When is a TV show more than just a TV show?
It’s a question similar to the one asked in the classic children’s tale The Velveteen Rabbit, in which stuffed toy Rabbit asks fellow stuffie Skin Horse, “What is REAL?”
Old, wise, and always-honest Skin Horse replies, “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
I would suggest that Skin Horse’s answer to Rabbit works for TV series as well. Skin Horse might say something like, “When viewers love it for a long, long time, not just to have fun watching it, but because it REALLY means something to them, then it’s more than just a TV show.”
ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been one of those more-than-a-show shows during its wonderful seven-year run, which concluded with Wednesday night’s breathtaking, tear-inducing two-hour finale. The series’ fan base has been big but not massive; its Instagram account, for instance, has 1.4 million followers, as compared to The Flash’s 4.2 million and Stranger Things’s 15.2 million. But S.H.I.E.L.D. supporters are loyal and enthusiastic, so much so that while the show bounced around to many different time slots, and rumors of its cancellation circulated nearly every year, the series lasted for seven seasons. The fan support was so energetic that the series received its renewal for Seasons 6 and 7 at the same time.
My wife and I have been there since Season 1 Episode 1, which aired waaaaaaay back in September 2013, seemingly several lifetimes ago (and literally in the series, several Agent Coulson lifetimes ago). It was the first major-network series produced by Marvel TV, which went on to create several other superhero shows, including the stellar Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, which I’ve abundantly praised on this blog in the past, starting with this post from 2018.
We enjoyed the 136-episode run from the get-go, never missing a single one, though we understand why some friends of ours stopped watching at some point during Season 1, when the show was still establishing a bunch of new characters and setting up its storylines. The series really took off for us near the end of that first season, with the Hydra reveal, and from there it maintained its excellence all the way through the Season 7 Episode 13 finale.
But why did we, and many other S.H.I.E.L.D. fans, love the series so much? Why did it become for us more than just a TV show?
I don’t have survey numbers to prove this, but anecdotally, one of the biggest reasons viewers were drawn to the show was its cast diversity. It featured both women and men as major characters with significant story arcs, and the characters came from a number of racial backgrounds.
That representation was a huge factor for me as well. To be able to cheer for one major Asian American character in a superhero ensemble feels special, but S.H.I.E.L.D. had two! Agents Melinda May (actress Ming-Na Wen) and Daisy Johnson (actress Chloe Bennet) weren’t sidekicks, either; they had big storylines, and Bennet’s character was arguably most critical to the plot for two or three years. That stands in stark contrast to other shows, like the original Hawaii Five-O, where AAPI characters seemed present just to help the white leads stake out a suspect’s hideout or make an arrest.
But longtime readers of this blog know that I don’t get into a series, film, or book only to see how Asian Americans are represented. My love for my daughters means that I’m even more driven by what media content means for Asian American women and girls. My own girls may not even watch the shows in question, but I’m still extremely interested in how well those stories represent AsAm girls and women. Because in general, successful diverse shows increase the chances of success for similarly diverse shows. That has a domino effect that impacts the content my daughters experience, and I’ll want them to see the same representation of strong Asian American girls and women as in S.H.I.E.L.D.
For example, my girls have so far been too young to watch S.H.I.E.L.D., though my older one is perhaps ready now. But they both have watched every episode with me of the animated Marvel Rising, which features super-powered, newbie S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in their teens and early twenties. (I even took my older daughter to the Marvel Rising panel at WonderCon in Anaheim last year.) Marvel Rising came to be in the wake of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and it’s perhaps even more diverse. Major characters include Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan, the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Doreen Green, Iron Heart Riri Williams, Ghost Spider Gwen Stacy, and the senior member of the squad – Agent Daisy Johnson, voiced by Chloe Bennet herself! In fact, there’s not a major white male character in the group. Like I said, successful diverse shows increase the chances of success for similarly diverse shows! (In a couple of episodes, Ming-Na Wen also joins in, voicing the Kree villain Hala the Accuser.)
Reflecting on all of this brings up painful memories for me. I look back and think, I had nothing at all like S.H.I.E.L.D. or Marvel Rising as a kid, shows with significant Asian rep. Yeah, there were martial arts movies, but those never appealed much to me, mostly because I didn’t recognize the world in which those tales were set – ancient temples on tropical islands with lots of dudes with shaved heads. (I do see the irony in the shaved head part, as it pertains to my own.) In fact, the only martial arts-esque character I had any affinity for as a six-year-old boy was an animated one – Hong Kong Phooey.
Yeah, it was as bad as it sounds. Cringe City! But here’s what was worse: Hong Kong Phooey became my cartoon hero because he was the closest thing I could identify with. The pathos of a little Asian boy resorting to Hong Kong Phooey for a representative hero breaks my heart and pisses me off.
Most of you aren’t old enough to remember the show, so here’s a sampling:
Later, things got marginally better for me when I caught a couple of syndicated episodes of the animated The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan. The series was based on the concept of the ancient Charlie Chan detective movies, mashed up with Scooby-Doo and Josie and the Pussycats vibes. And I say marginally better because at least these characters were human. So now there were characters on TV shows I liked who sorta looked like me.
Okay, you may say this is not at all marginally better when you see the intro:
CRINGEY! With only mocking stereotypes to cling to, it’s no wonder I’ve had a crapload of internalized racism to deal with. (It’s not the only reason, but definitely one of them.)
But while I was stuck with Hong Kong Phooey and Charlie Chan’s clan, my daughters have Agents Daisy Johnson and Melinda May, as well as the growing number of other powerful female AsAm characters in media and books! Some have been important players in other superhero shows, like Jamie Chung’s Blink in The Gifted and Chantal Thuy’s Grace Choi in Black Lightning, while others have inhabited straight-up dramas and comedies, like Constance Wu’s Prof. Rachel Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and Lana Condor’s Lara Jean Covey (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.) Many of the newer characters, especially in the superhero and action genres, undoubtedly build on the success of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and follow in its footsteps.
And I confess that this more-than-a-show show has done more than just make Asian girls and women feel empowered. As I reflect on the past seven years, it occurs to me that I myself have also benefited. Seeing so much Asian representation on S.H.I.E.L.D. has been encouraging for me, too! It’s even been – and I’m not exaggerating – healing, even though I’m just now realizing it.
Before we continue: ***SPOILER ALERT***
Take some of the final episodes, for instance. We had a few in a row that featured not just one or two super-powered Asian characters, but FIVE. I was like, “Whaaaaaat?” It was glorious! And I can’t recall seeing that in any TV series or film in my 49 years.
We were also treated to Wen speaking in Mandarin with Dichen Lachman, who came back to play Jiaying from a different timeline. (A scene my wife and I are going to use to encourage our girls to work on their Chinese-speaking skills!) We saw Byron Mann as an Inhuman enforcer, who nearly gets into a scrap with Wen. Chloe Bennet discovered she had an Inhuman sister played by Dianne Doan, who later fights both Wen and Bennet.
I think just seeing those scenes helps to soften the pain, just a bit, of the little boy inside me who only had mocking stereotypes to cling to. It definitely gives me more hope, as a feminist Asian dad, that my daughters will have plenty of varied stories centering strong Asian women and girls to inspire them.
When is a TV show more than just a TV show? Without a doubt, if it heals and inspires and empowers and gives people a sense that they do indeed belong, that is absolutely more than just a TV show.
And that is Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
To conclude this post, I want to share a few words with creator, showrunner, and executive producer Maurissa Tancharoen and actresses Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Bennet. I’m not usually a fan of open letters, but I can’t think of another option. (In superhero show lingo, it would be, “We don’t have any other choice.”) And I don’t know if they’ll ever see this, but I’ll try to hail them on social media, and who knows?
Maurissa, from the interviews I’ve seen, including that great roundtable that you and the other women of S.H.I.E.L.D. did with Patton Oswalt, it sounds like all of this began with your vision and values. Thank you for pitching, pushing, and persisting in creating something awesome for the world, but in particular, something that has encouraged so many Asian American girls and women. I hope more people, especially in media work, come to recognize S.H.I.E.L.D. for the groundbreaking show that it is. This father certainly does, and I am so grateful to you.
Oh, and thank you, Maurissa, for bringing back Daniel Sousa! We’ve been worried that during Endgame Steve Rogers went back and messed up the thing between Daniel and Peggy Carter, so it’s been great to see him doing really well.
Ming-Na, my girls first met you as Gu Nai Nai on Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, but my wife and I are of the Joy Luck Club, E.R., and animated Mulan generation. (Well, we were in college when JLC came out.) You are truly a trailblazer who has helped to open doors – better put, kicked them down – in movies, TV, and even gaming through your voice work. My daughters love doing theater, and my older one has some genuine thoughts about pursuing acting as a vocation, although at her age, she’s got a bunch of options running through her head and heart. The fact that she can even consider that path, as an Asian American, partly comes through your persistence through hard times and your excellence and commitment in your art. You have helped to pave the way; thank you!
Chloe, is it possible to be proud of someone you’ve never met? I’m proud of you. Watching you has been like watching one of my younger cousins grow up, try out some things like creating a YouTube channel and singing overseas, and then find your stride with S.H.I.E.L.D. I hope my girls follow your example of not giving up and of never being too busy to speak out for the things you care about, including efforts to lift up other Asian Americans, especially girls and women. Skye / Quake / Daisy has been my favorite character on the show throughout its run, and I think it has a lot to do with seeing something of my girls in both Daisy and in you. Thanks for everything!