Friday, April 11, 2014

Did Captain America: The Winter Soldier Solve Marvel's SHIELD Problem?



Is "Agents of SHIELD" on the verge of a breakthrough?

Ever since The Avengers hit theatres two years ago, I have believed that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a SHIELD problem.  Namely, while Marvel would like to put out several standalone films (and a television series as it turns out) in between each Avengers movie, it can’t meld universes too much because doing so would require having multiple characters cross-over from film to film, thus accelerating the intentionally extended contracts of Marvel’s principle cast.  The question then is, how do you bring together all of these disparate characters once every three years and then expect them to support their own movies in between without acknowledging the presence of other superheroes?  While Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World successfully managed to skirt the issue, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD has been significantly less successful.  But this past weekend’s release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier may have fixed all of those problems while also fundamentally changing Agents of SHIELD.
Massive, massive SPOILERS for basically the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe and Agents of SHIELD coming up.
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Seriously, if you haven’t seen the second Captain America movie, just turn away now.
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So Captain America: The Winter Soldier saw the complete and utter destruction of SHIELD, the result of its infiltration by Hydra over the past sixty years.  The week before and after the film’s release, Coulson and the other Agents of SHIELD discovered that The Clairvoyant, the big bad whom they had been chasing for the last half season was not some supernatural power, but instead John Garrett, a fellow agent who has presumably been corrupted by the same Hydra forces.*  It brought to a thrilling conclusion (at least temporarily) the saga of SHIELD, which had a been a central force in the Marvel Universe ever since Samuel L Jackson’s surprise appearance as Nick Fury at the end of Iron Man.

* It's possible that Garrett is not The Clairvoyant, but simply his SHIELD emissary.  Some have even suggested that Arnim Zola, the Nazi scientist turned supercomputer AI from Winter Soldier is the real Clairvoyant.  For our purposes here, the distinction is irrelevant.

Even more important than the mere plot development, I believe, is that the destruction (or at least extreme diminishing) of SHIELD helps to solve a problem that has lingered in the Marvel universe since The Avengers and which has had an extremely negative impact on Agents of SHIELD: SHIELD is far too present and powerful to ignore in a standalone series or film.  Introducing SHIELD in The Avengers made a lot of sense.  It was an enormous “get-the-gang-together” spectacle that required all hands on deck in fighting an extraterrestrial invasion.  The film needed to be huge (it was after all the culmination of four years worth of films) and SHIELD needed to be big enough to effectively serve as the coordinator of a worldwide defensive mission while also giving orders to a disparate group of superheroes.

So we got Big SHIELD.  We got the helicarrier, the army, and the massive facility in the Potomac.  Unfortunately, with SHIELD came the expectation that they would always be there to fight the next threat.  So how do you tell an Iron Man story or a Thor story or an Agents of SHIELD story without bringing in Big SHIELD and all the characters and big budget accoutrements with them?  Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World both succeeded by avoiding the question.  In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark spends much of the movie stranded in rural Tennessee without any means of communication and wanting to intentionally stay below the radar before he heads out on a madcap rescue effort that all happens fast enough and changes locations often enough that it’s reasonable to believe that SHIELD simply wasn’t fast enough to keep up with Stark or the villain.

Thor: The Dark World, likewise, took its title character outside of SHIELD’s purview and set the vast majority of the film in Asgard and other extraterrestrial worlds.  Only in the film’s closing fight does the action return to Earth, this time London, where the battle is pretty much over before we would ever hope to see Nick Fury and company. 

While Captain America: The Winter Soldier had the luxury of steering into the SHIELD skid by giving Fury and Black Widow featured roles, Agents of SHIELD has had the toughest job of the entire Marvel Universe.  How do you tell a story about SHIELD agents without giving the audience any of the big-name characters or big-budget action?  Unfortunately, prior to last week, the show hadn’t quite figured that out. 

As I saw it, SHIELD had two main problems.  The first is that the characters were all dull.  The writers tried so hard to keep every character enigmatic that nobody but Fitz and Simmons were really allowed to develop interesting personalities.  In retrospect, this was probably an intentional decision by Jed Whedon and Marissa Tancharoen (SHIELD’s showrunners) to lead us exactly where we ended up in last night’s episode “Turn, Turn, Turn.”  The hour was a tense thriller built on the belief that nobody could be trusted and that anybody could turn out to be a villain at any time.  Every time a new character entered a room, he was immediately the target of suspicion.  That we knew so little about Coulson’s team helped to boost the tension for the audience.  Because we know so little about Melinda May’s past, she is a plausible double-agent.  Because we don’t know everything that happened to Coulson in Tahiti, it’s plausible that he could be a double-agent or a Manchurian-style sleeper.  The same can be said about Skye, Trip, Hand, and, obviously, Garrett and Ward. 

That this episode – and this betrayal – has been coming since before the series even started doesn’t excuse the lack of character development even if it does explain it.  I can’t say for certain that this was the plan all along.  Maybe Brett Dalton is just a wooden actor.  Maybe the writers just couldn’t figure out how to make compelling characters without shrouding their personalities in mystery.  But now that we’ve moved past the Big Thing that’s been in the works for the show's entire run, I hope this will free Tancharoen and Whedon to develop their characters more deeply.

The second problem that SHIELD had was that Coulson was clearly the leader of a B-team.  While that was the intent of the series – to show the behind the scenes work of SHIELD when they’re not saving the world – it served mostly to sap all of the stakes out of the show.  There was never any sense of real danger because if anything ever got too harried, we knew that the A-team would show up to save the day.  It’s no coincidence that the best episode of the season was the one that most effectively created stakes, “F.Z.Z.T.,” in which Simmons’s life seems to be in genuine danger and the group is completely isolated from any potential backup.  Without the real possibility of abject failure, SHIELD has been bereft of drama and tension.  Instead, every episode has revolved around finding the Tchotchke of the Week and mostly trying not to screw things up too badly. 

With Captain America laying waste to the SHIELD organization that safety net is gone now.  Even more enticingly, “Turn, Turn, Turn” leaves open the prospect of a weakened but open and operational Hydra force, who is desperate to destroy the last remnants of SHIELD.  We know that Hydra still has control of a handful of international bases and the turncoat agents Garrett and Ward will certainly be focused on finding Coulson and company in particular.  For the first time in the young history of Agents of SHIELD there is a sense of urgency.  The good guys will be on the run without any support while their conflict with the villains has an emotional foundation.

There’s no guarantee that the writers will be able to turn it around.  Even if the secrecy surrounding pretty much all of SHIELD’s characters was meant to preserve this twist, that’s no excuse for them of them simply being so boring.  And just because the rise of Hydra and the destruction of SHIELD could raise the stakes for the series, doesn’t mean they will.  A lot still depends on the ability of Whedon and Tancharoen to turn things around, but for the first time since the pilot, I’m actually excited about the prospects for where Agents of SHIELD might go in the future.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and amateur television critic.  You can find him at tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Unpopular Opinions: In Defense of the Unpaid Writer



Last week, Entertainment Weekly announced that it was launching a new web presence, The Community, that would feature writing by “people formerly known as the audience” or, in other words, unpaid writers.  EW is leveraging the power of the blogosphere to create a site filled with young writers who want to launch their careers, but aren't sure where else they can be published.  This has, understandably, sparked a great deal of sturm und drang among the professional media collective, especially given that it was followed by the firing of one of EW’s finest film critics, Owen Gleiberman. 

It’s easy to understand the initial criticism towards Entertainment Weekly.  Here is a prominent, for-profit entertainment publication that is apparently outsourcing its critical work to unpaid laborers, a practice many media outlets have been exploiting for years, even as others fought against it.  I agree with where the critics are coming from.  For-profit media outfits should pay for content.  If you’re making money off of something, you should be paying for it.

On Thursday, however, attention shifted from EW itself to the writers who would deign to work for free for it.  The result was a lot of critics, who have been paid for their content for most of their careers, criticizing unpaid writers, who have never been paid for their content, taking positions in which they continue to not be paid for their content, but now for a prominent entertainment outlet.  NPR’s Linda Holmes tweeted “Before you write for free, consider what the path is. Consider where you're trying to go. Look what happened to those who were once there.”  The Week’s Scott Meslow called it “a trap”.  Some unpaid internet commenters even went so far as to call such contributors “scabs.”

Here’s the thing: Not everybody writes to get paid.  Sure, those who have been paid for writing all their lives will expect to get paid for writing, but people who came to the whole “writing about television” thing later - people like me - tend to write because they enjoy it.  Most importantly, they don’t want to write about television to get paid, they want to write about television as a means to engage in cultural conversation.

To be clear, I have no intention of engaging in EW’s Community even if I were invited because I write for my own enjoyment.  I like being able to write about Hannibal, or Cosmos, or Television Without Pity, or How I Met Your Mother, or writing itself.  But if you’re going to tell me what I have to write about and when I have to write it, you’d better be willing to pay me for that privilege. 

I’ve read a lot of what the EW Community has to offer and I’ve looked at the sites of some of the people they’ve tagged as contributors and, for the most part, these aren’t people who have been aspiring professional writers their whole lives.  They are people who have day jobs and who write about television in their free time because it’s what they enjoy.  They write because they enjoy the cultural conversation and being a part of it.  They don’t want money, they want an audience.  And EW is ready to give it to them when other outlets are not.

The thing that most critics don’t understand is that there is a large segment of the population that doesn’t want to read.  They want to talk.  NPR proved this in a rather hilarious April Fool’s Day prank a few days ago.  They posted an article titled “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore” with instructions within the text of the article not to comment on the article, but just to “like” it.  The response, obviously, was a veritable deluge of comments responding only to the headline and not to the article. 

The takeaway from this article for some people might be that others are just dumb, unwilling to read the plain text that is put before them.  My takeaway is that the internet has spawned a culture of people who don’t really care about the content of criticism, they just want to talk about the piece.  Some sites are able to bridge this gap.  The AV Club’s television section, for example, manages to combine both insightful criticism and intelligent commenters willing to discuss it.  But even the best of these sites generally cover a limited span of television series.

What Entertainment Weekly seems to be trying to do is to create a community where people can come to talk about any show they want.  Television Without Pity served this function for readers for many years (I myself contributed a lot of “free” content to its forums for a while) but it will be shutting down in May.  There are several multi-show sites out there, but I’ve yet to find one that regularly covers Castle or Hawaii Five-0 or a number of other shows that I watch regularly.  Granted, these aren’t the shows I care to discuss regularly, but some people out there do, along with The Bachelor, The Voice, and pretty much every show on television. 

If EW is finding a hole in the current coverage of television and filling it, that’s not their fault, it’s the fault of media critics who haven’t yet realized that there is a large segment of the population who doesn’t actually care what they have to say, they just want to have their own say.  Reading the current content of the EW Community, that’s the only conclusion I can come to.  The recaps there are largely free of deeper consideration, content with merely regurgitating the stories and plots of the episodes covered.  But, again, the audience here is not people looking for careful insight into television.  It’s people who want to talk – people who are ready to skip from the headline to the comments just to have their voices heard.  There is apparently an audience for a website that will only shallowly cover everything but will provide a discussion venue for everything as well.  That EW is employing unpaid writers to fill this niche is disappointing, but I don’t blame them for finding it.

I can understand the immediate hesitation by people who see unpaid alternatives usurping their current roles.  I, too, work in a profession that’s constantly being told it’s irrelevant in the twenty-first century.  If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard or read that libraries aren’t necessary because “everything is on the internet” or “you can just use Google to find it,” well then I wouldn’t need to be a librarian anymore.  But libraries are still relevant today because we’ve kept them relevant.  We may no longer principally be warehouses for books, but we provide access to computers and the internet and to teachers trained in technology.  We do still have books, but we’ve adapted with the changing needs of our users to provide the content and services they want. 

I’ll admit it’s not a fair comparison.  Writers are content creators while I am merely a content facilitator.  But, at the same time, the entire function of the Web 2.0 movement has been to significantly blur the line between content creators and content consumers.  How many YouTube musicians have we seen become paid music stars?  How many bloggers have we seen turn their content into books or other paid material?  And the fact is, many writers, even those of the “Fuck you, pay me” variety write for free all the time.  It’s called Twitter.  Sure, there are the lucky few who can count Twitter as “work,” but many writers put their thoughts out there completely for free.  Why?  Because they want to be a part of the cultural conversation and to increase their audience, the exact same reasons why many bloggers are writing as well. 

What the television criticism world is going through right now reminds me a great deal of what the sports writing world went through about a decade or two ago.  Amateur writers from across the country started up their blogs and began cranking out content that could rival the work of the traditional sports media.  While many professional writers and athletes derided sports bloggers as working “in [their] mother’s basement on [their] mother’s computer,” as it turned out, a baseball game or a football game is, like a film or a television show, a text that can be analyzed from myriad perspectives by intelligent people whether or not they have formal training in the medium.  More and more writers joined the medium and it turned out that a lot of them, despite writing and working only for themselves (and what little ad revenue they could get from their blogs) were really good writers and thinkers.  They helped to launch the popularity of advanced statistics in sports – now fundamental in any discussion – and many moved on to either working for prominent media outlets or forming their own.

Television writing has reached a similar crossroads.  There are a lot of writers doing good work (and some doing bad work) for free because it’s something they enjoy doing.  They’re not writing in hopes of a future in the industry.*  They’re writing to have their voices heard above the rabble and, thus far, they haven’t had a venue to do so.

* Have you seen the state of the media criticism industry?  Good writers are getting laid off left and right.  Who would want to leave a good day job for that?

If Entertainment Weekly is using The Community to rid itself of paid television critics, I think that’s a foolish decision.  In the long-run I believe it’s bound to fail because writing is hard, especially churning out the kind of weekly recaps that EW trades in.  And the downside of employing free labor is that, since you have no loyalty to them (in the form of payment) they likewise have no strong loyalty to you.  I’ll be interested to see what kind of turnover in writers the site has because I have the feeling it will be too high to effectively manage.  But let’s ease off the writers, shall we?  Just because they write for different reasons doesn’t make their contributions less valuable and it doesn’t make them scabs.  That Entertainment Weekly has found a way to exploit them to fill a niche that hasn’t yet been met only serves to show that nobody else has met that need with paid writers.  What the future holds for media criticism, I don’t know.  But I do know that unpaid writers aren’t going away anytime soon.  It’s only becoming easier for the average television viewer to make his or her voice heard. The traditional media criticism environment can find a way to fill the gaps in the entertainment world with paid writers or it can resign itself to hoping that the "scabs" will eventually get bored and go away.  For now, I know which side I'll be betting on.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and amateur television critic.  You can reach him at tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

On Second Thought: Revisiting the How I Met Your Mother Finale


All complaints aside, this scene really was amazing.

I had a, let’s say, “negative” reaction to last night’s finale for How I Met Your Mother borne mostly out of what I felt was a destruction of what the show had been for the last several years – an attempt to return the series to where it was in season two, at the creative height of its run.  For the record, I still believe in that interpretation, that the finale was a misguided attempt by its creators to fit where the show was now with the ending they had conceived and filmed in 2007.  But as I gave it more thought today I kept coming back to the fact that I very much enjoyed many of the scenes in the finale* and that there were many ideas packed into the episode that, given more space from the need to wrap up seventeen years’ worth of plot in forty minutes, actually were worth exploring.  So I tried to divorce myself from the resentment caused by the episode’s final twist** and figure out what the episode was trying to say about love and death and hope and family.  What I realized is that “Last Forever” was a noble attempt to really change the way we think about love that was destined to fail because of decisions made years ago.

* If they had put the scene at the platform between Ted and the Mother at the end of any other episode I would have called it my favorite scene of the series with only the two-minute date possibly excepted.

** I have had this happen before where my expectations for an episode significantly colored my initial reaction.  In this case, thanks to the predictive powers of the internet, I realized the twist was coming right about when Robin and Barney announced they were getting divorced and spent the rest of the episode dreading that conclusion.

I wrote on Twitter last night that if every decision we make leads to an alternate timeline, then somewhere there is a universe with a perfect HIMYM finale, but that we were surely in the darkest timeline.  Upon consideration, however, we may not have been that far from the perfect finale after all.  The individual elements could have made for an amazing, if somewhat morose, season of television.  Notice that I said “season” and not “episode,” because where “Last Forever” fails is in trying to cram seventeen years of character development into two episodes.  Parceled out over twenty-two episodes, there’s no reason these elements and developments couldn’t have been successful.

Imagine with me our alternate universe, in which the final season of HIMYM is not set almost entirely at Barney and Robin’s wedding, but instead takes place over the course of the seventeen years in between the wedding and 2030.  The first three episodes of the season are set at the wedding, sparing us some of the weaker episodes of the season like “whose mom makes better scrambled eggs.”  Episode four is essentially “How Your Mother Met Me,” except it ends with Ted and Tracy meeting for the first time on the Farhampton train platform in the same beautiful scene we saw last night.  Critics and fans alike immediately laud it as one of the series’ finest half-hours, though perhaps lamenting that it all had to be in one episode.  Episode Five: Ted moves to the suburbs and has his first date with Tracy.  Episode Seven or Eight: They return to Farhampton where Ted proposes and they learn Tracy is pregnant.  Episode Nine: Barney and Robin divorce.  Episodes Ten through Twelve:  Barney’s a lout again and Robin can’t handle it so she leaves (all this has happened before…).  Episode Fifteen: Barney’s daughter is born and Ted and Tracy get married.  Episode Eighteen: Tracy gets sick.  Episode Twenty: Tracy dies.  The series concludes with Ted (and the audience) getting a proper grieving period before he runs into Robin again in the finale and the two have the chance to potentially reunite again.

It probably wouldn’t be a perfect season, but it’s filled with stories worth telling, contains all of the major beats Carter Bays and Craig Thomas had in the season finale and, most importantly, it gives the show the time to properly explore the two big themes they seemed to be trying to get across last night: Nothing lasts forever and there’s no such thing as a One True Love.

One of the parts where “Last Forever” was strongest last night was in its portrayal of the lives of no-longer-young adults.  As friends pair up, have kids, move out of the city, and take new jobs, they tend to fall out of each other’s lives bit by bit.  Nights are spent on homework and PTA meetings instead of at the bar or the strip club (except for the eternal man-child Barney of course).  You start to see your friends only on the big occasions: Births, deaths, weddings.  These things happen.  We grow.  We evolve.  And while the distancing of once-close friends is sad, it’s also a necessity, so that we can find the time to bring new things into our lives.

Sitcoms are largely about stasis.  Relationships may change and characters may leave, but for the most part the show at the end is largely the same as the show at the beginning.  HIMYM tried to be different.  They tried to show how much people change and grow and how that growth can cause even the best of friends to drift apart.  Unfortunately, the show didn’t spend an entire season exploring that idea, they stuffed it all into one hour and it got lost in the rush to cover every plot point.

The other Big Idea that “Last Forever” tried to discuss was perhaps its most controversial: There is no such thing as One True Love.  Where the series finale fell the hardest was in its rush to dissolve Ted’s and Robin’s respective relationships in order to give them a happy ending together.  It left the impression that the writers didn’t respect those marriages.  They were merely waypoints on the two characters’ journeys toward each other.  I don’t think that’s what Bays and Thomas intended, though.  I believe they were trying to make the argument that love doesn’t follow the rules of romantic comedies.  Sometimes you learn that the love of your life in 2013 is not the love for your life in 2017.  You discover that the man you love in 2017 is unavailable to you.  Sometimes the woman you love more than anything in the world is unjustly taken from you and you get lost in your stories.  But even if those loves couldn’t last forever, on occasion the universe will throw a bone your way and let you fall in love all over again. 

It’s not an idea that’s often explored, especially in sitcoms, where characters are often brought together but rarely split apart.  But in the real world things are usually not so simple as “Boy meets girl and they live happily ever after.”  Couples break up and spouses die.  But it’s nice to imagine that even in the face of heartbreak and loss there might be another True Love out there waiting for us.  It’s a beautiful, touching idea that would be well worth discussing on television (and very well may have been at some point).  But it’s an idea that needs an entire season to explore, not a single episode.

Ultimately, HIMYM took a huge chance in its series finale.  It explored two difficult themes that are more often left to dramas than sitcoms – themes that it had dabbled in for nine years but had never committed to completely.  It could have been a home run.  But what made the show miss so badly was its slavish devotion to ideas hatched seven years ago.  Bays and Thomas wanted to put Ted and Robin together and they didn’t want Ted to meet the Mother until the very end of the series.  Unfortunately reconciling those desires with the story they wanted to tell meant trying to kick off two separate relationships simultaneously, which was bound to leave one of them feeling empty. 

“The Mother was dead to begin with…This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”

It’s been said in the wake of the finale that ambitious shows are often treated more kindly by history than those that go out with “just another episode.”  Perhaps that’s true.  Perhaps people coming to this show in future will know the twist in advance and look more kindly on the journey.  I used the above paraphrase of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol last night as a quip but maybe it’s true.  Maybe understanding that the Mother was dead to begin with will make this story wonderful.  There’s been a lot of vitriol and venom spewed at HIMYM in the past twenty-four hours.  And while I agree that the show failed in execution, I have to applaud its audacity.  Bays and Thomas may have struck out with their finale, but they went down swinging for the fences.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can email him at tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or find him on Twitter @TyTalksTV.