Agents of SHIELD TV Reviews

TV Review: Agents of SHIELD, “Seeds” (S1/EP12) – Is This What a Good Episode Looks Like?

To read our other Agents of SHIELD episode reviews please go here.

  • Airdate: 1/14/2014
  • Director: Ken Fink (Nikita, Revenge, Fringe)
  • Writers: Jed Whedon (SHIELD Co-Showrunner) &  Monica Owusu-Breen (Revolution, Fringe, Brothers & Sisters, “The Well” episode of SHIELD)

THE MAIN PLOT

Fitz and Simmons are called in to investigate an accident using one of their old creations (a freeze device) at the SHIELD Academy.  They take Skye and Grant with them while May pulls Coulson out of his “I was dead and SHIELD altered my memories” funk to go off on their own to Mexico City follow a lead about Skye’s past.

As it turns out, Fitz and Simmons are kind of rock stars at the Academy while Grant actually attended a separate SHIELD Academy designed for field operative agents.  Both sides think they are superior to the other, although only Fitz is a jerk about it.  When Fitz and Simmons address a lecture hall at the Academy, a student Donnie Gill (Dylan Minnette) suddenly turns into a block of ice.  Skye, Fitz and Simmons manage to thaw him, deducing that these highly competitive students must be targeting one another to eliminate competition.  Fools!  They’re being played.  Donnie manufactured the whole scenario to coax Fitz and Simmons to campus so that Fitz would help him solve a problem he had with the power mechanism of his freeze device.  He and a partner, Seth, plan to sell the technology to Ian Quinn, the villain from the third episode.   Our dim-witted team figure it out, but not after Fitz has done exactly what Donnie needed.  Oops.  Donnie and Seth try to use their device as a demonstration for Quinn in exchange for him extracting them from SHIELD.  It all goes wrong, a massive weather storm erupts due to the machine, but Melinda flies the Bus into the heart of the storm.  The team saves Donnie, but Seth is deadsville.  

SHIELD Seeds Stakeout
Lola flies again in this episode. Did you really miss that, though?

The lead Melinda and Coulson followed was a former SHIELD agent who after a quick fight helpfully tells them that Skye was designated by SHIELD as an ‘0-8-4‘ as a baby.  An entire Chinese village had died protecting her, and the SHIIELD agents protecting her were slowly killed off, at least until they managed to hide her existence by shuffling her around to different orphanages.  May implores Coulson not to tell Skye, but keeping SHIELD secrets is not his bag anymore.  All it takes is Skye to ask, “You’re acting weird.  What’s up?” for him to spill his guts to her.  She takes it well, oddly taking comfort in the idea that SHIELD has been looking out for her for her entire life.

Our big cliffhangers?  En route to the sandbox, Donnie discovers he has freeze abilities now, and Quinn tells Coulson over the phone that the Clairvoyant says hello.

THE REVIEW

Many will and have compared Agents of SHIELD to Arrow for obvious reasons: they’re both comic book shows, one from Marvel and the other from DC.  There is a tendency to place those two comic book behemoths (Marvel and DC) in opposition to one another, often pointing to the strengths of one to validate your arguments about the shortcomings of the other.  The same is also true of SHIELD vs. Arrow comparisons.  However, these are two very different shows that don’t otherwise warrant comparison.  As such, I am reluctant to use this quote, but in a recent interview with TVLine Arrow Executive Producer Andrew Kreisberg spoke to the approach to writing on their show:

“We act as if these are the only stories we’ll ever get to tell. I mean, any idea that we have where we’re like, “Oh, we could do that in Season 3,” we’ve moved into Season 2. We feel like that level of velocity is the way television is being produced now, especially when you look at shows like Scandal. You just can’t tell the story fast enough, and one of the great things about both the world that we’ve created for Arrow and also the greater DC Universe is there are always more stories to tell. There’s always more characters, there’s always more villains so we’re not ever really worried about where do we go from here.”

Has this approach always worked out for Arrow?  No.  However, it’s also a sign that they recognize the TV environment within which they live.  Like Kreisberg said, the emerging model for storytelling on TV is that “you just can’t tell the story fast enough.”  Maybe it has something to do with the creeping death of the daytime soap opera, thus audiences in need of their soap opera fix gravitating toward increasing soapy TV shows (Revenge, Scandal, Nashville).  Maybe it is a reflection of the instant-streaming, Netflix generation where every episode needs to hook you so that your mini-marathon turns into an all-day marathon.  Either way, the rule of thumb for many current TV shows is that they can’t burn through storylines fast enough.

Sheild Seeds FitzSimmons

Agents of SHIELD is not like that.  In fact, no Joss Whedon show has been like that, although let’s be honest SHIELD is not really a Joss Whedon show.  It has been playing the slow-burn with its mysteries in favor of rigidly formulaic episodes which serve to only incrementally advance the overall plot.  This approach appeases the casual viewer who can pick up any episode and not be lost, with the “previously on…” segment filling in the gaps (even SHIELD‘s pre-closing-credits cliffhangers aren’t really cliffhangers which are resolved the next week).  Beyond accessibility considerations, the benefit of the standalone/quasi-serialized approach is it allows your characters more time to breathe.  However, the downside is that by stretching out a mystery or two across so many episodes the mystery better be dang compelling to begin with and your pay-off better make the wait worth it.  Supernatural used to be the master at this, and featured characters we cared about.

Unfortunately for SHIELD, none of its mysteries are that compelling.  Fortunately for SHIELD, they’ve cut their losses, and in two consecutive episodes given us the answers to both mysteries.  Unfortunately for SHIELD, neither answer was really worth the wait.  Fortunately for SHIELD, now that we’ve addressed the mysteries we can finally move on.  Unfortunately for SHIELD, yeah, the mysteries have only been partially explained, as if they are still holding back on us.

The point is that they are trying to fix things.  How did Coulson survive?  Multiple open-brain surgeries, and SHIELD altered his memories.  What is Skye’s background?  She was some kind of magic baby SHIELD has been protecting her entire life.   But…what really saved Coulson?  Where did the technology come from?  Why is he so special to demand saving in the first place?  We don’t know.  So, wait, what the hell is Skye if SHIELD designated her an “0-8-4”?  Is she even human?  Again, we don’t really know.  However, coming out of the mid-season break they are clearly trying to get things going a little faster.  Heck, they even had May admit her affair with Grant to Coulson as if why on Earth do they need to keep stringing along that secret?  

“Seeds” was far more adept at advancing their mysteries while also being a good episode, unlike last week’s rather bland and forgettable episode.  While hugely significant, everything with Skye’s background was but a small aspect of “Seeds.”  This was really more about giving us an origin story for a comic book villain, Donnie is the Blizzard.

SHIELD Seeds Blizzard
Is the loner angle maybe overplayed? I actually liked it.

Sure, the plot is in some ways a carbon copy of the third episode “The Asset” in which Fitz & Simmons are connected to someone or thing from the Academy who it turns out is being manipulated by Quinn.  However, Donnie was the best kind of villain: a sympathetic and believable one, although his ending hostility toward Fitz was perhaps unwarranted (take some responsibility for your own actions, Donnie).

SHIELD Seeds Gals
The show’s mantra from this point forward should be to get them off that damn plane as often as the budget will allow.

Doing all of this by getting all of our characters off of that damn Bus was a great move (they need to interact with more than just villains-of-the-week) as was expanding the universe of SHIELD by depicting an Starfleet-eseque Academy where cadets are trained.

On the downside, this is a very easy episode to nitpick.  A bar with a pool table in the basement of SHIELD that only the students know about?  Unless we are to assume SHIELD knows all about the Basement but just lets the students think it’s a secret doesn’t that make our giant spy organization seem really stupid?  Plus, how did SHIELD not realize that Seth’s connection via his father to Ian Quinn was a giant red flag?  How did the weather machine actually stop working at the end?  How exactly did it work that Donnie got those apparent freeze powers while everyone else in the eye of the storm did not?  Is it really that comforting for Skye that her entire life has been but the whimsy of a giant multi-government entity which helped create all of her abandonment issues?  Sure, it is funny how May just blurts out her secret about Ward, but isn’t that the kind of thing that required a little more build-up to truly land with maximum effectiveness?  Would Coulson really suck so much at keeping secrets that he wouldn’t even be able to look directly at Skye due to overwhelming guilt?

THE BOTTOM LINE

In a rather astutely observed essay, FilmSchoolRejects recently said of Agents of SHIELD:

“The paths these episode’s plots take can be mapped out by the viewer a mile ahead, and they absolutely reek of network notes asking for things to be dumbed down for Middle America. The dialogue is the kink of clunky, mindless crap that often includes phrases like ‘He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?’ or ‘In English, please!’ This garbage isn’t just not up to the standards of Whedon, it’s not up to the standards of today’s television, period. “

In many ways, “Seeds” is not that different.  All of the twists happen right around when they always do for this show, and Coulson’s closing speech about Skye’s resilience accompanied by composer Bear McCreary’s smothering musical score is over-written.  It attempts to elevate Skye to a higher level than her characterization deserves.  However, despite its flaws this episode was better than most.  They were trying to advance story arcs (Skye’s mystery, May and Ward), they gave us an interesting new look at the SHIELD (the Academy), and utilized each cast member well.  Even May’s little fight scene prior to Lola’s return was kind of cool.  SHIELD has yet to really earn our trust that this is the sign of something better, but “Seeds” was actually a pretty decent episode, as SHIELD episodes go.

THE NOTES

1. Have You Looked at the Ratings Lately?

Agents of SHIELD’s “The Magical Place” delivered 6.67 million viewers, and “The Seeds” apparently held roughly even with that.

2. Some like when Fitz gets a little bitchy if only because it better differentiates him from Simmons.  I’m not one of those people.  I just don’t think Ian De Caestecker is that good at playing comedy.

3. Of the cast of SHIELD, FilmSchoolRejects said:

“critics said that Chloe Bennet was just a pretty face and that her Skye character was going to be an annoyance, but over time she’s shown that she’s a strong enough actress to get the audience on her side when she’s put in danger or playing the underdog, and she’s shown a strong ear for delivering quirky dialogue. Initially Brett Dalton was derided as being a generically wooden hero guy, but in the few cases where his stoicism has been broken and he’s had a chance to get a little bit silly, he’s shown a strong enough sense of comic timing to make good material work. And Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge, they’ve been derided as being annoying and twee exposition machines, but when they were finally given a chance to do something substantial in Episode 6, it produced the highest heights the show has reached to date. No, the problem here isn’t the cast, the problem is the miserable writing the cast has been working with.”

Agree?  Disagree?

What did you think of “Seeds”?  Let us know in the comments section.

All of the pictures used in the above review, unless otherwise noted, came from ABC.GO.COM.

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6 comments

  1. I think there’s definitely the component of the writing being clunky and, well, ABC as all hell. Most of their programming is contrived and extremely simplified. Just look at Castle. Lost only got on the air by lying about itself in its own show bible. But I also feel like the comparison to Arrow is hurting it most, and people don’t seem to realize they’re comparing season 1 of SHIELD with season 2 of Arrow. Season 2 Arrow is a much better, faster, and satisfying program than season 1 Arrow, which was slow and not really delivering on all of its promise yet. It was only in the second half of the first season that it started to pick up steam (which I think SHIELD is glacially starting to do), and kicked it into high gear with its finale. The second season, rather than starting the pace over at 1, picked up the acceleration where the prior season left off and kept getting faster. If SHIELD were to do the same thing, it would be just as good, though still behind Arrow, because it will be in season 3 by that point. Also, SHIELD suffers from a weaker premise (not the actual SHIELD but the quaint little team they’ve assembled) and showrunners who just aren’t experienced or good enough to be running a show yet (Jed and Maurissa specifically). Which I hate to say, but it’s pretty clear. All of Joss’s other options are already running shows or making movies now, but put in WAY more work before being promoted than Jed and Maurissa did on Dollhouse and Dr. Horrible.

    1. It was interesting that at last week’s TCA winter press tour the ABC president described their approach to the Marvel shows (SHIELD, Agent Carter) as being making “big, broad television” while those Marvel ones at Netflix can be more fanbait-y, kind of like Arrow (although he didn’t mention the show by name). As you point out, that seems to be their approach to all of their programming, with SHIELD representing many of the worst tendencies of ABC’s shows, clunky writing and all. It’s what makes me nervous about Agent Carter and unsure if I will ever truly fall in love with Agents of SHIELD.

      I try to avoid comparing SHIELD to Arrow for all of the reasons you highlighted. They are very different shows with different levels of expectations and currently at crucially different stages of development. However, when you find yourself liking one way more than the other it’s hard not to wonder why. Arrow has come to feel more like a modern TV show with “caution to the wind” storytelling where if you don’t like on crazy plot twist (Malcom’s back?) they’ll have moved on two weeks later. SHIELD, by comparison, is an oddly far more old-fashioned show, attempting to graft a super hero format onto a crime procedural chassis. As you say, SHIELD could start moving faster and be more like Arrow. However, it will always be hampered by being a season behind, and it is currently weakened with an inferior premise (or cast) and possibly out-of-their-depth showrunners. I thought Dollhouse had its moments, but I was ultimately not a fan. So, any admiration I have for Jed and Maurissa is relegated to Dr. Horrible. It would seem they desperately need Joss Whedon around. Who knows what their working lives are like, but I tend to imagine them just getting crushed with notes from ABC and Marvel. SHIELD might have been better off with more experienced showrunners who could better handle the various corporate interests, and handle their bugdets more effectively (how the hell do you make your second episode a bottle episode???). However, like I said in my review, it’s also possible SHIELD is simply too big to really succeed.

      1. Yes, I think that’s the primary problem of their experience level, moreso than writing. Joss Whedon’s primary genius is, in my opinion, not his clever dialogue or insight into the metaphors of genre, though those are high points, but rather his ability to turn network notes into actual working story within his own ideas. Angel’s existence, Spike’s return and romance, “Mal needs to kill more people” = kick a guy into the engine joke, etc. He takes the notes and makes them seem like part of the premise. All of the SHIELD stuff, including Skye being a girl next door instead of the completely Dragon Tattoo character that her past and skillset would seem to demand, all seem like network notes that this younger team just can’t make seem natural. Joss also floundered similarly on the Dollhouse (2nd) pilot, probably due to lack of time and just how far from the original premise Fox was taking them.

      2. Agreed. I have to admit, though, that I didn’t know Angel’s existence is somehow owed to studio notes. There are a lot of those type of stories with Buffy/Angel/Firefly. The one I’ve always loved is how “Beer Bad” from Buffy was written in response to a mandate from the WB to write an anti-drug and -alcohol episode after the network had gotten in bed with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. So, Buffy just wrote a parody of that type of episode in which our characters don’t really learn anything at all other than beer=foamy.

        I also agree that Skye so clearly seems like someone who was at some point supposed to be a Lisbeth Salander, and somehow morphed into a Doctor Who companion (not that I’m knocking Doctor Who) whose real power is empathy.

        ABC was happy to point that even with SHIELD’s ratings free fall it’s still pulling in more viewers than what they had in that same time slot last season. If things don’t get much worse maybe they’ll give it a second chance, but if they do one wonders if Jed and Maurisa will be invited back. A great many struggling show in the history of television improved massively once a showrunner was quiety replaced in-between seasons (Dan Harmon and Community being but one huge exception). However, that’s Joss’s brother and sister-in-law, and he’s a big dog at Marvel. Wouldn’t that make such a decision beyond awkward? Or are they just total pros at this point?

      3. Exactly. Joss may be backed into a corner. Essentially, while Angel may have always been a “helper” character planned, the idea of a vampire love interest was forced on Joss, who wanted vampires to be the faceless metaphors for the horrors of adolescence. So at the very least, Angel’s true nature was worked in in response to a note. Skye is the character that really screams Lisbeth/Jack from Mass Effect 2: orphaned, special for some reason, loner/hacker. In one way, she goes against type, but in another way, this is genre TV and one would think she would at least be Abby from NCIS, someone who is nice and empathetic but Gothed out. Her being pit against Ward’s stuffed shirt then creates a great dynamic. When Skye is “normalized”, both characters suffer, because suddenly Ward is playing off a normal person instead of his own foil. Hopefully her 084-ness can liven up her character a bit. She’s also better on her own.

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