UPDATED: What “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Can Learn From “Person of Interest”

“The Avengers” TV spin-off “Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” debuted to fantastic ratings, then leveled off a bit the following few weeks. But the numbers were still high enough to warrant a full season order.

As a lifelong comics fan, the show was on my must-see list, and I’ve found it enjoyable so far. However, there’s room for improvement and I’d suggest finding inspiration in a show with which it has a lot in common: the CBS series “Person of Interest,” now in its third season.

In “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” a somehow-resurrected Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who died in “The Avengers,” unites a government team with no superpowers to clandestinely defeat dangerous villains or save the world whenever the need arises.

That team consists of new recruit Skye (Chloe Bennet), a talented hacker who may or may not be a double agent; Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), a pilot, weapons expert and general butt-kicker; Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), a combat and espionage specialist; and Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecke) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), the science/techno geeks who create and utilize the team’s high tech gadgetry.

So far the stories about the team’s initial adventures have been good, but I’d like to see more personality, depth and backstory for the main cast of characters. The colorful, comical Fitz and Simmons – and the bemused, determined Skye – are off on the right foot, but there’s too much of a “cool” factor with the rest of the team.

While it’s fine for Coulson to be cool, calm, and quippy because he’s the boss, Ward and May also have cool, detached personalities. All those cool, detached people might make for a good spy team, but they don’t create the most captivating television.

Ward and May especially need distinct qualities to make them stand out. The actors are up to the task; they just need their material to be punched up. And this is one of the area’s where “Person of Interest” can be a good model.

On that show, which is about a secret team of agents and police officers who try to stop crimes before they happen, John Reese (Jim Caviezel) is the cool, calm detached one, which fits his character as an ex-C.I.A. assassin looking to move beyond his past. But everybody else has his or her own personality.

Finch (Michael Emerson) is the bold, sometimes panicky brains behind the operation; Carter (Taraji P. Henson) is the smart, bold cop in the field; and Fusco (Kevin Chapman) is the formerly corrupt cop who often provides comic relief.

Finally, the newest member of the crew (and brilliant addition to the cast), Samantha Shaw (Sarah Shahi), is a former black ops agent whose gleeful approach to weaponry and hurting bad guys is more charming and funny than it might sound.

Further, each of these characters have backstories and current troubles that allow viewers to connect with them. Reese, Finch, Fusco and even Shaw are looking for redemption from sins they’ve committed or mistakes they’ve made in the past. We didn’t learn right away why they chose their current paths, but from the beginning, we got the sense that Reese had lost his soul and this was his attempt to reclaim a piece of it.

Finch also had specific motivations for saving innocent lives. His story took two years to be fully revealed, but we always could tell that he had a deep personal investment in what he was doing. By seeing Finch and Reese’s histories, viewers became invested in them as characters.

In addition, Carter and Fusco both have children that they’re trying to stay alive for. They’ve both been hurt by corrupt cops and they’ve made moral compromises along the way. We know why they do what they do. And as Shaw’s character develops, we’re becoming more invested in her as well.

The result of all this character development is clear. Even when particular episodes are subpar, the characters on “Person of Interest” are built on a firm enough foundation that they make the show engaging – and the people likable and relatable.

That’s what I’d like to see more of on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Skye’s difficult past has been hinted at, but other than that, we really don’t know much about anyone yet. We don’t know why we should care about these people other than that they put their lives on the line.

The closest the series came to creating a well-rounded character so far was with guest star J. August Richards as Michael Peterson in the pilot. He played an unemployed single father who was given superpowers by a scientist looking to abuse them. The powers, along with his own frustrations at the bad breaks he was getting in life, began driving him crazy and making him violent and power-hungry.

Richardson loves his son and wants to create a better life for him, but he’s not sure exactly how to do that. His character introduced moral complexity and even some heartfelt emotion to the series that it has yet to repeat. It was the show’s most human moment so far.

But Richards was just a guest star. Now the writers need to focus on creating those kinds of moments with the regular cast. Maybe let May show a little enjoyment, a la Sarah Shahi, when fighting the bad guys. Give Ward more personality. Start revealing why everyone has chosen their paths in life.

Flashbacks may seem very “Lost-ian,” but they worked on that show – and they work on “Person of Interest.” There’s no reason not to invest in a tried and true formula if it allows your storytelling to flourish.

My only other qualm with “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is that it lacks the witty Whedonesque banter shows like “Buffy” were known for. There are hints of it from time to time, but it’s presence could definitely be increased.

“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has plenty of potential, so long as it doesn’t keep shields around its characters hearts, minds and souls. I look forward to seeing what kinds of persons of interest that Coulson and his crew become in the future.

UPDATE: Tonight’s episode of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” (The Girl in the Flower Dress) was the best so far. The team finally jelled and displayed genuine emotion as a result of Skye’s seeming betrayal; May’s cool warrior facade worked better than ever – and she even cracked a smile at one point; Ward displayed humor and chemistry with Skye in the “Battleship” scene; and the victim of the week supplied an engaging theme about the destructive lure of power. The whole team seemed more personally invested than they had been in any of their previous adventures, so kudos to Brent Fletcher on an excellent script. This show has just hit its stride.

About Tony Rossi

After graduating from St. John's University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers' TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the host and producer of the organization's radio show/podcast Christopher Closeup, writer and editor of their syndicated Light One Candle column, and producer/scriptwriter of the annual Christopher Awards ceremony.

  • Brian Sullivan

    True enough, but it’s only been 4 or 5 episodes. It took Person of Interest 2 or 3 seasons to get where it is. There are hints in SHEILD that they are starting to develop the backstories, especially May’s. I think that with the Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) character, we know know what Hermoine Granger does when she grows up!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christophers/ Tony Rossi

      Very true on the Hermione reference, Brian!

    • ds9sisko

      Actually, Person of Interest was firing on all cylinders by it’s 5th episode.

      • Brian Sullivan

        As far as it’s basic outline, yes, Then came the background stories. And this year, with the loss of Det. Carter–well, that arc or stories was the best TV I’ve ever seen.

  • Lori Smith

    The commentary is good overall, but why is the black female character referred to as “sassy”? That word has a negative connotation usually when associated with black females because it is considered a stereotype.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christophers/ Tony Rossi

      I wasn’t thinking in racial terms at all when I wrote it, but if that’s how it comes across, I’ll change it.

      • Lori Smith

        Thank you.

    • aswmbo

      Wow. That’s news to me! I use the word all the time, in fact even have a dog by that name. When did that word get co-opt by race?
      It’s an adjective in the English language meaning “lively, bold, and full of spirit; cheeky”

  • GrahamStokes

    I’m sorry, you’re gonna say we’ve seen hints of Skye’s dark past and then complain Agent May’s underdeveloped? We’ve seen more hints of HER dark past than anyone else’s. At all. AT ALL.

    Go rewatch all the episodes, only this time pay attention, then come back and right a new article please.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Thank you, you expressed so perfectly exactly how I feel about both shows! I also agree with the update, this episode was the best one yet. Now I feel more invested in Skye as a character, when before I really didn’t care much about her. The main reason I keep watching is for Coulson. Yes, he’s pretty calm and cool, but Gregg is a great actor and he reveals more under the surface. I think we saw that in Eye Spy, in his protective love for the former agent, and in this episode with Skye. Coulson is the most fascinating character to me.

    On the flip side, Person of Interest needs more interesting cases of the week, and that’s where Agents of Shield has it beat. You can only ring so many changes on embezzlement, political back-stabbing, market-playing, etc. before it gets dull. They’re developing a strong mythos, but using it too sparingly. Reese had much more depth as a character in Season 1, but now his book is pretty much closed. One thing I do disagree with you about is the character of Shaw. IMO she’s upset the yin/yang balance between Reese and Finch, which was a great example of male bonding done right. When it was just them in Season 1, that was the show at its best. But introducing a new regular on the team, especially a female, just messes with things. Not to mention such a hyper-exaggeratedly masculine one. Some of her dialogue is truly wince-worthy, plus she’s constantly sulking. Frankly I’m not that invested in her yet. Also, the semi-lesbian subtext between her and Root is pretty sleazy (which they blatantly admitted at Comic-Con). Sure hope they don’t go too far down THAT road.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Hey Tony, I think I left a long comment here, but I’m not seeing it now. Can you help me find it? Thanks!

  • Brian Sullivan

    After last night’s episode with one sexual encounter and one gruesome demise, they may need to move the show to a later time. But then I suppose the idea of a family time on network TV died a long time ago.

  • TD

    PRIME TIME TV is more sophisticated these days than even Movies, in terms of story telling. Joss still writes like he’s in the 90s.

    If you’ve ever seen secret agent shows like “24″, Numbers (wow), and others like the BBC’s “Sherlock” (double wow!). That’s how sophisticated those writers are today!

    Just watch an episode of Numbers or Sherlock on Netflix and you’ll see what kind of competition Whedon has to match.

    He needs to upgrade! He can do it!