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'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' takes an ABC victory lap before heading to Disney+

"Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." is proof that letting TV series do their own thing is the right move. Let's hope Disney+ is paying attention.
The final season of "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." premieres on May 27.Mitch Haaseth / ABC

For nearly a decade, "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." has been the little show that could. An unfortunate start in 2013 put the show in a bad position for ratings, squandering a potentially massive audience in hope of tying the small- and big-screen Marvel franchises together. Indeed, for years, the show has mostly existed on ABC's ratings bubble, with numbers that didn't really justify keeping it but enough interested parties to somehow keep getting it renewed.

For nearly a decade, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has been the little show that could.

But despite all of the executive-level uncertainty, the show eventually found its footing — especially once it unhooked from the big-screen franchise completely. Today, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." should send a clear message to those running Disney+: Letting spinoffs do their own thing can turn out to be the better strategy in the long run.

The final season of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," which premieres Wednesday, is a particularly strong illustration of that truth. This was to have been Marvel's rebirth year, beginning its so-called Phase 4 entertainment rollout with Marvel's "Black Widow" on May 1 and even more crossover TV franchises on Disney+. Unlike ABC, Disney's streaming service doesn't require a 22-episode season, and TV premiere dates could be timed to blockbuster releases. "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," with its truncated 13 episodes, was an afterthought.

But the coronavirus put a swift end to those plans. "Black Widow" is now bumped back to November, with the rest of the half-dozen titles of the Phase 4 slate sliding as film production remains paused. The premiere of Marvel's first limited TV series, "The Falcon & The Winter Solder" on Disney+, has also been forced to pause filming, with no indication when it might be finished. So, ironically, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." is the only content Marvel has ready to go. The good news is the final season is looking quite strong.

When "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." started, it was a story about the normal people in a superpowered world. They were the bureaucrats left to clean up the wreckage caused by Thor's thunderbolts or a Kree crash landing. But the initial season failed to hold an audience as it tread water waiting for "Captain America: Winter Soldier" to reveal that a key cast member was actually an evil double agent.

After that twist, the show was unmoored from its comic book premise and traveled, well, all over the place. It went into virtual alternate worlds, replaced characters with robot versions of themselves, headed into the future to stop the Earth from being destroyed and then spent an entire season in space. At this point, the only trope the series hasn't tackled is going back in time. (So, naturally, Season 7 is all about the team making its way to the 1930s, where they take their modern-day fighting skills and perform them while wearing period-style clothing in art deco rooms.)

To explain why this season has gone back in time would require too much exposition, but essentially the agents are fighting the bad guys over there so we don't have to fight them here. Lead actor Clark Gregg is still the glue holding the story together, though at this point even the later additions, like Henry Simmons as Mac, are as vital to the ensemble as longtime stars Chloe Bennet and Ming-Na Wen. Considering it is the only thing giving the Marvel Cinematic Universe new material during the pandemic (the final episodes of the show were shot last summer), Disney had better be very thankful to have it.

When the final episodes of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." air in the waning days of August, they will then move to Disney+, giving the streamer seven solid seasons of Marvel content to brag about. And it may be the only new content from the tentpole brand for a while. "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" had been slated to begin airing in August, but no one knows when the show will turn up now. Marvel is at least lucky that its second Disney+ show, "WandaVision," originally planned for release in May 2021 just ahead of "Dr. Strange 2," has been bumped up to December. ("Dr. Strange 2" is now not coming until 2022.) "WandaVision" has finished filming, although how much post-production work remains to be done is unknown.

No matter when Marvel gets going again, though, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." is proof that letting TV series do their own thing is the right move. Let's hope Disney+ is paying attention.