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How Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Became Marvel’s Little Show That Could

Marvel and ABC's Agents of SHIELD cast

**Spoiler for Avengers: Infinity War below.**

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Season 5 finishes up tonight (Friday, May 18) with a finale fittingly titled “The End”. The show has struggled for years to stay on the air, and yet, the Little Series That Could got renewed for Season 6, after what was already considered a “miracle” season this year. How does this keep happening?

When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. first arrived on ABC in 2013, Disney and Marvel threw all their weight behind it, drawing legions of Marvel fans, powered by the success of The Avengers, to see what the fuss was about. They arrived to find … not very much. Inspired by the success of “peak TV” shows like Game of Thrones and Mad Men, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. attempted a slow-burn plot, but a series that has 22 episodes cannot wait until the last 2 or 3 for the action to kick in. By then, your audience is long, long gone. The ratings never recovered. By the end of Season 3, the show solved the pacing issues finding a way to adapt “peak TV”-length plots to a 22-episode format, creating “pods” of 7-10 episodes, little “enclosed plotlines” that formed a larger whole.

But by Season 4, ABC executives were done being nice to poorly-rated Disney pet projects. Once Upon A Time was faltering. The Muppets flopped. Agent Carter never went anywhereMarvel’s Most Wanted was killed in the cradle, and it was time for S.H.I.E.L.D. to follow. In its place, they would try again with The Inhumans, which had most of its production costs covered by IMAX and couldn’t be that bad, right?

We all know how that went. Luckily, Disney execs stopped the S.H.I.E.L.D. cancellation in its tracks, giving the show a half-season renewal in the spring, not unlike this year’s 13-episode order in the summer. ABC wound up being grateful for it because it at least gave them a failsafe that they could increase to a full season when The Inhumans really was that bad. The S.H.I.E.L.D. writers responded with a season that fired on all cylinders, since they no longer felt like they had anything to lose.

If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 5 was a miracle, why are Disney and ABC pressing their luck with Season 6? One major reason: The show doesn’t cost them anything in licensing fees. It’s produced by a Disney arm; it airs on a Disney arm. Most importantly, it’s promoting a Disney arm, the MCU, every week it’s on the TV lineup. Though the show’s “Live + Same Day” ratings (the number of people who watch the show either as appointment television or within a few hours of airing) are stagnant at an average of 2 million, the “Live +7s” (the number of people who watch it at some point before the next episode airs a week later) regularly double the numbers. So people are watching, just not on Fridays at 9PM.

While the show and Marvel’s movies have diverged over time, the fact that the next season conspicuously won’t air until after Avengers 4 next year suggests that Disney has decided it’s time to tie them back together. A couple of weeks ago, Daisy referenced “whatever’s happening in New York,” a clear indication that Thanos’ minions were here. If one considers the events of Infinity War to time out to the same length of time it takes to get through the next two episodes, it’s quite possible that “The End” finishes up with most of the crew dissipating (if not all), giving the show a season finale that brings them both back into the same universe, ahead of Phil Coulson making his way back into the films for 2019’s Captain Marvel. With next season almost certainly the final one, our last 13 episodes will at least be interesting to watch as an experiment of what happens when writers who were already writing like they had nothing to lose get rewarded for it.

(image: ABC/Matthias Clamer)

Ani Bundel has been writing on the internet regularly since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at NBC News THINK, Elite Daily, WETA’s TellyVisions, and

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