Agents of SHIELD's ratings keep dropping, but there's a potential solution that the show introduced last night: finally, it has a Big Bad. We hope.
Now, it's not like SHIELD is in any danger of cancellation. The show has been picked up for a full season, and it had 7.1 million viewers last night, which isn't bad. But its demo ratings tell a somewhat troubling story. As James Hibberd points out at Entertainment Weekly, the series has consistently dropped: "4.7 for the show’s premiere, then 3.3, 2.9, 2.8 and now a 2.6." That's no good, especially when other new shows' ratings are beginning to level off.
The way we see it is that problem with SHIELD has been that there hasn't been one specific thing — one villain, one underlying mystery — to propel viewers to watch the next episode. The show has been mildly enjoyable episode to episode, but has been operating on a procedural model for the most part. So much so that it's been jokingly called—by Hibberd no less—CSI: Marvel.
The network procedural certainly isn't dead. NCIS, for instance, is raking in the viewers. But SHIELD, with all that rich mythology to draw from, should have bigger aspirations than simply dealing with one superhero-y problem a week. It needed a Big Bad, something to make us anxious for the next episode. We use the term "Big Bad" for a very specific reason. The Big Bad—a season-long villain—is a term associated with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was created by Joss Whedon, who also happened to co-create SHIELD. A Big Bad allows a show to still have standalone episodes, but keeps viewers coming back to see how our heroes will defeat a major threat. Whereas some new shows have done that skillfully—The Blacklist for instance has weaved a mystery about the heroine's husband into its bad guy of the week structure—SHIELD hasn't been giving audiences a reason to tune in each week.
Certainly, SHIELD has teased some potential Big Bads. In the series premiere it looked like the show was going to focus on Centipede, an organization doling out Extremis to create superhumans. But then Centipede went away. Other potential enemies were teased—like Dr. Franklin Hall, an established character who ends up becoming Graviton—but nothing immediate became of them. Hacker Skye, the newbie to S.H.I.E.L.D., seemed to be in touch with the nefarious element The Rising Tide—but she never seemed much of a threat because we all knew we were supposed to root for her. Now, five episodes in, it finally seems like we're getting somewhere. We found out what Skye is really up to, and Centipede returned. Encouragingly, the episode even featured a tag at the end foreshadowing a future Centipede menace.
The episode wasn't without its problems or critics. Scott Meslow at Vulture, for instance, wasn't sold on the big revelations, though he has had problems with the lack of "a clear, overarching villain" in the past. Still, the episode set up a potential path. If the show sticks to it, maybe audience members will stick around to see what happens. If not, we may be saying goodbye to SHIELD a lot earlier than expected.