I hated the first season of Agents of SHIELD. Despised it. I got a review copy of the Blu and I watched a bunch of episodes a second time to see if the show was as stilted, cheap and crummy as I recalled... and it was worse. Even the home stretch of season one episodes, after SHIELD collapsed in The Winter Soldier, were unmitigated garbage. I did not expect the show to get any better in the second season. I was wrong.
I watched the season two premiere out of morbid curiosity - what were they going to do with the show now that SHIELD had fallen and their ratings had slipped steadily throughout the first year? The answer was step up their game in almost every way.
The new Agents of SHIELD took the summer break to make some big changes. Characters grew offscreen, and we're introduced to newer, better versions of them. Skye has morphed into much more of a kick-ass field agents. Fitz has become a brain damaged mess. Coulson holds the weight of the world on his shoulders. And in the basement of their new secret base, Agent Ward has become their own Hannibal Lecter. The new dynamics are sharp, and the show's new, darker palette looks better on TV than the samey brushed metal of the first season. In fact the new base looks a lot like the original HQ on Angel, and that show feels like a good comparison point as another Mutant Enemy series that seriously reinvented itself.
The biggest change is in the writing. Gone are the endless exposition dumps; the show is now more serialized and also more demanding of you the viewer to keep up. The new versions of these characters now bounce off each other in fresh ways; everybody is keeping secrets in the post-Hydra world, and nobody quite trusts each other. It's especially gratifying to see Coulson take the step up to distant father figure as opposed to the avuncular uncle he was in season one. He's brooding on his own, only letting Agent May into his thoughts, a situation that has his apprentice Skye all wrong-footed.
The best character changes have happened to Agent Ward. Bearded and now looking gaunt, Brett Daulton finally has a character to dig into. Ward is actually sorry for his betrayals as a Hydra agent... sort of. Mostly he's obsessed with Skye, and he will only give his Hydra insider info to her. Yeah, it's very Silence of the Lambs but it's a great dynamic, especially after the boring will-they/won't-they shit from the first season. What makes Ward seem so sinister now is that he's actually honest - he's giving them good intel - and it's not clear if he's playing a long game or not.
The show, however, is playing a long game. With the establishment of Hydra as a separate super terrorist group the agents of SHIELD finally have a purpose for existing, and the show finally has stakes. It's a great reversal - Hydra has acquired most of SHIELD's tech and money while the ragtag remainder of SHIELD hides in a basement, saves airplane fuel and is on the run from the federal government, which has branded them all traitors. The show's new stakes were established in the first episode this season where guest star (and seeming new team superstar) Lucy Lawless first had her hand cut off and then was killed in a car accident, letting us know that people will die this season. The team make-up is different than last season, and there are more people onboard whose pasts and motives are shady, including the merc Hunter, who might just end up a fan favorite (and probably sleeping with May).
The showrunners have also figured out how to fit Marvel mythology into the show better. The first two episodes dealt with 'Crusher' Creel, aka the Absorbing Man, and he was handled well - better than any previous name villain on the show. Creel's powers have been adjusted for TV (he might make his arm steel, for instance, rather than his whole body), and he barely used his famous ball and chain, but I think the character was well-written - which is way more important. He was also an actual danger, killing two SHIELD agents in the first episode. The third episode brought back Blizzard, a minor villain, but made him an integral part of the SHIELD vs Hydra story, made him a part of Skye's journey to being a full field agent and even made him a part of the story of how Simmons, the brainy and pretty scientist, is undercover in Hydra. It was excellent TV writing that allowed all the subplots to perfectly circle the main plot. What's more, the way Blizzard was handled indicated the show has more plans for him, and that they're evolving him - signs of a long game.
Agents of SHIELD has become darker in season two, but not oppressively so. Even still, they're going to need a more light hearted episode soon, maybe a team outing that goes wrong or something. But I like what they're doing, and they seem to be laying the groundwork for other exciting avenues of exploration. Season one's Girl in The Flower Dress has split off from Hydra and is doing her own thing for science - could she end up with AIM? Ward's story has lots of possibilities, especially when he inevitably escapes his prison at the mid-season break. Skye has been fixed in almost every conceivable way, and is now a character I enjoy watching. The show's diversity levels have increased nicely with the characters of Triplett and Mac joining the team.
Most of all the show has figured out how to structure their adventures. The three episodes so far have skipped the monster of the week/X-Files investigation format and instead gone for Mission: Impossible style ops and heists. They're going into hot situations and trying to make the best of it - and often failing. It's a better format, one that makes the show feel proactive, as opposed to the story of a bumbling group of doofuses who show up after the main action is over.
It's like Agents of SHIELD read every single complaint about the show and addressed them all. I actually quit the show last year, and now these first three have me sucked in for probably the whole season. Even if there are bad episodes (and I'm sure there will be - 22 episode seasons are too long) I'll know that the writers and producers have cracked the code of how to make this show work, and I'll have faith in them to pull it out. I never thought I'd declare loyalty to this show, but since they've fixed almost everything wrong with it - from the writing to the cinematography - I'm throwing my lot in with Coulson and his team.