In a tale of two fall shows, Sleepy Hollow has become the breakout hit of 2013 while Agents of SHIELD has failed to capture our hearts or minds and interest is fading fast….
By Damon Martin — Editor/Lead Writer
The fall television season is like Christmas or a birthday party for critics and fans alike as old favorites return to the small screen after months off in hiatus, while there are always a litany of new fodder, plotted and plied to try and get our eyeballs on them enough to see a second season (or sometimes a second episode depending on the pilot).
Heading into the fall 2013 television season as a self-proclaimed nerd who loves drama, science fiction, fantasy and horror above all else, I had my eye on a couple of different offerings that could wet my palate and draw me in as a fan for an entire season. While my favorite show on television remains Sons of Anarchy, and a second favorite (Breaking Bad) just ended, I was most excited about one particular prospect that seemed like a sure fire hit, while exploring another new series that made me literally laugh out loud at the premise.
Agents of SHIELD had everything I wanted in a television show. It was being produced and developed by Joss Whedon (he also wrote and directed the debut as well as oversees all story arcs and scripts for the series) and I don’t shy away from the fact that I’ve loved everything this man has put in front of my face for the last decade and a half. Buffy the Vampire Slayer remains one of the best television shows of all time. I am one of those loyal Firefly fans that wears a Jayne hat during the winter time, and pounds my fist on the desk wondering why FOX couldn’t support such a visionary show! Admittedly, Dollhouse wasn’t my favorite of Whedon’s work, but once I picked up both seasons on DVD and binged through all of the episodes over the course of just a few weeks, it became a favorite of mine as well. When you add in all the work Whedon has done in comic books like Astonishing X-Men and his continued production of the Buffy seasons plus his recent re-imagining of Much Ado About Nothing and I was on board saying that Whedon could do no wrong.
He landed in Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino land, which is to say in a world full of writers and directors these men were like the Mount Rushmore of television and film. I even own a shirt that says ‘In Joss We Trust’ (that was a big hit at San Diego Comic Con last year for those curious).
So after the success of The Avengers, hearing that Whedon was bringing Agents of SHIELD to television, I figured I just found my new favorite show. This was a comic book show on network TV with elements of the Marvel franchise of characters headed up by the greatest television mind this side of Kurt Sutter. I longed for another great comic book show to grab my attention the way that Smallville once did before it ended and shows like Heroes captured and then fizzled out while landing on the side of the road like a discarded copy of The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren.
At the same time that Agents of SHIELD had my undying attention, there was another show I heard about while at Comic Con that caught my eye in the most comical of ways. A series was being developed by FOX called Sleepy Hollow — the premise of which was as follows — Ichabod Crane is awakened two and a half centuries through time to 2013, where he helps a local cop from the small town of Sleepy Hollow battle against the Headless Horseman who has been brought back to life while trying to unravel a mystery that dates back to the Revolutionary War.
At the time, I could not help but to laugh out loud at the sheer idea behind this show. It sounded to me like someone was mixing Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure with National Treasure, and once the two were mixed up and spilled out on the table, it would look like a steaming pile of gunk that would be canceled three episodes later. The premise was ludicrous and the fact that executives at FOX decided to greenlight this show just made me shake my head in disapproval.
Back to Agents of SHIELD — so as the season was getting closer and closer to a debut, I couldn’t get enough pre-show hype thrown my way. I started following Clark Gregg on Twitter just hoping I would get some kind of insight into the mystery surrounding Agent Coulson’s mysterious death and resurrection between The Avengers and Agents of SHIELD. I wanted to see every single teaser and trailer and poster and anything else I could get my hands on. I had an Agents of SHIELD ‘Coulson Lives’ t-shirt on my back before the first episode aired. This was a can’t miss. It’s Joss Whedon! It’s Marvel! It’s on free TV!
And then the first episode aired and while my overall confidences for the show wasn’t exactly shattered, I didn’t get out of Agents of SHIELD quite what I expected. Coulson’s reappearance out of the shadows made me chuckle a bit, but the mystery behind his death and rebirth left something to be desired. Then we were introduced to Agent Ward, who was the typical alpha male character with a square jaw, muscles and super agent like skills that could take down 15 bad guys without breaking a sweat. We met Agents Fitz and Simmons and while the play on words was pretty obvious I went along with it. I’m still not sure which one is which, but the girl (Fitz or Simmons) kind of struck me as a Kiera Knightley doppelganger and I can dig that. She was a little too bubbly and the other guy was somewhat over the top geeky-scientist, but I moved forward. It was when we met Skye and Agent Melinda May that the series started to shift in momentum.
First up let’s tackle Agent Melinda May. She’s quietly working behind the desk when Agent Coulson asks her to return to action to help drive the ‘bus’ (that’s code word for a big ass plane). She won’t have to return to the field, but just drive the bus. Right away, it was almost like they were hitting us in the head with the fact that Melinda May was actually a genuine 007 level badass, who was now tapping away at a keyboard after something bad happened to her on a previous mission. Then there was Skye — a hacker who worked for a group called The Rising Tide that was trying to help potential heroes that were going to be exposed in the world after the events in the battle of New York. For some reason at that moment that we met Skye, she became the central focus of the show. She was immediately invited to join the team (because that always happens to a hacker trying to infiltrate a government agency), she’s secretly still contacting her former hacker group (shocker) and she’s drawn to Agent Ward romantically the second they set eyes on each other.
Now maybe this is the way Agents of SHIELD will begin to build characters throughout the next few episodes, but through three so far we’ve seen an awful lot of awkward-hacker-trying-too-hard-to-fit-in-pretty-sexy-seductive-nerdy Skye and a whole lot of nothing on the other characters in the show. The stories through three episodes thus far have been forgettable and barely connect to one another outside of one central theme — yep, you guessed it SKYE!!!
It’s also been made painfully clear through the first three episodes that Clark Gregg, as great as he was as a secondary character that popped up randomly in all of the Marvel films as an Agent of SHIELD, that maybe he’s not meant to lead an entire series. There’s a fantastic scene in The Avengers where Pepper Potts welcomes Agent Coulson into Tony Stark’s penthouse and says ‘Phil, come in!’ and Stark’s response is ‘Phil? His first name is Agent’. In a way that moment perfectly sums up what Coulson is all about. He’s the guy we see called ‘sergeant’ or ‘captain’ or ‘chief’ in all of the great cop shows throughout time. He’s a great commanding officer, but we don’t know too much about him, we don’t want to know too much about him. He’s a good protagonist to the rebel soldier who wants to do this his/her way, and he’s perfect backup for the whole ‘good cop/bad cop’ routine. What he’s not is a lead character.
With Coulson out of the running as the actual lead on the show, that leaves the rag tag group of misfits thrown together forming this version of the Agents of SHIELD and so far it appears the producers are putting all of their eggs in the basket of Skye — who isn’t even an actual Agent of SHIELD.
Now let’s talk about Sleepy Hollow for a few moments.
Back on episode three of ‘Talk Nerdy to Me’, my co-host and I were waxing intellectual about the comics or books that would best be adapted into a television series following the success of Game of Thrones. During our hour long conversation we ventured off into many topics, but along the way it was bantered about how a show like Agents of SHIELD could only be the ultimate show for any Marvel/Whedon fan while Sleepy Hollow sounded like a bad pitch at a television meeting that got made into a series for a good laugh.
But then as the fall television season started to ascend down upon us, I started to see some reviews of Sleepy Hollow that were fairly favorable. At the top of the list was a review by Grantland’s Andy Greenwald, who is one of the show watchers I trust the most when talking TV, and he sounded very much like me when Sleepy Hollow first popped up on the radar. It was an over the top, cheesy and cliché filled science fiction thriller that should have landed on the same pile of scripts that produced Argo all those many years ago. Instead, he changed his mind in less time than it takes to load a Revolutionary War musket. His review was not only complementary — it was a staggering, smile filled review with adjective after adjective extolling the virtues of this new fall show.
“You can’t judge a recipe only by the list of ingredients. It all depends on who’s doing the cooking. And while I’ve been skeptical of these particular chefs before — yes, they’re responsible for Fringe, but since then, fromTransformers to Star Trek, executive producers Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci have become the go-to guys in Hollywood for sci-fi excess — Sleepy Hollow is gluttonous and over-the-top in all the best ways. The pilot was my favorite drama of the fall not because it made sense or suggested a long and rewarding future. Rather, I love it because it owns its crazy in a way that most network hours are far too self-important to embrace.”
So after a few weeks of reviews and some of my own Twitter followers telling me I was really missing out by not catching up on Sleepy Hollow, I sat down on Saturday night and decided to gorge myself in this misadventure, buddy-cop story that stretched from Colonial times to the modern day. After one episode, I was hooked. The plot was so ridiculous that it made sense to me. The comical adaptation of a 250 year old Ichabod Crane was the perfect compliment to the disbelieving and seemingly disenchanted Abbie Mills. The show tackled the obvious questions about a 250 year old soldier waking up in 2013 with subjects like slavery and taxation being slammed head on episode after episode.
In the review that Greenwald gave to Sleepy Hollow he called it “X-Files meets National Treasure” and I guess in some ways he’s right on the money. The National Treasure connection was something I made reference to before I even saw the show, back when I was panning it and ridiculing the premise before the pilot ever aired. The other element that I found in Sleepy Hollow, however, was something my girlfriend said to me while catching the final episode I had to watch before the return of the show on Monday night. She said it reminded her a little bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a light bulb went off in my head.
She was absolutely correct. Sleepy Hollow combined a modern world filled with demons, spells, mysticism as well as a comedy with a dash of campiness and a punch of self-deprecation tossed into the fray for good measure. The dialogue was sharp and over the top on purpose. The stories were ridiculous, but in that way that you wanted to believe it was true. While Sleepy Hollow is only four episodes in (and any show has a chance to go completely off the rails), it’s character development is outstanding, and the story is set perfectly assuming the show can last for seven years (no spoilers but that’s a key element they lay the groundwork for in the debut).
There was a teamwork element just like Buffy with Ichabod and Abbie joined at the hip, while other characters like her commanding officer Captain Irving, Abbie’s sister Jenny and and ex-boyfriend Morales were layered in like the background bass line in a really good song — you don’t notice it right away but take that element out and the entire tune is different. On an added note — Orlando Jones portrayal of Captain Irving is exactly the kind of character I mentioned earlier when discussing Agent Coulson. Irving doesn’t quite believe what he’s seeing or hearing, but after some initial cynicism he’s drawn into the web of mystique and intrigue alongside Ichabod and Abbie. And unlike Agents of SHIELD, which couldn’t hit us in the face quick enough about the budding heart flutters between Agent Ward and Skye, Sleepy Hollow has managed to keep the flirtations between Abbie and Ichabod to a minimum. Only in episode four did someone finally address it, and it was a fleeting comment at best.
Another great element about Sleepy Hollow is the dynamic of which they’ve created a serialized drama that sticks episode to episode. There is one underlying story that you need to know to go from the debut to episode four, but at the same time there’s a mystery at the heart of each hour episode that you don’t get lost from one show to the next. There’s no missing out on Sleepy Hollow, however, because with each week there are nuggets of information that seem to be essential to the bigger story that’s eventually going to unfold.
That may be the single biggest missing piece of the puzzle for Agents of SHIELD.
Through three episodes thus far, there is no big bad. There is no central story. There is no compelling event that’s drawing us in from episode to episode, assuring that we will all tune into ABC on Tuesday nights at 8pm. The only themes that have stuck around thus far is we’re not sure which side of the law Skye is working on, and some small pieces about Coulson’s death and rebirth as the head of the team. That’s it. Even in last week’s episode when we were teased with the creation of a comic book villain brought to life, it fizzled out and stalled before anything actually happened.
Another issue that Agents of SHIELD was always going to have was the correlation between the show and the upcoming slate of Marvel films. SHIELD has played at least a small part in all of the Marvel movies thus far, and without a doubt there will be at least Easter eggs dropped into the upcoming film Thor: The Dark World as well as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which will be released in 2014. In every episode thus far, Agent Coulson has named dropped more Avengers than the outcast Kardashian kid probably says his sister’s name to score in nightclubs. There’s always a hint of subtlety in the references, but in reality it’s a sledgehammer across the face to remind you — AGENTS OF SHIELD ARE IN BED WITH THE AVENGERS DON’T FORGET IT!
The show even managed to score an appearance from Samuel L. Jackson in the second episode of the series. It would seem Whedon and the gang would want to save that for some grand finale or big moment later in the show after they had already established all of their characters and intended storyline for the first season. But no, there he was in his one-eyed glory popping up in the final scenes just like a Marvel movie (except this didn’t have nearly the intended impact).
So as we approach a new week of television, I’m making a few declarations about my upcoming viewing and hopefully a few of you will follow along.
First off, I’m done judging a show by its cover alone. Sure, we can all hear about great actors, writers and direction being plotted for a new show, and we can also read storylines that just sound ludicrous, but until they land on the air, there’s no room to place glory or blame until we see what it’s all about.
Second, my level of excitement for the upcoming schedule still starts with Sons of Anarchy (because it’s the best show on TV currently) and I’m definitely intrigued by American Horror Story: Coven thus far as well. Sure, I’ll tune in on Thursday night to see Big Bang Theory and The Crazy Ones. But my additional viewing this week will start on Monday night when I sit down with great anticipation to see what Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills dig up next on Sleepy Hollow.
And I will still watch Agents of SHIELD but at this point my excitement has turned to angst wondering if this show will ever capture my imagination the way I hoped it would before the season started. My wish is that Whedon and the Scooby Gang will find a way out of the hole they’ve dug thus far, focus on something other than Skye and give us a big bad that we can see develop all season long until the big battle goes down at season’s end. Meanwhile over on Fox, I expect nothing less than for Sleepy Hollow to keep me wide eyed and enthralled all season long.
One show this fall season of 2013 has managed to become the ultimate battle between good and evil, between right and wrong, and the fate of the world rests on our heroes’ shoulders. And the other show is Agents of SHIELD.