Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Why The Blacklist Works and Why Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Doesn't

I was as excited as anyone when I heard Joss Whedon was creating a TV show based on Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D. I've never been huge into comics, but I love heroes, adventure, and ensemble casts with great chemistry.

The Blacklist has all of that. There's a clear protagonist with a supporting cast of sidekicks, a mentor, the armorer, bodyguard, and obvious antagonists. Agents doesn't have one clear-cut protagonist to attach to as a viewer. Yes, we're supposed to cheer for the team, but why do I care about the team? Sure, they are "the protagonist," but what makes them special? Aside from the fact that they work for a secret organization that's trying to save the world?

In The Blacklist, the stakes are clear from the get-go. For that matter, it was the same with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and even Dollhouse. And I guess Agents has clear stakes, but they're not enticing enough. Save the world, but from what? Or from whom? Villain of the week isn't good enough for a story of this magnitude.

The first episode was quite a letdown, too, because in the previews we saw someone with "superpowers." And then the creators specifically told the audience that this show wouldn't be about superheroes. So right off the bat they told us, "This is going to be awesome, but it's not what you think." And the one character with real stakes, the one the audience wants to get attached to, is sent on his way.

I hope you're following me on this, and if not, I'm sorry that I'm not being clear. But let me make another example from Whedon's most successful show: Buffy. We have Buffy. A vampire slayer chosen by the Powers That Be to kill vampires and protect the world from invading evil. She has a backstory, complex emotions, and friends who support her in all of her efforts. It's the same with The Blacklist. But the only character in Agents is someone without any discernible personality. He's bland, dry, deadpan, and not at all engaging. Despite the fact that he got stabbed in Avengers. The ONE person we have ties to is the hardest to connect with. And the rest of the characters so far have so little going on that it's nearly impossible to care.

To turn this to a writer's perspective, when creating characters, make sure they have several important traits that make them engaging. Not necessarily likable, but engaging. And give them friends. Foils to enhance and reflect their personality. No lone-wolves with a secret past.

Now, I'm not sure if I'm in the majority here, so I'd like to hear everyone's thoughts. Discuss!


  1. I think the problem here is that the characters in SHIELD don't seem to have conflicts and goals that we can root for. Even in the popular cop shows we become involved with and have our favorite characters. It's all about emotion and I'm not feeling attached to the characters in SHIELD. In Black List, we attach to the heroine right away. She starts a new job only to learn one of the greatest criminals of all time has decided to play with her happy life. On top of that we learn, that the love of her life isn't what she thought he was. Yet, she's giving him the benefit of the doubt because she loves him. We love her for that. She's in a wait and see mode. His her hubby a good guy or bad guy and since the big criminal who is running her job and life knows about her hubby, what does he have to do with the big picture that is her life? It's the questions that helped the viewers attach to the characters and root for them.

    In SHIELD, we aren't allowed peeks into their lives and there's nothing there to intrigue us. And in these action/adventure shows it's all about the intrigue. BLACK LIST carries the intrigue in a great serial fashion. SHIELD solves the intrigue in each show and must produce a new hook with each show. So if you miss an episode, what do you miss? Not much. We need that end of the chapter hook to keep us reading or in this case to keep us watching

    1. Absolutely! Even in the first season of Buffy, where it was mostly just villain of the week episodes, we still got that backstory. Those essential elements that made us care about the characters.