'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' vs. the special snowflake

<b style="color:#900;">opinion</b> This TV spinoff could have been a big hit, but so far it's not. Did the show's creators make a classic blunder when writing for fans?

Kelsey Adams Senior copy editor / Reviews
CNET senior copy editor and contributor Kelsey Adams was raised by computer programmers and writers, so she communicates best by keyboard. Loves genre fiction, RPGs, action movies; has long, fraught relationship with comics. Come talk to her on Twitter.
Kelsey Adams
5 min read
Flying car
Most people are told not to touch Coulson's vintage car, Lola. Skye gets to ride in it. ABC screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

The ratings haven't been that bad, but the buzz has. I know hardly anyone who admits to watching and liking "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." Well, building a TV show around a beloved but essentially one-joke character and his army of men in black was never going to be easy. Agent Coulson has been a surprise standout of the Marvel movie series, but he'd always been effective in small doses. For this they had to figure out how to make him and S.H.I.E.L.D. into a full meal. Still, Clark Gregg is great, and Joss Whedon was involved -- so what went wrong?

Mostly, the writers of the ABC show did what you'd expect. They came up with some more character traits for Agent Coulson; gave him a cute supporting cast; tried to flesh out S.H.I.E.L.D. a bit without killing its mystique; and threw in an audience identification character to ground it all. But now that character's been revealed as so much more than that.

I'm talking, of course, about spunky, sassy, vulnerable Skye, who is an extremely special person. Or so we're told, again and again. I'm assuming she's the audience surrogate because she comes in to S.H.I.E.L.D. from outside, asks for explanations of everything, calls the organization out for being creepy but falls for Coulson's charm, and above all, is the only character who we're told likes superheroes. (Coulson's own fanboying of Captain America in "The Avengers" seems to have been dropped.)

At the same time, she's so much more special than we are. She's better at coming up with mission strategies than the professionals, and better at anything involving emotions. She performs feats of computer hacking without the resources a less special person might need, like hardware, or education. There's no pretense of making her Hollywood Homely. She even tells a religious Christian that she herself doesn't believe, then lectures the poor girl on a better version of God to believe in. No wonder Coulson thinks she'll be the best agent ever!

And now from the most recent episode, "Seeds," we know -- SPOILERS! -- that a whole Chinese village died to protect her when she was just a baby! She probably has superpowers herself! Since the whole show is about tracking down incursions of unknown origin, code-named 0-8-4s, and she's an 0-8-4, the whole show really IS all about her! Since all today's versions of superhero franchises are in a sense fan fiction of past versions, maybe it's not surprising to find one centered around that classic fanfic phenomenon, the too-perfect, too-important Mary Sue.

Skye and Coulson
Winning the full attention of Agent Coulson, one harrowing backstory at a time. ABC screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

If you don't know or care to know fandom terms, just picture those shows where the plot grinds unnaturally to a halt so the main characters can have admiring conversations about their phones. Only instead of a product being pitched, it's a person.

It used to be a truism that everyone hates a Mary Sue but the girl who wrote her. They derail entire universes and make the main characters act like they're brainwashed. It's a classic writer insertion fantasy -- the opposite of an audience identification character. Who wants to fantasize that the coolest kid in the room is someone else?

Nowadays, Mary Sue-bashing is out; people are reclaiming the term, embracing it as fun female-centric creativity, and frowning on the self-policing that can follow it. Any female character who drew attention to herself risked being called a Mary Sue. James Bond isn't "too special," why should Skye be?

A lot of this comes down to show-versus-tell. Maybe this doesn't distract people with no programming background, but I always roll my eyes at the way TV treats computing knowledge as a magic power. If you tell me a high school dropout hacked your security system, twice, from a laptop in her van, I'm not going to think she's amazing; I'm going to think you have terrible security. Like maybe this shadowy international scientific spy organization shouldn't be relying on Windows Defender.

The thing is...you can't jack up a car with a plastic comb, and you can't crash the Pentagon with a Fitbit. There are hardware and software constraints that apply no matter how special a person you are. (Any crazy-amazing hackers reading this: please don't crash the Pentagon with a Fitbit just to prove you can.)

Now that we know Skye's an 0-8-4, I guess that's why "CS comes naturally" to her, why she's "good, like, crazy good" with computers. Because in her case, it really is a magic power? Did she actually even have to learn coding at all?

Skye being sassy
Skye throwing one of her fifty shades of sassy. ABC screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

I'm inclined to agree with the people who think this whole story arc would have worked better told in the other direction. If we and S.H.I.E.L.D. had known Skye was potentially superpowered from the beginning, then a whole season spent trying to find the specialness under her relatively bland exterior would have made sense, and could have even been a running joke. Instead, to a lot of commenters who'd heard enough about Skye already, this development seemed like an added blow.

There are certainly other things to criticize about the show, like the weirdly uneven writing. But I've wondered if some of the negativity comes from feeling on some level that it's taking something that's still considered by default a guy thing, comics, and packaging it up in an overly girly way. Male or female, you might resist someone trying to sell you your action figures by painting them pink.

But Simmons is over-the-top brilliant, and May is over-the-top badass, and people don't seem to object to them the same way. So the main issue isn't sexism, it's storytelling. And it's not just about finding Skye annoying or unbelievable, it's that the show was structured around her from the first episode, and she's dangerously close to being the main character. The others -- Simmons, May, Ward, Fitz -- don't compete with S.H.I.E.L.D. and Coulson; they are S.H.I.E.L.D. Skye pulls the focus, and people didn't sign up to watch "Skye, Marvel's Most Amazing Agent." They just aren't that bought in yet.

That's the other classic fanfic blunder the writers made: overestimating fan interest in original characters. People usually don't have time for anyone but their favorites. You can start a whole new show (such as "Star Trek: TNG"), or you can sneak original characters in among familiar ones and hope they'll get adopted, like Coulson himself. But if you pitch a show about familiar characters and then focus it on someone new, expect confusion and protests.

Now that this Skye thing is out in the open, though, maybe more people will get on board with it. After all, not every story is about ordinary people; the more special the snowflake, the more likely it is to fall into some kind of drama. We've had a couple of weeks to mull over this development, a new episode is coming, and it's time to move on. To understand. To forgive. To watch the series again from the beginning and see how they set it up; to remember Skye's best lines and glossiest hairdos; to recognize that this isn't mysterious favoritism, it's plot. And it's probably going somewhere interesting.

Simmons and Mike Peterson
Packaging guy stuff for girls; is it really so wrong? ABC screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET