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Why 'Agent Carter' Succeeds Where 'Agents of Shield' Failed

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | January 19, 2015 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | January 19, 2015 |

The first season of Agents of Shield (I still refuse to type all those capital letters and periods on principle) was terrible for at least the first two-thirds of its run, before supposedly improving towards the end. I say supposedly because once a show bores me that much, its only chance of getting watched is in its entirety in the Netflix queue after it finishes its run. With television, I am impatient, merciless, and don’t give second chances. On the other hand, the mini-series/short season of Agent Carter has been fantastic thus far. And there’s a very specific reason for that.

Stephen King wrote a perfect criticism of one of the common problems that even experienced authors trip over, which though he was talking about writing, applies perfectly to any other medium as well. I think it was in On Writing, and I’ve long since paraphrased the statement. He argued that a common problem is when authors have too much plot getting in the way of the story.

It’s one of those clever statements that works better the more that you roll it around in your mind and appreciate the angles and nuance of those two words that for the most part we would use interchangeably: plot and story. To be broad about it: a plot is composed of things that happen, but a story is why those things happen and why they matter. A plot is the mechanics but a story is the soul. At its root, this is why great stories tend to be called timeless, because the story can be transplanted to lay underneath an entirely different plot and still be completely true to the same story.

Heinlein said a similar thing that dovetails into play here, again completely paraphrased and with the source forgotten. *rereads that* Okay, maybe I’m totally making it up then, but interesting ideas don’t need a cited source to still be interesting ideas. Good stories are about ideas. But ideas are boring. So great stories wrap ideas in sex and violence. The latter part is the plot, the ideas are the story.

The distinction is often a critical one in examining why a given show or movie or book is good or not. Often the plot is perfectly serviceable, but there’s just no story worth telling. Or the story is fantastic but gets dragged down by plot that doesn’t do it any favors.

Criticism often gets lost talking about the plot though, when what it really needs to focus on is that story. If you want to write an analysis of why Moby Dick is fantastic, don’t tell me about the whale, tell me about the point. If you start a description of why someone should watch Breaking Bad with either drugs or cancer, you’re missing the point. If you start an analysis of Battlestar Galactica with robot surprise nuclear war spaceships, you’re missing the point. You’re telling us about the paint job when we’re asking what’s under the hood.

And that’s the reason why Shield sucked and Agent Carter rules. The former wasn’t about anything for most of that first season. It was exactly what you got at face value. It was about the action sequences and the monster of the week. It was white whales all the way down. They found their way to the story eventually, but not before whiling away months on nothing but plot for plot’s sake.

But Agent Carter isn’t about the Marvel Universe, it’s not about a secret agent, or terrorist plots. It’s about institutional sexism (and oppression in general), it’s about a woman dealing with the loss of both love and purpose. The other stuff, the noir and fist fights and explosions, they’re just the veneer, the fun we have while the real story takes place in parallel. That doesn’t mean it’s some savage act of great literature, but the basic capacity for being compelling shouldn’t be limited to the greats. That’s just competent storytelling. And that’s what Agent Carter has done from its first scene.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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