Tuned In

ABC's 'S.H.I.E.L.D.' moves toward more serialized stories

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CULVER CITY, Calif. -- Marvel Comics has a reputation for secrecy around its film projects, and the same top secret mentality now extends to TV with "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." (8 tonight, WTAE) on ABC.

During a visit to the "S.H.I.E.L.D." set Jan. 23, despite silly requests -- don't name the studio or location where the show films because "there's an awful lot of people who actually believe we have a C-17 and are really flying around," according to executive producer Jeph Loeb, who also feared references to a soundstage would not sound "Marvel or S.H.I.E.L.D.-ish" -- producers let loose with a volley of details about upcoming episodes.

'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'
When: 8 tonight on ABC.
Starring: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen.

No surprise that the talk doesn't match the action. "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." began strong, but its overnight ratings dipped after its premiere. Critically, the show was not well-reviewed in its post-pilot episodes, although, in fairness, more recent episodes have shown improvement.

Just don't express misgivings about early episodes to series star Clark Gregg, who brought his presumed-deceased Agent Phil Coulson character from the big-screen "Avengers" to the small-screen "S.H.I.E.L.D."

"Those are losers," Mr. Gregg said of complainers, calling the show's ratings "superb." Although "S.H.I.E.L.D." routinely loses to CBS's "NCIS" in overall viewers -- less than 7 million live viewers weekly vs. 18 million weekly for "NCIS" -- "S.H.I.E.L.D." scores well in the coveted, hard-to-reach, male 18-34 demo. "I'm proud of the way they've set up this world slowly, and sure there's some finding-your-way steps that have to happen and some of that stuff in stand-alone episodes. I'm happy we've moved past that phase and we're moving into a place where each week builds on the next."

Mr. Gregg did backtrack a bit on his "losers" comment.

"I don't mean to say the people frustrated by that discovery period are losers," he said. "I just mean, perhaps, be a little more patient because we're trying something new in a world where the sands are shifting so much."

Tonight's episode, featuring a cameo by Marvel comics titan Stan Lee, will be the last new episode to air for a while, possibly until early March, due to ABC's desire to avoid throwing new episodes up against NBC's Winter Olympics onslaught.

Tonight's episode -- spoiler alert! -- includes the revelation of the identity of Deathlok, a cyborg character from the comics never seen in Marvel's filmed entertainment. Turns out "S.H.I.E.L.D." producers planned for Deathlok from the pilot episode, which introduced Mike Peterson (J. August Richards, "Angel"), who is on his way to becoming Deathlok.

A little further down the line, Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) from the "Thor" movies will visit "S.H.I.E.L.D." and do battle with another comic book character from Asgard, Lorelai (Elena Satine).

"As we're heading into our back nine [episodes], there's an increase in momentum and urgency of what's going to happen in this show," Mr. Loeb said.

Executive producer Jeffrey Bell, who previously wrote for "The X-Files," said the velocity of storytelling on TV has increased from back in the day when "The X-Files" could go seven years before revealing what happened to FBI agent Fox Mulder's sister.

"I don't think we could have gone 10 seasons with Clark [Kent] not putting on the cape in present society," said Mr. Loeb, a former executive producer on Superman origins series "Smallville." "At the end of episode four, people would have said, 'Where's the costume?' "

Producers said it was important to establish the "S.H.I.E.L.D." characters early on before importing too many characters from the movies. Aside from a Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) cameo in episode two, characters from the films have been scarce, although producers do make a wish-list of movie characters they'd like to see in the TV show and then have to work around their own stories and actors' schedules.

Mr. Loeb said it has been a challenge to adjust audience expectations when some people tune in expecting a Marvel movie each week.

"We introduced brand-new characters that didn't exist in the comic books, that didn't exist in the movies," he said. "We succeeded in expanding out the universe and now people want to know more about the background of [characters like] Melinda May."

Former Pittsburgher Ming-Na Wen plays May, who was revealed to be having an affair with fellow agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton).

"It really brings out the human side of these two characters, these two soldiers needing something very human because we all need that," Ms. Wen said, sitting in the cargo bay of the Bus, the converted C-17 Agent May pilots all over the world on "S.H.I.E.L.D." "You need to have some sort of release from the stress of the job."

Not that Agent May has been a font of cheerfulness.

"She's given kind of like a Mona Lisa smile, very subtle," Ms. Wen said, surrounded by TV critics. "I think she would probably have to be drugged to break out laughing."

Drugs may be required to pry some of the show's secrets out of its cast members, too. Ms. Wen said she doesn't even tell family members about upcoming plot developments.

"You just worry they'll leak it out and someone will be able to trace it back to where the source came from," she said. "And we don't want to spoil the surprises for our fans."

Tonight's episode includes another appearance by Pittsburgher David Conrad as villainous Ian Quinn. Producers showed TV critics a scene from an upcoming episode that finds a bloodied Quinn in the custody of "S.H.I.E.L.D." and at the mercy of soon-to-be-introduced S.H.I.E.L.D. agent John Garrett (Bill Paxton, "Big Love").

"We talk about Pittsburgh a lot," Ms. Wen said. "David and I definitely have some very intense scenes together."

So is Ms. Wen's Melinda May the one who gave Mr. Conrad's Quinn the beating? She looked nervously at the reporter who asked the question and laughed, saying, "OK, this man needs to go. Are you sure you're not a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent?"

"I'm not that smart," the reporter said.

"Apparently neither am I!" Ms. Wen replied, laughing.

On the web

See photos from the "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." set in Tuned In Journal at post-gazette.com/tv.

TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.

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