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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Repairs (Review)

Ah! We’re half-way through the first season! It’s an episode written by show runners Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon! This must be the episode that will finally provide direction to a first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that has been coasting on autopilot for weeks now!

Well, it was nice idea in theory at any rate.

May day...

May day…

Repairs is a bottle episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., unfolding primarily on board the team’s jumbo jet “bus”, which is forced to set down to deal with technical problems. In theory, it’s a nice metaphor for what the show really needs to think about doing. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could do with stopping and trying to get its house in order before pressing forward once again.

However, in practice, Repairs seems like a cynical attempt to manage the show’s budge by mostly using existing sets and familiar surroundings as the setting for the episode’s action sequences. Bottle shows are a reality of television production. Any series with a large production budget will try to sneak a cost-saving episode in under the radar every once in a while – an episode that features a minimum number of guest stars and set pieces, and uses standing sets as a back drop.

She hasn't got a prayer...

She hasn’t got a prayer…

To be fair, the bottle show is a practical concern that can lead to some wonderful creativity. Without spectacle to fall back on, script writers need to compensate. They can compensate with character development or plot development or even clever structuring. It’s a test for most television writers and producers to work within these external constraints, but it also promotes experimentation and creativity.

However, Repairs demonstrates just how dependent Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is on spectacle. The show looks pretty fantastic, over all. It might be a tad over-lit, and there may be the occasional piece of dodgy CGI, but – as a rule – the show looks impressive. The sets are extravagant, the special effects are well-produced, the scale is global. Even the directors coming through the show are fairly solid television action directors, and the guest casts tend to be quite solid.

A meal ticket...

A meal ticket…

That’s enough for a show to coast on. That’s enough to stop the show from actively sucking, from becoming downright unpleasant. Whatever the flaws in writing and plotting and characterisation, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a competently produced piece of television. We might wonder why all the Scandinavians in The Well speak English to each other, or why Ireland is represented by stock footage of sound stages, but the show looks and feels expensive.

However, Repairs demonstrates just how heavily the show is relying on that sleek production design and lavish budget. Repairs doesn’t have the same scale or scope as the earlier episodes, and so it has to rely on the show’s writing. And it is not well served at all. There’s nothing here to distract from the trite character back stories or the generic “case of the week” format. There’s nothing to disguise the fact that audience still has no reason to care for anybody in the cast, except maybe due to carried-over good will for Coulson.

Bright spark...

Bright spark…

Repairs is written by the showrunners. This is a pretty big deal. This means that the duo aren’t just polishing a script written by somebody else and trying to make it fit with their vision of what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. should be. This is Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon’s vision of what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. should be. So at least Repairs is informative, even if it’s far from satisfying. What does Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon’s vision of what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. look like?

It’s a generic knock-off of The X-Files, without the the talented writers or the charismatic leads or even the same wire directly into the American zeitgeist. In short, it’s The X-Files with anything remotely interesting viciously stripped out from it, assuming that people enjoyed the show for watching a procedural about crazy stuff happening to boring people. Which is a misunderstanding of what made The X-Files resonate with people.

Let 'em fly...

Let ’em fly…

As with the rest of the season, there’s a staggering lack of ambition here. We get a generic plot about a super-powered stalker with a crush, whose situation is somewhat vaguely explained. This guy can’t control his leaping enough to bring himself home, but he can control his leaping enough to assist him in a throw down with Agent Ward? He really wasn’t captured on any surveillance equipment while doing his sabotage stuff?

There is something vaguely interesting in the way that episode plays with the notion of faith – the idea that perhaps faith isn’t something mutually exclusive from science. You can work on a particle accelerator and believe in God. Unfortunately, the episode only touches the issue in the most fleeting of manners. It’s generic “religion can be good if it’s open-minded!” platitudes that are completely disconnected from any examination of how faith can colour the perception of the universe.

Shaving face...

Shaving face…

It doesn’t help that our victim seems a little crazy here. She claims that she is being plagued by demons, despite the fact she was a safety inspector on a particle accelerator. In real life, that would be understandable, but she lives in a world where a fluke bio-chemical reaction created a giant green rage monster. You’d imagine that somebody in her position in the Marvel universe would probably be more open to the fact that science experiments gone wrong might cost lives, but may also create super villains.

I would love to see what health and safety regulations look like for science labs working in the Marvel universe. Pictures of the Hulk everywhere, with a red circle and a line through it, perhaps? Pleas for any employees sudden imbued with mystical powers not to turn those powers against the employers? Genetic testing inside and outside the lab? There’s the potential for fun stuff here, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has absolutely no interest in exploring what a world inhabited by Captain America, Iron Man and the Hulk would look like.

Yay! Corridors!

Yay! Corridors!

(Then again, there’s more of the weird insistence from the show that mental powers are totally illogical and impossible. Broaching mental powers as a possible cause for the strange events, the team reject it out of hand. “A telekinetic?” Skye asks. “I thought they didn’t exist.” Later on, Simmons reiterates, “We don’t believe that people have telekinetic powers, do we?” Given that The Well featured what could be explained as a “rage stick”, it makes the show seem completely arbitrary, and the team look a little incompetent. In a world with Asgardian gods, moving stuff with your mind is impossible? How does Thor get his hammer to come back to him?)

This is compounded by the episode’s tone-deaf character moments. When even the show runners can’t seem to get the voices to work, there’s a fundamental problem here. For some reason, Fitz and Simmons decide that this is the perfect time to pull some pranks on Skye, because an episode about an abusive extra-dimensional stalker might be a bit heavy without some ill-judged comic relief. In any other circumstance, the plot would be an irritation; however, in context it just makes the team look even more unprofessional.

Fitz right in...

Fitz right in…

“Fitz!” Simmons protests at the episode’s climax. “This is no time for childish nonsense like this!” However, this was just as true before the plane had to make an emergency landing. They are ferrying a woman with severe emotional issues and investigating a dangerous mystery. Even before the plane breaks down, the pranks seem like a bad idea. It feels completely at odds with the rest of the episode.

At least the plot involving May is tonally consistent with the episode. Ming-Na Wen is one of the stronger performers in the ensemble so far, even if the scripts haven’t figured out what to do with her. So Repairs decides to throw in some tragic back story for the character. Again, this is quite trite and cliché. She is a hero scarred by what she has seen. It’s not the worst back story, but Repairs still feels quite lazy.

Watch yourself...

Watch yourself…

The story is recounted three times by four different characters. This might be an interesting way to explore how legends grow and get distorted as they are passed from one person to another. Instead, all three versions manage to convey the core essence of the story, to the point where it feels like the show is pandering to audience members who aren’t paying attention. Repeating the same story three times in an hour is just bad storytelling, and there’s a sense that we might have been able to invest in it a bit more if we got to see any of it.

Instead, May becomes a character who is passive in her own character-centric episode. The show is full of characters talking about her, but we never get a chance to see her side of the story. It’s generic and trite and cliché, even ending on a classic “oh, there’s hope for her yet!” stinger to help reassure the audience that even battle-hardened veterans don’t have to worry about living with post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s nothing a closing gag can’t fix.

Reverse engineering...

Reverse engineering…

(Speaking of which, where did Ward’s anger from The Well go? Weren’t we told that his rage would last for years? Brett Dalton is far from the strongest member of the ensemble, and his “rage face” was more camp than scary, but it’s an example of how cynical the writing on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actually is. They can’t trust us to keep May’s sad story straight within this episode, why would we care about stuff that happened a week ago?)

All of this is compounded by some truly dire dialogue. May’s backstory is hardly the most original twist possible, but it doesn’t help that the episode deals with it in clichés. “Did she lose anyone in there?” Skye asks. “Herself,” Coulson replies, and you can see Clark Gregg struggling not to wince as he delivers that line. Maybe Coulson is a robot after all.

Handy man...

Handy man…

Quite simply, this is not where Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to be at this point in its run, and this is not the script that the show runners needs to be writing at this point in the run. This is a show on auto-pilot, which is incredibly frustrating given the sheer potential built into the premise.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:

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6 Responses

  1. We know there’s talent behind this show, it just seems to be that the rather impressive toy box they have to play with, aren’t the toys the showrunners are particularly into. I thought the Avengers film had an over lit look too, so maybe they’re trying to keep the aesthetic.

    • I think the toy box is a symptom of a wider problem. Everything the show is doing is so generic and banal. It’s a show designed to flesh out the movie universe, but it has no interest in world-building – no real fascination with giving a sense of what it’s like be a person living in a world with Captain America or Iron Man. Stemming off of this, the reason the refusal to use the toy box is so frustrating is because it would make world-building incredibly easy.

  2. Maybe, but I think this episode and the previous couple have been improving, at least thematically. This episode represents a step in the right direction in the science-vs-religion-vs magic, aliens-vs-gods theme, which the The Well dismissed too easily.

    The end tries but fails to use this theme to evoke mystery. We’re supposed to wonder, where did he go? Hell? Heaven? Another dimension? It doesn’t work, because the show isn’t convincingly deep enough. But at least it prompted the question, and I think that is something.

    I do agree that giving Simmons the stereotypical rational skeptic lines was a really cheesy move.

    • You are right, it does deal with religion and faith a bit better than The Well. In fact, it might have been interesting to stretch that out a bit and give it a bigger share of the episode. I appreciate that Skye is presented as agnostic, but also engaged with the humanistic teachings that come parcelled with religion.

      (After all, from my own experience, the best lessons the Catholic Church teach have nothing to do with transubstantiation or the eucharist and more to do with “do unto others…” and “let he who is without sin…”, both proclamations the institution has had a hard time putting into practice.)

      But I find it hard to get too excited about the discussion of faith in Repairs – I can’t shake the feeling the only reason the faith was taken seriously here was because it was couched in Christian terms as opposed to paganist terms.

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