Marvel's Agents of SHIELD has pulled off a better trick than turning a helicarrier invisible: This Avengers TV spin-off has quietly gone from "pretty decent" to "brilliant, must-watch television." If you're not watching the Agents of SHIELD, here are 10 reasons why you should absolutely start.
1) Now is the perfect time to pick it up
Sure, it seems daunting to launch into a show that's already been on the air for over a year — but luckily, now is a great time to dive in. Agents of SHIELD more or less reinvented itself at the end of its first season, in the wake of the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There is some mythos involving Phil Coulson and Skye, but it's mostly pretty self-explanatory — mostly what you need to know is that the evil ex-Nazi organization Hydra infiltrated SHIELD and now what remains of SHIELD is disgraced and on the run. If you absolutely want to get caught up, though, here's our guide to which episodes from season one you need to watch.
2) This show has managed a few genuinely clever twists
It's rare that a TV show pulls the rug out from under you as deftly as Agents of SHIELD has, on a few occasions. There have been a few really startling reveals, towards the end of season one and going into season two, which have helped make the characters a lot more interesting and set up the sense that anything can happen. It's also gotten closer to being more like a comic book on television, with a decent mixture of standalone plots and arc/soap opera storytelling, with enough twists to keep you coming back. Most of all, it's turned into a show that's not afraid to take some big risks.
3) One of the most brilliant villains on TV
One thing this show lacked early on was a really compelling baddie — and with season two, that's been fully remedied. Not only do we have Hydra in the mix, with their Nazi superscience ruthlessness, but the Hydra head is a genuinely chilling figure, the ruthless Whitehall. (He's played with intense nastiness by Reed Diamond, formerly of Journeyman and Dollhouse, who invests this brainwashing-happy Nietzschean maniac with so much conviction, I didn't recognize Diamond for a few episodes.)
4) The best spy-vs-spy action since Alias
Again, this is something I was hoping for from this show early on, and we're finally getting it, in spades. The showrunner and one of the writers are both Alias veterans, and undercover missions and snooping are a big part of this show's wheelhouse. But with an opposing secret organization (a Kaos to the good guys' Control) there's a lot more scope for the show to have fun with capers where the opposing sides try to outwit each other. There are double agents and undercover operatives and traitors and secret plans and covers being blown, and all that good stuff. There's hardly ever enough good "spy vs. spy" stuff on television, so this show is giving us something fairly unique. (Now that Nikita is off the air.) Which brings us to...
5) It's one of the few genre shows that's NOT about superheroes
Lately, it feels like every other new science fiction show is about superheroes — it's the hottest new genre. And oddly enough, Marvel's only broadcast TV show is one of the least superheroic things on TV right now. There are no costumes, no secret identities, no origin stories and no saviors — it's closer to Torchwood than Arrow. If you want to see a straight-up show about mostly regular people doing their best in a world of superscience and aliens, this is it.
6) We're finally exploring the dark corners of the Marvel Universe
Again, that's something we were hoping for from this show all along, and it's delivering more and more. Because the movies have laid claim to the big guns, like the Hulk and Thor, this show has no choice but to spend a lot of time delving into the grungier, more minor characters. Like Deathlok, Mockingbird and the Absorbing Man. The sort of characters who will never get their own movies, but who are often the most fascinating thing about the comics.
7) Tortured characters who've EARNED it
That second part is important — this team was far too well-adjusted for far too long. But now that they're starting to get put through the wringer in a major way, it feels totally earned and it's impossible not to sympathize with their misery and dysfunction. Plus the huge status-quo change after the second Captain America movie means that these folks are underdogs now, which is always way more interesting to watch than a team who are on top of the world.
8) Complex relationships (that mostly aren't romances)
This is another area where Agents of SHIELD has advanced by leaps and bounds in the past six months. The relationships between the major characters have gotten more complicated and layered — the love between Agent Coulson and his right-hand woman, Melinda May, is particularly fascinating. And as Leo Fitz, the team's techie, has gotten into worse shape in the wake of his drowning at the end of season one, his relationship with his lab partner Gemma Simmons has gotten a lot weirder — but he's also started to have really interesting relationships with a lot of the rest of the team. And then there's Grant Ward, who used to be the team's sharpshooter and is now something a lot stranger and darker, and who has a relationship with the young Skye that's by turns creepy and sweet. There are hints of romance here and there, but for the most part these relationships are more like friendships — with real, solid, personal conflict. At its best, this show feels like it's about adults who are navigating difficult terrain together.
9) It might enhance your enjoyment of the Marvel movies
This show suffered in its first season from having to wait for the second Captain America film to come out and disrupt its status quo. So Agents of SHIELD is mostly standing on its own, and that's a wise move. But at the same time, we might be moving towards a situation where some developments in the TV show could enhance your appreciation for the upcoming movies. In particular, we've seen characters like Maria Hill and Nick Fury show up on television, and we know that they're going to be in at least one of the movies that's coming out soon. The world after the fall of SHIELD is going to be a very different place in the movies as well as on television, and the TV show is where we're learning more about how that world actually works. So if you're one of the many people who enjoys Marvel's movies right now, then you really ought to be keeping up with the show. (And watching Agent Carter, the Captain America spin-off show that takes place after World War II.)
10) It's not afraid to laugh at itself without spilling over into comedy
That's the other great thing about Agents of SHIELD: It's nailed the tone that it needs to have. The humor is "clicking" a lot more, and is coming out of the characters more than it used to. The quippy, zany tone isn't overwhelming the story or action, nor is the show wallowing in darkness — in fact, the show's mastery of its chiaroscuro action-adventure tone is a big part of what's made it so downright watchable lately. So hey — there's another Agents of SHIELD on tonight, and if you've drifted away from this show, it's worth giving it another shot.