When 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.