Marvel’s quickly learned lesson

Marvels-logoWhen Marvel and ABC teamed up (herded along by their mutual chaperone, Disney Studios) to produce a television show based on Clark Gregg’s popular character “Agent Coulson”, first introduced in Iron Man and then killed off in The Avengers, people were excited. Coulson is a fan favorite, revived because no one wanted to let him go after The Avengers, and coming off the bananas success of The Avengers, it seemed like Marvel could do anything. Why not try a TV show? And so Agents of SHIELD was born, but after a decent, if uninspired, pilot, it’s become clear that SHIELD has a serious problem: Network television.

It’s no secret that network TV has been struggling the last few years, caught between both changing viewer habits (read: the rise of mobile viewing and binge-watching) and a crushingly competitive cable landscape. Network television has been getting its ass kicked for years now; though the most widely-viewed shows (like NCIS) are on networks, prestige has largely vacated for the higher ground of Cableandia, and every season that gap between network base and cable viewership narrows more and more.

What’s killing network TV—and what is killing Agents of SHIELD—is a matter of branding. Think of cable networks, both premium and basic. If I say “HBO”, you get a particular image of what kind of original programming to expect. Same for “AMC”, “FX”, and even “USA” (CBS’ annoying younger brother). (For the record, that branding goes like this: HBO, sex and betrayal dramas and female sex comedies; AMC, home of the white male anti-hero; FX, for all your murder-centric crime dramas and boundary-pushing comedy; and USA, land of brightly colored procedurals.) Now think of a network. What do you think when you think of CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox? Generic, mass-market friendly and inoffensive, right?

Agents of SHIELD, aka, Superhero Bewbs
Agents of SHIELD, aka,
Superhero Bewbs

It’s the nature of network television to appeal to the broadest base possible, and that’s not a bad thing, in and of itself. When the formula works, as with shows like Scandal, Elementary and New Girl (and my favorite new network comedy, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), the results are satisfying if not ground-breaking television. Networks can and do continue to create characters we like and care about, but viewers grow ever more savvy and the viewing model is changing, and networks aren’t keeping up. Elementary has hints of the serialization that drives shows like Justified, but it is still a case-of-the-week procedural, and Scandal is, at heart, just a soap opera, albeit one with a fantastic female protagonist.

My favorite new network show of 2013 is Fox’s balls-out crazy Sleepy Hollow, which is not only hilariously batshit insane, but is also following the cable-approved thirteen-episode seasonal format. It’s one of the first network dramas to do so, on purpose (CBS is trying, and failing, with Hostages). Given its strong debut and consistent weekly ratings, Fox could have given Sleepy Hollow a back-nine order and turned it into a “normal” show, but they are adamant about its short-season format. Probably because that level of crazy is only sustainable in short bursts, but also because they’re telling a specific story arc, pre-determined and paced. The short-season format allows for more precise storytelling and eliminates the kind of “filler” episodes that can suck the energy out of show’s season. It’s tighter, more focused stories with much less narrative fat, and viewers are embracing this change.

I don't know how anyone keeps a straight face on Sleepy Hollow.
I don’t know how anyone keeps a straight face on Sleepy Hollow.

But networks, for the most part, aren’t. Just look at Agents of SHIELD. Only six episodes in and three of those are totally inconsequential filler episodes where nothing memorable happens; the other three are only marginally better. And it’s showing in the ratings—after a monster debut, SHIELD is hemorrhaging viewers every week. To be fair, they’re making most of those losses up on in-week DVR and online viewing, but the message is clear. Agents of SHIELD is not essential viewing, and its future beyond one season is questionable. The show has promise—still shows more promise than it’s living up to—but it is totally hamstrung by a neutered network. There is no individuality or personality about it. Every aspect feels carefully calculated by a focus group in order to appeal to the broadest audience possible; if Clark Gregg wasn’t so likeable and such a good actor, it would border on unwatchable.

And Marvel isn’t deaf. They’ve heard the complaints. They know we’re disappointed. They won’t admit it, but they know. But they’re also quick learners. Their movies go from strength to strength because they manage to consistently improve their franchises (see also: Thor 2, which is a silly, silly movie—it’s the Sleepy Hollow of movies—but it is much better than Thor 1), and now they’re applying their evolving learning style to TV. Given that SHIELD, which wants desperately to be a sci-fi/comedy, character-driven drama but is being forced into procedural submission by its corporate overlords, has been cut off at the knees by a network, Marvel has taken their next FIVE television projects to Netflix.

*Hallelujah chorus*
*Hallelujah chorus*

Beginning in 2015 Marvel will launch four different shows on Netflix, culminating in a “mini-series event” derived from The Defenders, a comic book group made up of outsiders and loners, not a proper team a la the Avengers. The shows will feature a rebooted Daredevil and newcomers Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage, who will then all appear in The Defenders. The shows will be serialized—NOT PROCEDURAL—and will begin with thirteen episodes each. Presumably, if one really takes off, it could be brought back for a second season, but the initial intent is to tell the kind of precise, serialized story viewers are increasingly hungry for.

This is a brilliant move by Marvel. They’re struggling to translate their genre-heavy content on network TV, so they’re going to stop dealing with network TV. Maybe Agents of SHIELD is a loss, maybe not (they still have 16 episodes to work it out), but they’re not going to risk future properties on the kind of corporate wrangling that is so apparent on that show infecting other properties. Netflix is not beholden to advertisers. And they don’t seem to care about individual show ratings, either. It drives other networks crazy that Netflix won’t publish ratings, but why should Netflix bother? Their goal is to increase their subscriber base, not bolster one show over another. And they’re succeeding—they’ve just passed HBO with US subscribers. Does it matter if more people watched Orange is the New Black than Lilyhammer? No, because they got the subscribers either way.

Kevin Feige: The smartest nerd in movies. And now, TV.
Kevin Feige: The smartest nerd in movies. And now, TV.

By partnering with Netflix, Marvel is eliminating the interference that’s bogging down SHIELD. They’re not beholden to as many corporate sponsors, and because Netflix is a pay service, they’re free of much of the FCC restrictions that create that bland base over on the networks. They’ve never been interested in making gritty superheroes, but if someone wants to swear, they can without fear of repercussion. They’re also not slave to a twenty-plus episode story commitment; with only thirteen episodes, the shows can be faster paced and more focused, concentrating on characters and not marking time. Right off the bat, just by moving to a non-network provider, they’re solving most of the problems with Agents of SHIELD.

Marvel is light on their feet. They adapt and change more quickly than anyone else, and the results are always in our, the viewers’, favor, and Netflix has a similar capacity for learning and change. We’ve seen them screw the pooch—remember Qwikster?—but they’ve also rebounded phenomenally well. There’s a chance that four TV shows and a mini-series will lead to oversaturation, but Netflix is a less-aggressive platform than a major TV network. Viewing is, after all, determined by us, individually. There’s no schedule saying, “This is what’s on, so watch it.” It’s there for us if we want it, and easily ignored if not. These are some cool characters (Luke Cage! Finally!), and a partnership between Marvel and Netflix pretty much sums up everything cool about entertainment right now. Here’s hoping Marvel TV 2.0 goes a bit better than it has so far.

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14 thoughts on “Marvel’s quickly learned lesson

  1. Agent K

    If you had told me at the beginning of this season that I would have already given up on the dull and disappointing Agents of Shield and would be obsessively watching the insane Sleepy Hollow and falling absolutely in love with Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie? I would have said you were nuts. Completely nuts.

    Yet here I am.

    1. I’m giving AoS the rest of the season to work itself out; they still have 16 eps and a couple of the late eps were marked improvements, but they’ve got to let go the reins a bit and let the show find its feet.

    2. Yeah…I was so underwhelmed with the series premiere I didnt bother with any other episodes. Everybody in the cast outside of Coulson and the chick from how I met your mother is utterly forgettable.

  2. Elizabeth M.

    Great article, it’s great to see that Marvel is a studio that listeners to complaints and criticisms, and then actually LEARNS from them and incorporates them into future projects (unlike the Big Six).

    I am curious about why, SHIELD was even developed for network television, if cable and Netflix are such better options (no advertisers/corporate gorillas to worry about). Is there a possibility that SHIELD could move over to Netflix? (I personally think it would benefit from the move). Did Marvel not realize that network TV was not the way to go until the show started airing, or because they wanted and developed the show for a broader audience?

    Have you heard anything about the possible Agent Carter series that had been floating around? I LOVED the Agent Carter short, and I would have thought it would have been part of the Netflix deal (especially, as your article pointed out, it wouldn’t be beholden to advertisers). Has it been scrapped, or is it still in development?

    1. I’m sure it’s still in development somewhere. Their current Netflix plan is clearly a cohesive effort–all these characters will lock in together for the mini-series, and Agent Carter doesn’t really fit with that.

      My question is, if they can’t fix Agents of SHIELD and then the Netflix shows do well in comparison, do they abandon ABC and just pursue cable/digital options? I tend to think non-network channels are much better environments for genre shows anyway, except for Sleepy Hollow which is defying every known expectation and precedent (and don’t be like “Fringe!”, it had horrible ratings and would have been better served on like, USA). The sticking point is that ABC is in their media family so it’s a natural partner, but they are slowly strangling AoS to death. I think someone in the upper management echelons thought slapping “Marvel” on a boring procedural would do the trick but audiences aren’t that dumb. They want it to be broad to appeal to a big audience, but they’ve made it so vanilla no one cares about anything that is happening. ABC is going to have to let go and let Marvel be Marvel.

      1. Agent K

        I’m not sure they abandon ABC just yet. The problem is the show is just not very good, so it’s not the best test case. I do think they should have done a shorter run. I can think of maybe one or two genre shows that were truly great across 22 episodes a year. The norm is sooo much filler.

  3. Mary

    Totally agreed about Sleepy Hollow. I still can’t believe it is a network show. Way better than AoS. I was surprised how much I enjoy watching Sleepy Hollow since it look sort of lame on the promos.

    1. Agent K

      You won’t regret it, it’s bonkers but so much fun. I found it odd at first that people kept bringing Sleepy Hollow up in stories about AOS, but it makes sense. We were promised a fun, exciting TV show that was not to be taken too seriously and had charismatic and engaging characters. Well we got that show, just not where we were expecting.

  4. I happen to like both “AGENTS OF SHIELD” and “SLEEPY HOLLOW”. However, both shows still need work.

    The problem with TV viewers today is that they won’t allow a series to gradually improve over time. They want mind blowing perfection right off the bat – instant gratification. People really have no appreciation on how to tell a story.

    1. While I think many people have written off SHIELD too quickly–they still have over a dozen episodes this season!–it’s clear at this point the network is hobbling it. ABC wants NCIS: Superheroes, and that procedural nature is draining potentially interesting plots. We’ll have a whole SHIELD discussion during the winter hiatus, but at this point, I’m comfortable saying it will, unless the network lets it off the chain, never be more than mediocre. They don’t WANT it to be more than mediocre. There have been gains in quality and writing, but it’s not enough. It isn’t must-watch TV and beyond sticking around to see exactly how Coulson survived, as of right now, I have no long-term interest in it.

      Sleepy Hollow on the other hand, while tremendously silly, is consistently good and has an engaging story featuring compelling characters. It doesn’t actually need that much work. It’s pretty tight as-is.

      As for wanting perfection right away, I don’t think that’s really true. Breaking Bad’s first season was pretty rough, but they introduced interesting characters in an interesting setting, so people stuck around. The thing about TV now is just that there are so many options. I don’t think there’s an expectation that a show will be perfect right off the bat, just that people will be given something to invest in. Otherwise, there are dozens of other options.

  5. marie

    I am thrilled that you’ve mentioned in your article 3 of my obssessions, Elementary, Sleepy Hollow and Brookly Nine Nine. I was hesitant to watch Elementary (being a big fan of Sherlock and Cumberbatch) but this show has quietly won me over with their amazing characterization of Sherlock. It doesn’t hurt of course that Jonny Lee Miller is turning on a nuanced version of the consulting detective. Sleepy Hollow I’ve only started last week (I was convinced by the Fug Girls). I managed to power through the whole 7 episodes and found myself laughing so hard with this series. Aside from Tom Mison, I love Nicole Beharie, especially when she teams up with her sister. I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen 2 women of color team up and kick ass in a network show. Brooklyn Nine Nine benefits from the chemistry the whole cast has right from the start. I really salute the casting director in that show. (And I was never a fan of Adam Samberg!) Agents of Shield, I’m still watching every week though I’m really starting to lose interest. One of my biggest problems with the show is Agent Ward, who is just so bland, down to the cliche white shirt, leather jacket and aviator glasses he wears. If you want to watch an interesting series about superheroes on TV, may I suggest Arrow. I was skeptical at first knowing that it came from CW but man, that show has become my must-watch every Thursday!

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