"Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." has been biding its time for nine episodes, but Tuesday night (December 10), the show is ready to bring everything together. From J. August Richards reprising his role as Mike Peterson from the pilot, to a promised, explosive cliffhanger, everything has been building to this.
To find out more we hopped on the phone with "S.H.I.E.L.D." Executive Producer Jeffrey Bell, who talked about the much-discussed ratings for the show, the emerging Big Bad, and just what, exactly, is going on with Agent Coulson:
MTV News: We'll get into the specifics in a moment but the notion of a winter finale or mid-season finale, that's relatively new, right? How does that affect structuring a season of "S.H.I.E.L.D."?
Jeffrey Bell: As a first year show you only have an order for thirteen, so you have to plan for, if you only get 13, what are we building towards, what's the season finale if that is, in fact,13. And you don't usually learn if you get a back nine until somewhere around episode eight or so.
When we first came in we spent time figuring out the season, Jed [Whedon, executive producer], Maurissa [Tancharoen, executive producer], Joss [Whedon, executive producer] and I, and then the writers after that to arc out a couple of different possibilities. What would you would build to in the short term, if that was it we could turn it into a 10, 11, 12, 13... Finale! Or somewhere in there a cool, mid-season, come back first of next year. And so we had plans for both of those, and fortunately we got a back nine, so we're doing 22.
The notion of a mid-season finale, or cliffhanger... It's happening more and more now that so much of cable is super-serialized and they're coming out and just doing 13. Or you've got "Walking Dead," "Battlestar Galactica," or even "Breaking Bad" would go off and do shorter seasons, for a few weeks. They're looking for something to bring you back.
In the old days you could do re-runs, and people would have to watch that because there's nothing else. But with Netflix, and Amazon, Hulu, Xbox, as well as premium and regular cable, it's very hard to do that.
The scale of television production, it takes about five weeks to make an episode once you start shooting, and we have to put one on the air every seven days. That means if we start putting one on the air in June that by around episode nine or so it's almost impossible to finish that episode in time to do a show every week. So you have to put a rerun in there somewhere, or go off for a couple of weeks. You try to give them something they want to come back for.
MTV News: There's been so much arm-chair quarterbacking about the ratings, and how good or bad they've been. But as we've seen, this is a show people are watching even more through DVR, download, or binge-watching. Does that affect how you're approaching the show, or does it not matter?
Bell: It does matter. Our mandate, and what the network wants is that they want as many people to watch it live as humanly possible. That's their goal. That's becoming harder and harder for dramas to do. That still works with competitions and sporting events because you want to see it live. A lot of this other stuff, people want to shift and watch two or three in a row, or on their iPad, or their iPhone, or however else they do it.
We're trying to build them so that it's something you'd like to watch them and talk about every week. But we also understand that the world is changing. As you alluded to, our Live +7, it changes our numbers dramatically. Part of that's our demo. The Marvel fans lead busy lives, and want to watch it when they want to watch it, or they're college students watching on their computer, or through iTunes.
The other piece of that is since we're doing 22, and it's a long throw that way, we have to pace our stories for 22. We're coming up to the mid-point so we've been setting up for the most part stand-alone episodes are in fact coming back and becoming connected in ways that people didn't know. A lot of that happens in episode 10, and you'll go, oh, I didn't know that was connected, or this person was connected as well. And a Big Bad starts to emerge for us. There will be a lot more momentum towards that in the back half of the season.
MTV News: Let's talk about that Big Bad. Is that Centipede, or is that somebody else?
Bell: Centipede is certainly part of our mythology. We're chasing Centipede to find who's behind that and what that's about, and what that ties to. We've met a couple of characters in past episodes... We've met Raina, who is the girl in the flower dress, and she's certainly tied to it in a way that becomes more and more apparent as we go forward. Some new names, some new players are emerging.
MTV News: Another element coming back this week is J. August Richards' Mike Peterson. Why was it important to bring him back, and where are going to see him go over the course of the episode -- and hopefully the season?
Bell: We love J. in the pilot. And we love all the decency and complexity he brought to Mike Peterson. We knew we wanted to bring him back, but were wondering what's the best way to do so. We knew there was this element of Centipede being out there, and if there are people with powers that can do things, our people don't have those and could get beat up pretty fast.
And the notion of finding a way to bring J. in as part of the team for the episode to help out was exciting to us. We could give this guy a second chance. The guy who was our antagonist in the pilot, that was pretty cool.
MTV News: Who's episode is this? Meaning, you've been focusing each episode on a specific character, so is this week a Coulson episode, or is it more of a group thing?
Bell: Coulson is number one on the call show, so we always ask ourselves, what's the Coulson of it? That's where we begin the conversation. Sometimes it's about his past in Tahiti, sometimes it's about him as the leader of the team, motivating the team. This is very much a team-centric episode, it sets up the mythology, and everybody has a pretty important role. Coulson giving Mike a second chance is a pretty big part of the center of the show.
MTV News: Are we going to find out more about what's going on with Coulson in this episode?
Bell: Oh, sure. We're at mid-season. We're going to be turning over cards pretty quickly the next handful of episodes.
MTV News: Have people guessed what's going on with Coulson yet?
Bell: Well, yeah! Yes. Here's what we did. In the pilot, they go, "Tahiti. He really doesn't know does he? He can never know." We're telling you right there, card up, something is up with Coulson, or something happened to Coulson, something more than, he didn't really there. From there, there's only a handful of things that people can realistically guess. There's only so many plausible answers.
For us, whatever we say, whatever it is, you're not going to get people saying, what! There's no way I could have seen that coming, because there's only a handful. For us, the question has been more interesting, as Coulson comes to an awareness that he's been lied. As Coulson comes to an awareness that he keeps saying, 'It's a magical place.' As Coulson comes to this questioning what's happened, that's really interesting story stuff for our character.
That to us was something that pays off much better than the holy s**t of it, because there's only so many holy s**ts it could be. That said, I hope we have a cool holy s**t.
MTV News: Before we let you go, what have you guys learned over the course of these ten episodes? Either things that didn't quite work, or really popped in a way you didn't expect?
Bell: We've had a plan all along, and we've been following that plan. It's not like we've gone, oh boy, this was wrong! We're a 22 episode series, and we have to arc that out, and I'm hoping that people see the things we've set up build momentum. The word I think you'll feel in the next few episodes is "momentum." Where things you recognize, things you've seen gain weight. Each hour, the stories will roll into each other as you begin to feel them coming together.
The other thing that's happening is that our characters are maturing. They're gaining confidence. We started with three people who have never been out in the field. Fitz/Simmons were scientists, Skye lived in a van. We didn't just want them to be magical, talented people who were experts in everything they did. So we put them through their paces. Simmons got sick and jumped out of a plane. Fitz went on a mission, and Skye is being tested and learning things about herself.
The idea would be to hopefully let you learn about these characters, see them growing up, see them become more confident, more expert at what they're doing, deserving a place at the S.H.I.E.L.D. table. As the expertise and confidence grows, you also pay a price with the pain of that, and the loss.
One of things Joss does really well on his shows is that its not the same character at the beginning of the season, as at the end of the season. My hope is that the arc of these characters is something people care about, and we'll continue to work on that.
"Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." airs Tuesdays at 8 PM E.T. on ABC.