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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.

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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.