I’m so tired of cynicism. I’m just as tired of ironically praising something for how bad it is. Which is why Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is such a breath of fresh air.
There’s not a cynical bone in this show’s body. Plus, it’s really very good.
Writers Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen nailed this on every single level. I honestly can’t remember the last television show I watched that just made me happy (that wasn’t a cartoon). There have been any number that I’ve enjoyed. Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and even Hannibal or the UK series Utopia have all left me breathless at one time or another. They’ve all had episodes and stories that have beaten me senseless and devastated me in one way or another. But none of them filled me with joy.
That’s something I hadn’t really realized until watching AoS. I love those shows and wouldn’t change them for anything. But these shows put you through the emotional wringer, shoving horrible, violent realities at you until you just can’t watch anymore. But then you keep watching. Because that’s how good they are.
And it’s exhausting.
Your mainstream dramas, your action-adventures, your family dramadies; they don’t hold back on the melodramatic wringers either. I’m not a fan, but the most popular shows on TV are cop dramas, medical dramas, soap operas, or dysfunctional families. They all have their audiences because they also put you through the emotional wringer. They’re not as intense and they don’t strive for the same sort of psychological realism as the shows I mentioned earlier, but they serve the same sort of purpose for that audience.
When did television drama become so obsessed with tormenting characters? With forcing suffering onto characters we identify with and enjoy? The worst of these shows will torture their characters and then resolve everything with a hug and a laugh in the end. The better shows will acknowledge the damage that’s been done, but then will carry on. Because that’s what we do. We carry on. And these shitty characters on these shitty shows make us feel better because they keep on keeping on.
There’s a value to that, I guess. I don’t enjoy it, but I get that millions of people do. I just think that usually the connections between the shows and their audiences are one-sided. The audience doesn’t get real inspiration, but is instead sold a blunted catharsis; a sense that the joys and triumphs of the heroes they see on TV aren’t really theirs any more than the victimization and disease of the victims on TV are theirs. It’s an empty psychological trick. A rationing out of angst and release, of joys and acceptance.
Everything has its dark underside, and for some reason is defined by it.
Which brings us back to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I guess.
This show made me giddy. I teared up at least three times while watching – and not for the usual manipulative moments (the heartfelt expression of love or a beloved character’s death). I fought back tears of joy. I laughed and smiled and felt something I haven’t felt in a long time while watching a television show.
I felt hope.
I know that this is going to sound stupid. I know that you’re rolling your eyes and probably clicking away to another website. But dammit, that’s just the way it is.
Was it manipulative? Of course. It’s drama. The point of drama is to present an emotional experience that makes the audience feel something about what’s going on in the narrative. And it’s easy to manipulate with negativity and cynicism. It’s easy to show us something pretty and nice before torturing or destroying it.
It’s not so easy to show us someone suffering, someone expressing legitimate complaints about life, and then to have someone else help them. To not push the narrative into some negative example of how bad things can get, but to show characters coming together to help each other get through troubles. To have characters push themselves to find positive ways out of horrible situations. To have characters discover that darkness and violence and cynicism aren’t the only responses to the darkness and violence and cynicism of life.
There should be an audience for this. Whole families should be sitting down to watch this together. Hell, I wanted to watch it again as soon as the credits rolled.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t try to pander to your most common denominator. It’s not sexed up. It’s not ultra-violent. It’s not dark and brooding. It’s exactly what the Marvel movies have tried to establish as an overall tone. It’s hopeful. It’s inspiring. It’s funny. It’s adventurous. It’s about being the best you can be and helping others do the same.
With super-spy tech, kung-fu, jokes, and oh yeah, a flying car.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.