ABC's 'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' And Other Genre Shows Are Strong Season Starters

If the first few days of the 2013-14 television season are any indication, broadcast will be overtaken by genre programming in the years to come. Subject matter of that kind (horror, fantasy, science fiction, superhero-driven adventure) usually proves most popular with the younger viewers that broadcast networks often have so much difficulty drawing into their tents. But with the successes of “The Walking Dead” on AMC, “American Horror Story” on FX and a number of science-fiction series on Syfy -- not to mention “The Vampire Diaries” and “Arrow” on baby broadcaster The CW -- it only makes sense that the big broadcasters would want some of that.

Consider what has happened so far: In its Tuesday night debut, ABC's “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” admittedly a pre-sold property, was the top-rated program in the 8 p.m. time period among adults 18-49 and the top show of the night among all young male demographics. That’s a strong performance on its own in these highly competitive times, but it’s even more impressive given its time-period challengers: The season premieres of CBS’ “NCIS” (the mightiest scripted show on television) and the Tuesday edition of NBC’s “The Voice” (the mightiest reality competition show on television).



Of course, one should not reach any strict conclusions about the impact a show has had until a few more episodes are telecast, unless the show is heavily serialized and fails to draw a substantial audience at the start, as discussed in yesterday’s column about CBS’ “Hostages.” So it is somewhat premature to declare that “S.H.I.E.L.D.” is a hit -- especially because its premiere episode seemed relatively unremarkable. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but how could they not be, with the show existing in the same fantasy space as recent Marvel superhero movie hits “The Avengers,” “Iron Man,” “Thor” and “Captain America”?

Indeed, the central character in “S.H.I.E.L.D.” is none other than Agent Phil Coulson (played by Clark Gregg), a fan favorite who was seemingly killed off in “The Avengers” and appears to have been brought back to life in the series. (The pilot touched on this but didn’t fully clear up the mystery about Coulson’s apparent return. Is he the real Coulson, or a clone Coulson, or an artificial life construct Coulson? 

It may be that executive producer Joss Whedon, a writer and director as popular with genre fans as the characters he creates, deliberately kept the first episode of “S.H.I.E.L.D.” relatively low key so as not to set the bar too high for future episodes. (Nothing kills a promising series faster than the unavoidable letdown of the ordinary episodes that follow an over-produced pilot.) Regardless, “S.H.I.E.L.D.” is one to watch.

Meanwhile, Fox appears to have a winner in its creep-show/procedural hybrid “Sleepy Hollow,” the early success of which is even more impressive than that of “S.H.I.E.L.D.” because it features characters that are not supported by several ongoing big-budget movie series and dozens of monthly comic books. Rather, it’s one of those very rare self-starters that come out of nowhere and immediately capture the attention of curious viewers. Two episodes have been telecast so far, and the second held up nicely, even opposite the season premiere of the Monday edition of “The Voice.” In some ways this is the same kind of success that ABC has enjoyed during the last two seasons with the impossible-to-categorize “Once Upon a Time” and hopes to extend with its spinoff, “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.”

At its core, “Hollow” features the most interesting new crime-fighting duo on television, if not also the most improbable: Revolutionary War-era soldier Ichabod Crane, revived from a centuries-long sleep, and a street-smart female lieutenant in the police department of the title town. Crane isn’t the only entity from the distant past to suddenly appear in present-day Sleepy Hollow. Other supernatural beings are turning up, including the murderous Headless Horseman, who as re-imagined here is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

NBC is enjoying a genre boost this week as well. The second season of its post-apocalyptic adventure “Revolution” enjoyed a sturdy opening Wednesday night -- despite a very unsatisfying first season. And while I wouldn’t locate the network’s new crime thriller “The Blacklist” alongside shows with supernatural characters, super-powered begins or futuristic narratives, it doesn’t feel completely removed from such extreme storytelling, in that the primary character is a lethal master criminal intent on destroying other mortal evildoers. The show is somewhat over the top, but in the very best way.

The same is true of CBS’ durable “Person of Interest,” which plays each week like a thrilling procedural crime drama but is set against a massive, technology-driven mythology that is rooted in science fiction.

This genre glut will only intensify in the weeks to come, with the season premiere on NBC of “Grimm,” the series premiere of NBC’s “Dracula,” the arrival in late fall of Fox’s cops and androids adventure “Almost Human” and the premieres on The CW of “The Tomorrow People” and “The Originals,” which will join the returning “Supernatural,” “The Vampire Diaries,” “Arrow” and “Beauty and the Beast.”  




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