to be the monster hit the network and Marvel wanted for its first live-action series and collaboration, but what they do have is a solid performer (especially with DVR) and a loyal base of fanboy fans.
Fans and critics alike have not been kind to the series, with many abandoning it and questioning if it was anything more than a procedural with a Marvel twist when Agents of SHIELD stumbled early on. ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee acknowledged that the show — overseen by showrunners (and couple) Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon — took time to find its legs and balance between being a straight procedural and a Marvel experience.
Here, Tancharoen and Whedon (Dollhouse, Dr. Horrible, Spartacus) talk candidly with The Hollywood Reporter about managing expectations, finding balance, fan feedback, plans for season two and the Captain America tie-in, and they respond to those who may have checked out.
Fifteen episodes in, what’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned so far?
Whedon: We’ve learned so many different lessons. A first-year show has so many growing pains, and we’re happy we’re getting the kind of season where we feel like we’re really hitting our stride both in terms of the stuff we’ve played in early and storywise coming to head, and also just in terms of getting everybody in production, on stage and in the room on the same page. There’s a learning curve no matter what the show, so there’s been a lot of lessons.
Tancharoen: We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t, and we’re sticking with the stuff that works. It’s an eight-day shoot, and we knew from the outset that there were a lot of eyes on the show with very high expectations. People were expecting to see a Marvel movie every week. With the reality of our accelerated post schedule, we are living up to that standard as much as we possibly can. In the beginning, we may have tried to apply too much to an episode. Now, we understand the right balance that we need of scale as well as story and quiet moments in between. That is what our show is about: real people living in this extraordinary world. We’ve found how to lean into that, to show the same great universe as you see in the movies, but through a different lens.
Are you pleased with how the show is performing?
Tancharoen: We are, especially with DVR. Our audience isn’t able to be there on a Tuesday night at 8 p.m., but they definitely do watch. We have a loyal audience.
Whedon: There is obviously a huge expectation for this Marvel property, and there’s a lot of anticipation, but we’ve settled in to finding our fans and growing in an organic and normal way that a show would while still hopefully pleasing that large Marvel fan base that is very vocal.
ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee said in the development stage that he was optimistic this would be a four-quadrant show. Is there a concerted push to go after a specific demo at this point?
Whedon: Not right now. Our focus is to tell good stories and live within the Marvel brand. Four-quadrant show is something easy to say, but very hard to do. Marvel skews differently than ABC does, in terms of the percentage of male-to-female viewers. We’re confident that if the stories are fun and it’s not all about action, emotion or comedy — but about all those things — we’re confident that people will find it regardless of which side of that line they fall on. We’re just focusing on the story and trying to make it rewarding to watch the show whoever you are.
How much feedback have you gotten from Marvel and from ABC?
Tancharoen: Not much. From the beginning, the creative process has been the same. Both Marvel and ABC read every script, every copy, every cut and weigh in with their notes, and the process hasn’t really changed at all.
Whedon: As with any first year show, there’s a level of trust that is established over time. The good thing is that when we set out, everybody set out to make the same show. That’s always a struggle, regardless, even if everybody is on the exact same page and trying to make the same show; you still have to figure out exactly where that lands. We still haven’t hit any road bumps in terms of creative differences. As we move later in the show and some of the more serialized elements are coming into play, it’s been just a race to the finish.
Tancharoen: It’s full throttle from here on out. It’s nice that we’ll be able to run seven straight through.
You mentioned seven straight as part of this back half. How much do you think scheduling has been an issue for people finding this show and for its momentum going forward?
Tancharoen: It definitely is hard for momentum when you take long breaks, but it seems to be a thing that happens in network programming. Our audience is still finding us and our DVR numbers are holding up. They’re the same as they were before the six-week break.
What would you say to people who have checked out or have been critical of the show — like SHIELD creator Jim Steranko, who recaps the show for THR?
Whedon: Everything that everybody has seen that has come from Marvel has been a giant multimillion-dollar film, and we can’t do that. The expectation that they’re going to see a Marvel movie each week — that’s a hard expectation to live up to. The only way we can live up to it is with story and long-term storytelling. That’s the one advantage we have over the films: We can develop story arcs over this period of 22 episodes. Early on, we had to be careful with making sure we honored the Marvel universe they created. They spent millions and billions of dollars, time and energy, and very cleverly created this awesome massive universe that we are playing in.
Tancharoen: We didn’t want to bombard our new audience — an audience that includes people that aren’t familiar with the Marvel universe. We didn’t to want to bombard them with a superhero week after week.
Whedon: We didn’t want to undercut the films by saying, “This isn’t special because there’s one every week.” We took our time early on planting seeds and telling standalone episodes with the concept that these elements would come together in the back half.
Tancharoen: That’s where we are now, and it seems that people are responding to seeing how all those things we planted are paying off. So to the people that checked out, maybe they’ll watch it on Netflix. That’s the way we watch our TV shows; we let them all pile up and binge watch them all at once. And we are like our audience.
Lee acknowledged at TCA that it took a bit of time for Agents of SHIELD to find its legs. What had to change?
Whedon: I think that it has to do with the seeds we planted and some of the standalone elements coming together and it becoming more serialized in the back half. It’s something we planned on, and it took patience to get there.
Tancharoen: And just the sea legs of a Marvel show finding its way on ABC. That was a new marriage — this whole thing had a lot of firsts: Marvel’s first live-action show, Marvel and ABC’s first joint venture …
Whedon: Even though things from the top were pretty harmonious, it’s still a new experience. Now that we found our groove, we’re making these [episodes] much more efficiently. We know exactly the stories we’re trying to tell, and it all comes together in the back half of the season.
For those interested in coming back, are these last episodes a self-contained arc or do they need to catch up?
Whedon: We try to have each episode have its own value and its own little arc, so we hope that you can check in and step on the train.
Tancharoen: It’ll be more gratifying if you have been with us for the entire season.
Whedon: And if you don’t know what’s going, you can catch up with the “previously on.”
Have there been any limitations when it comes to bringing in big-name characters from the Marvel universe?
Tancharoen: It wasn’t one of our main goals to have one of the big stars from the movies come in week to week. We knew that would be setting an expectation that just realistically we couldn’t pursue. Our goal was to have a show that stands on its own, which I think we’ve done. It’s Marvel’s goal to show and respect that it is all connected and our show has a unique opportunity to participate in that, so it’s always a possibility to have someone coming.
Whedon: We’ve only seen it as a positive that we get to play with these big toys, but there was never an expectation that we’d use them all the time. We’ve created our own characters. We like it when they interact with the people from the movies, and it’s rewarding and fun, but we certainly don’t hinge everything on it because it would be a waste of the whole TV show.
Will whatever connection you have to the new Captain America movie help illustrate how important it is to watch this series as it is to watch the movies?
Whedon: We hope that it’s rewarding to watch our series on its own. We don’t want to make it just like a webisode that’s filling in the gap between the films. We think of the movies as webisodes for us.
Tancharoen: But in the movies, everything happens on a much bigger scale and on our show we get to explore the details and the personal fallout the personal consequences of all the big things you see on the films. That’s a unique opportunity to have.
How much communication do you have with the movie team?
Tancharoen: They’re aware of every step; they’re an integral part of our process. They see every script, they see every cut, they give notes, and we’re very aware of everything they’re doing. We read all of the film scripts before they’re even finished.
Whedon: The idea with every Marvel property is for them to exist on their own and then interweave. No one backswipes; Thor didn’t show up in Iron Man 3. It’s not that these things are dependent on one another. They had the opportunity to interact, and they exist in the same universe, and we are in the same universe; and when we establish something in our universe, in our show, it becomes a rule in the universe, so we have to make sure we’re respectful of what they’re planning to do, and that we’re all on the same page.
Has there been anything that you’ve wanted to incorporate from the Marvel universe that you couldn’t? Maybe a villain?
Whedon: We did want the show to star Iron Man, and it turns out they wouldn’t go for that one. (Laughs). We haven’t. These are all opportunities. We certainly never start from that place of, “You know what would be cool? If we could get this guy.” It’s always us trying to tell our own stories and then finding a way to fit some of those things in as a reward.
Have there been any adjustments you’ve made based on fan response?
Whedon: We think of it as a band playing a song. If everyone goes to the bar when we play a slow number, maybe we don’t play as many slow numbers. We try to see what people are responding to and hit those notes harder and test the audience and make those notes interesting.
Tancharoen: There hasn’t been a course correction of any kind. The way the season is laid out is how we originally planned it. We’re excited for people to see these last seven and see how everything comes together.
Knowing what you know now, is there anything you would change?
Whedon: We would have given them a slightly bigger plane (laughs). We’re happy with how it went.
Tancharoen: We’re about to shoot the finale, and everyone is tired. We’ve had very long days for two months, and the fact that we’re all still coming to work everyday and having a good time making the show, that’s a win.
What kind of plans do you have for season two?
Tancharoen: We have a board going right now. We just don’t have a season two yet. But we are planning on it and at the end of season one, we are tying a lot of things up as well as teeing things up for a possible season two.
Would the season finale serve as a series finale if you didn’t get a second run?
Whedon: No, you’d be so desperate to see another season, and you’d be sad. It’ll definitely be a satisfying season finale, but we definitely are teeing up stuff to come.
Agents of SHIELD airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.
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