Wednesday, April 30, 2014

ABC's "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.": dramatic improvement since "Captain America 2" came out, but is it too late?

ABC's unwieldily named "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." debuted in the fall with really strong ratings, but it quickly sank to the ranks of mediocrity - and deservedly so. Most of the lead characters were boring, and the show fell into a rote dangerous villain of the week pattern. There was some head bad guy named The Clairvoyant, and some recurring dudes with metallic centipede-like things on their forearms, but it was mostly boring. Not so boring that I stopped watching, but it certainly seemed disappointing compared to the high expectations that it had generated.

Then came the episodes that bracketed the debut of "Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier" in the movie theater, and the show quickly picked up. But is it too late?

MILD SPOILERS through 4/29/14:

ABC hasn't announced its renewals for the fall season, but I fully expect that "Agents of SHIELD" will be picked up. Its ratings aren't bad, just mediocre; it's owned and produced by Disney, which also owns ABC, so it's going to get the benefit of the doubt. If it can survive to season 4, then it will have enough episodes to sell into a syndication package, which is worth big bucks to Disney.

Still, very few TV shows improve their ratings from season to season, so it's likely that where "Agents of SHIELD" sits now is the ceiling for next season. You have to wonder how much of the early season malaise drove away viewers that would've stuck around with better execution. A look at the ratings shows that it started off with a fabulous 4.7 rating in the coveted 18-49 year old demographic (a 2.0 is a good rating at this point), but declined steadily until its current ~2 rating. Again, that's not itself a problem currently, but if you compare it to the first season of "Once Upon a Time," you can see that the latter started off lower (4.0) but ended higher (3.0 at this same point in the season). In other words, "Once Upon a Time" lost less of its audience. Even so, by the end of season two, "Once Upon a Time" was down in the low 2s, and while season 3 has mostly stabilized, it's dipped into the high 1s on occasion. "Agents of SHIELD" looks to have a steeper decline curve, which doesn't bode well.

I gather that the problem the writers/producers had was that the episode following the "Captain America 2" debut (episode 17) was intended to mesh with the movie itself, so that each would spoil the other; the ideal approach for a devoted viewer was to watch the movie over the weekend and then pick up with episode 17 two or three days later. In other words, even though the antagonistic entity Hydra was - we now know - orchestrating the events of the first 16 episodes (including those attributed to The Clairvoyant), that fact had to be concealed from the TV audience during all that time, or else the potential movie audience would have been spoiled.

It's understandable, and even though I haven't seen "Captain America 2" yet, I gather the integration of movie and TV show worked out well.

The problem is that those early season viewers who gave up probably aren't coming back.

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