'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,' the little MCU TV show that could, returns for season six

Freed from caring about what happened to the Infinity Stones or anything else Marvel was cooking up in Hollywood, “S.H.I.E.L.D.” has blossomed.
Image: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The ensemble cast of ABC's "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."Matthias Clamer / ABC
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By Ani Bundel

May is the month when most broadcast shows are wrapping up their seasons and heading into the summer hiatus. But on Friday, May 10, ABC will air the premiere of the sixth season of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” the fun little Marvel Cinematic Universe show that could.

After a disastrous start and years of low ratings, the show has now outlasted the more celebrated and prestigious offerings from Marvel TV on Netflix to establish a place in the Marvel Universe, separate and distinct from the big-screen world.

The show has outlasted the more celebrated and prestigious offerings from Marvel TV to establish a place in the Marvel Universe, separate and distinct from the big-screen world.

“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” first arrived in 2013, a direct spinoff of 2012’s box-office smash “The Avengers.” It seemed a smart vanguard for the newly created Marvel TV project, and featured Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), a smaller character from the films who was a mid-level manager in the Earth-based bureaucracy known as S.H.I.E.L.D. The agency’s job? To clean up the messes the Avengers made and keep the public from realizing Earth might have had an alien (or “powered people”) encounter. It was a little like “Men In Black” (another Marvel property) but with an FBI-procedural vibe and a large dose of “the family you choose”-type emotional bonding. The show drew in legions of Marvel fans, with 12.2 million watching the premiere. It then proceeded to lose them just as quickly, with barely 5 million tuning in by season’s end.

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This drop was due largely to the show’s initial determination to stay tied into the big screen Marvel series. Seemingly inspired by shows like “Mad Men,” “S.H.I.E.L.D.” attempted a slow burning plot that would pay off once “Captain America: Winter Solider” arrived in theaters in the final weeks of the show’s first season. But a show that runs 22 episodes cannot spend most of its time meandering. The last four episodes of the season were fantastic, once “Winter Soldier” revealed that half the characters in “S.H.I.E.L.D.” were actually evil H.Y.D.R.A. sleeper agents. But many viewers had already tuned out, and, despite the show getting better with every season, the ratings never recovered.

Since then, “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” and all the other Marvel TV series that followed in its wake, have stridently insisted they are completely separate from the movies. While this didn’t help the multiple Netflix series that followed, it did allow the ABC series to experiment with storylines. Coulson, for instance, was a character killed off on the big screen and but resurrected for TV. It worked for the show, but it was also one of the reasons the “Avengers" sequel, “Age of Ultron,” didn't want to include the S.H.I.E.L.D. characters. It seems director Joss Whedon was not happy his one death didn’t stick.

Freed from caring about what happened to the Infinity Stones or anything else the big screen Marvel Studios was cooking up, the show linked Coulson’s mystery to a completely different aspect of the comics, tying it into technology invented by the alien species known as the Kree, a notorious set of comic book villains whom “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Captain Marvel” later also included in their plots. The series also figured out how to use the too often overlooked “Inhuman” characters from the Marvel comics, people with mutations that give them superpowers, not unlike the X-Men. The big screen MCU still hasn’t been able to make these characters work.

The latest season of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues this trend. The last two seasons have seen the agents living in alternate realities created by artificial intelligence and time traveling into the future and back again. The current mission focuses on rescuing lost member Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) who is frozen in space somewhere. Meanwhile the rest of the team, now lead by Alphonso "Mack" MacKenzie (Henry Simmons) and Quake (Chloe Bennet), is still trying to adjust to the loss of Coulson, who has finally died for good this time. Or so everyone insists. Actor Clark Gregg, who has been the heart of the show since the beginning, is still part of the cast, so obviously the mysteries aren’t over.

Along the way, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” discovered how to balance the desire for prestige, TV-length stories with a 22-episode broadcast season, separating it into three “pods” of seven to eight episodes, which formed a larger whole starting in season three. It also weathered several corporate shake-ups as ABC attempted to get out from under a pile of poorly rated Disney pet projects, including another MCU spinoff, “Agent Carter.” (The direct “S.H.I.E.L.D.” spinoff, “Marvels Most Wanted” never made it out of the pilot stage.) Rumors were “S.H.I.E.L.D.” would be canceled after season four, but Disney executives mandated it had to stay, with a resulting season five that was both critically praised and which saw streaming numbers rise.

In the wake of Netflix canceling all six of its Marvel TV series in rapid succession, Marvel TV is going to try tospin off more shows from the “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” series — just not on ABC. “Marvel’s Ghost Rider,” based on the Robbie Reyes version of the Ghost Rider character, has been greenlit for the 2019-2020 TV season on Hulu. Joining it on Hulu will be the new “Marvel’s Helstrom;” and the streaming platform already hosts the popular teen soap, “Marvel’s Runaways.” With Disney owning 60 percent of Hulu to Comcast’s 40 percent (and Comcast now in talks to sell that portion to Disney as well), Marvel TV is far less likely to get pushback about Hulu renewals than it did at ABC.

The decision to turn “S.H.I.E.L.D.” into a summer series makes sense for ABC, since it does well in streaming numbers, if not with live-same day viewership. A summer start also means there’s less competition for the latter, and it also reduces the episode count from 22 to a Netflix-like 13 installments, making it less expensive to produce. ABC has even gone so far as to greenlight a seventh season for next summer. This means “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” will stay on ABC through 2020. However, it will continue to remain an outlier and chances are the little show that could may not last into the next decade.