TV & Film

'Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Producers Talk Coulson, Crossovers And More


That's my one-word description of the energetic pilot for "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," the most eagerly anticipated new show of the fall season (it premieres Sept. 24 on ABC).

ABC screened the pilot for the media at the recent Television Critics Association press tour (where the show's producers and actors took questions about the show), and earlier the network showed the pilot to fans at Comic-Con. Shortly after viewing the enjoyable pilot at the press tour, I spoke to "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." executive producers Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen about the show's roots and its future.

Don't worry, I didn't discuss plot specifics with Whedon and Tancharoen, who previously worked with the show's executive producer Joss Whedon on "Dollhouse" and "Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog." Jed Whedon and Tancharoen, who co-wrote the pilot with Joss, talked about some of the philosophical underpinnings of the drama, how the show's mythology will work and how much -- or little -- it will tie into Marvel's cinematic universe.

Whedon and Tancharoen also worked on my beloved "Spartacus," so I know they know from putting a tight-knit group of characters through emotionally difficult and physically dangerous experiences. They won't, of course, be able to show people being dismembered on "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." (oh well), which faces pressures that could pull the show in quite different directions: No doubt ABC and Marvel want the producers to establish "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." as a bright, action-filled, family-friendly extension of the Marvel brand -- yet many TV fans are hoping the ensemble drama, which features the return of Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, is a rich, complex and worthy successor to much-loved Whedonian fare such as "Buffy," "Angel" and "Firefly."

In the conversation below, which has been edited and slightly condensed, Jed Whedon and Tancharoen discuss the many cooks in the Marvel/ABC kitchen, the burden of expectations and the serious side of "S.H.I.E.L.D."

What do you see as your primary next steps, as far as deepening the world and enriching the characters? How will you make the show more and more Whedon-y, if you will?

Tancharoen: Well, I think our tagline is "Not all heroes are super," and we say it a lot, but it's about the real people living in this extraordinary universe. We're going to dive deeper into that. Our team of six, they are real people without superpowers, and they operate within this big, government-like organization; and week to week, they'll come up against these threats and challenges that are beyond what we're able to handle. Everyone has the question, "How do you make a Marvel show on television when the expectations are so high with what you've seen in the movies and stuff?" But I think when you boil down the show, at its core it's about being human, and that's something everyone can relate to.

Jed Whedon: Yeah. Initially, obviously, we need cool stuff and Marvel moments. But we really want everybody to fall in love with these people, and we think that if they do, people will show up to watch it. There will obviously be a lot of commercials for this show.

Tancharoen: There already have been many commercials for this show. [laughs]

Whedon: We're confident there'll be eyes on it, but our job is to--

Tancharoen: Keep them there.

Whedon: And so we feel that the characters -- and hopefully people will agree -- will keep you coming back. And that's generally true in television. You don't watch the medical shows to see what sickness they're going to deal with, you watch it for the people and see how they deal with it. So that's how we're approaching it.

The idea behind the show, to some degree, seems to be about deconstructing the superhero mystique and digging in to what that means and how that functions in the world, and also, judging from the pilot, you are interested in exploring how people react to the power and methods of S.H.I.E.L.D. Are those going to be ongoing themes in the show?

Tancharoen: Well, that is something that we're exploring. Because, yes, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s job is a lot harder now that people saw the battle of New York [in "The Avengers"]. They saw an alien portal onto our universe. They saw a huge battle in the streets of New York with aliens and a big--

Whedon: Gods.

Tancharoen: -- green monsters and a god.

Whedon: Superheroes, the cat's out of the bag.

Tancharoen: Yeah, and so there are consequences to that. People are rattled and yeah, so that's what will be explored.

Whedon: And S.H.I.E.L.D.'s job description has sort of changed. They were supposed to keep these kinds of things secret, but that ship has sailed. Now their job is more about helping people deal with this and navigating all those new questions. What happens when there are gods in the world, what happens to regular people? It's not just people wanting to be famous now, they want to be super and there are a lot of questions that come along with that alien invasion. And so that's a lot of stuff that we explore.

Will there be a Big Bad for the season? Is that something we'll see on this show: a villain having a big arc that grows, or will it be more mini-arcs or standalone episodes?

Tancharoen: I don't think we can't be too specific about that but yes, we will have --

Whedon: Recurring elements.

Tancharoen: Yes. There will be threats. How vague can we be? [laughs]

Whedon: Yeah, one of the things that, you know, we've talked about just initially getting into it is, as you start it, you want to tell these self-contained stories. It's a little bit like the "X-Files" model: You can come each week and see [that episode] and not have seen everything, but if you have, it's a richer experience. And as we move forward, those things will start to weave together more and more. But we do want to always have every episode have its own beginning, middle and end, and feel like its own [thing].

Well, "X-Files" or "Lost" would also have straight-up, hardcore mythology episodes, too. There would be, like, five monsters-of-the-week episodes and then in the sixth, it would be much more about the bigger mythology.

Tancharoen: I'd say it's similar to "X-Files."

Whedon: Yeah, we definitely don't want anybody ever to watch an episode and have to have watched all the others. That's definitely a goal of ours. But we think there's a way to do that, [similarly to] the way that they've done it with [Marvel films] where it's just a better experience if you have been keeping track. And also we're pretty sure that we will be asking enough interesting questions that people will want to hear the answers. At least that's our goal.

When I think about the shows you and Joss have worked on -- "Spartacus," "Dollhouse," "Buffy," "Angel" -- they're not necessarily family friendly, in that an 8-year-old can't sit down with Grandma to watch them. But presumably that's what Marvel and ABC want with this show. Does it feel limiting in any way to have to work around that but yet want to get into some meaty character stuff?

Tancharoen: We don't feel limited thus far. And I do feel like, because this is Marvel's first live-action show, it feels like people are a little bit more open to the darkness and exploring certain themes.

Whedon: And ABC has definitely been very clear, [saying] "Don't think about it as an 8 p.m. show." You know, obviously, if we go crazy, they'll say, "Let's be reasonable here."

Tancharoen: There will not be any "Spartacus" moments on this show.

Whedon: But our job [is to figure out how to do] those dark moments, how to do big, superhero things, how to find creative ways to do it that fit within the Marvel universe, or within the budget, or within the time constraints. [The job is to] find a creative way to do it so you can still explore all those same themes without having to necessarily, graphically show them. You can still explore them, and there are creative ways around that.

This is a show with a lot of machinery, though, in that you've got Marvel involved, and you've got ABC involved, and it's probably the biggest launch of the fall season. You've potentially got a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Is it hard to manage all those different interests and agendas and still make a good TV show?

Tancharoen: I think it's been nice to discover that we're all trying to make the same show. Yes, there are many people involved. There are two studios [ABC and Marvel], but we're all trying to make the same show.

Whedon: There hasn't been a fight over that. That's the big fear. You'll negotiate little things, but everybody's heading in the same direction on this, which is very lucky.

Tancharoen: And there's always the challenge of the Marvel audience and the ABC audience being able to merge. And I think, because it is a Whedon show, there's always the humor, so [maybe both audiences will enjoy that].

Whedon: Yeah. As long as we have the emotions and the cool Marvel stuff, I think we'll be hitting the right notes.

One of my favorite parts of both "Dollhouse" and "Spartacus" were the characters' relationships, and that doesn't necessarily mean people who were together as couples, but there were always various attractions and tortured histories and so forth. And ABC has obviously got a ton of shows with, you know, betrayals...

Whedon: Do they? Do they have that? [laughs]

There is some revenging on that network.

Tancharoen: We have three pretty girls and three pretty boys.

Whedon: Yeah, obviously that's a part of it, but that's a part of everything. That's a part of any good show. That's what happens in life. You put six people on a plane together and something's going to happen.

Tancharoen: Something's going to happen, but we're also into the slow burn. Any sort of hook-up or romantic thing will be well earned. It's not just going to be, like, making out in two seconds.

Whedon: And if it is, there will be repercussions.

There's obviously a lot of cool tech in this world, but time and again, I see shows that operate in the sci-fi or supernatural realm using devices or things that allow the characters to magically resolve a situation or fix a problem. How do you make it so that the resolution of a problem doesn't amount to "and then a wizard fixed it"?

Tancharoen: We care a lot about that. Everything is derived from actual science, and you know, a big rule about Marvel is keeping things grounded, and that's something we're completely conscious of going into every story.

Whedon: We have two characters who are obsessed with it on the show. Fitz and Simmons are there in order to make it not feel like that. It's like Bond having to hang out with Q all day. Bond just uses the thing but Q is saying, "Do you understand how I designed that? Do you understand how much time and energy went into that thing?" We care about it. It also raises a question with Thor and other worlds. There are things that are not able to be explained.

Tancharoen: But in "Thor," they even said what you perceive as magic is science that you have yet to understand.

Whedon: Right. And so we will deal with two scientists facing things like a hammer that only one guy can pick up and trying to piece that together in their minds and get a grip on a world that doesn't make sense.

So many of the shows in the Whedon-verse have that fractured, ad hoc family vibe. Is that what you're going for here? Or will there be a more defined lead in the form of Agent Coulson in the early going?

Whedon: Just terms of leads, obviously Coulson is someone that everybody knows. And Skye [Chloe Bennet's character] is the person in this world who doesn't know what what the rules of S.H.I.E.L.D. are. So we're going to have to explain it a little to the audience.

Tancharoen: Right. She, like the audience, is going into this big, new world and asking questions about it. But yeah, Coulson is definitely at the centerpiece of all of it.

Whedon: And then as we get further, it can develop into more of an ensemble piece as people know more about these characters and start to root for each of them. But we're [also] trying to really make it an ensemble show with everybody in every episode.

Let me be the 400th person today to ask you if there will be references to events that have occurred or will occur in the Marvel universe. You know, what characters and events will be tied in to "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."?

Tancharoen: We're open to any opportunity.

Whedon: Yeah, they all have an open invitation to swing by -- any Avenger.

I suspected you might sort of defer that and you might say, "We want to define our own show and we want to do our own thing for a while."

Tancharoen: Well, there is of course that, but yes, if the opportunity arises for some synergy, we're open to that.

Whedon: We're open to it, but of course, the goal is to establish something that doesn't depend on that. We think of the movies as sort of the web series to our show. [laughs] We are trying to weave between the films and we are trying to play in the same universe. So if something crazy happens in the films, we're hoping to play some of the fallout or maybe tease some of that. We are in constant contact with features and trying to live between the films. But yes, we do want to establish something that can exist on its own.

Will most of the threats originate from otherworldly dimensions or other planets or things like that?

Whedon: They're going to come from all over the place.

Tancharoen: Yeah, it's not just otherworldly.

Whedon: And, you know, on Earth there have been the origins of a couple superpowers in scientific experiments, either successes or experiments gone wrong. But [the threats are] going to come from all over. There's enough to deal with in a world where those things exist. You know, if a house got stepped on by a giant, it's a huge tragedy. It doesn't have to be about the giant. So while we will be tapping into all the supernatural stuff, there's plenty of human stories to be told in that world where this stuff exists.

Even so, are you having to invent a new monster of the week, if you will, or a new threat? Is that fun?

Whedon: That's the best part.

And when you introduce new elements or characters, can they migrate back into the comics?

Whedon: Hopefully, in success.

Tancharoen: Yeah, if people actually respond to who we're creating, then yes, maybe they'll live on in other areas of the Marvel universe. But we approach each story with theme and emotion first. And then we asked the question, you know, "What would serve that theme?" And if it's a character that we need to invent or a character that already exists, that's cool, too.

What is it about this job is radically different from things you've done before?

Tancharoen: I think the expectation is there. On "Dr. Horrible" that was something -- I think that's the first time we officially worked together with Joss, and that was just a--

Whedon: And the amount of expectation was the opposite of this. Because no one even knew it was happening and we were going to release it on the Internet.

Tancharoen: Right. And then there was "Dollhouse," where no one really knew what to expect from that show. So this is a highly anticipated show. There are many, many eyes on it. There are many people involved. So this scale is just much larger. But as far as the day to day and what we're doing creatively, that's the same, because we always come from a place of keeping it fun. I mean, you've seen us make our stupid videos on the Internet. I think if we always check in with each other, the size and scale of everything doesn't feel as daunting.

"Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."