Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always transformed itself between seasons, switching focus from Hydra to the Inhumans to Ghost Rider before finally heading into space in Season 5. With its sixth season, which premieres tonight on ABC, the series is set to reinvent itself again, this time by splitting the team into two groups: sending one into the cosmos after Fitz, and the other contending with a villain from another dimension named Sarge who looks exactly like the recently deceased Phil Coulson.
During a roundtable interview with the media, including CBR, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. executive producers Jed Whedon and Jeph Loeb discussed their reaction to the series getting two more seasons, how the cast had to adjust to the new status quo and what it was like to make the season around Avengers: Endgame.
The big question, of course, is whether the events of Avengers: Endgame had an effect on the series. "This is obviously a very complicated question," Loeb said, "because we had to go without knowing where [Marvel Studios] was going.
"When you put all those things together, either for us to say however the time lords want to work it out, all of this had to have happened before the snap," he continued. "Otherwise, we'd be living in a world that was brilliantly showed in Endgame. But we already had everything we shot, and we don't know what that world is until we see, I guess, Spider-Man: Far From Home. [That] is the first sort of post-Endgame world, to know what that's going to be. So you know, without creating a spoiler... there's that beautiful shot in [Endgame], the empty ball field and all those boats in the harbor. And we had to tell a story! So it's just easier for us to live where we are."
But before they had to worry about how events would fit into the Endgame timeline, there was the question whether the show itself would even exist after the Avengers sequel arrived in theaters. For a time, it was unknown whether the show would survive past its fifth season, so when news broke that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was picked up through Season 7, it came as a relief to everyone involved.
"We tried at the end of [Season] 5 to make it satisfying because we didn't know [if we were coming back]," Whedon explained. "We never knew in any season, really. I think there's only been one [where we knew we'd be returning]. But we, and hopefully, the audience, have fallen in love with these characters, so we don't mind playing with these characters as long as they'll let us. This is a great group, and we all get along so... there was definitely a sense at the end of Season 5, of not wanting this to end, to have to say goodbye to these people. And here we are."
As fans know, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shook up its status quo last season, and when it was renewed, everyone involved was excited to get back to work. And while the cast and crew had some adjustments to make, one actor in particular had to acclimate himself to a very different reality.
"I think for [the actors] it felt a little different, a little jarring," Whedon said. "Especially for Clark [Gregg], who's excited and a little bit daunted by the challenge. He's been playing the same guy for years and years and years. So I think he came in with a lot of excitement, like, 'Okay, I get to flex a different muscle.' And it didn't hurt that he was directing the first episode. I think everybody felt... we try to do it every year a little bit, to change it up so we feel excited to tell the stories so the audience feels excited and the cast feels excited. This is just another one of those years that Clark goes, a little bit, 'I don't know what this is going to be.'
Gregg's new character, Sarge, has frequently been described as being the anti-Coulson, which is both exciting and dangerous. After all, a fan-favorite hero died in order for Sarge to exist, which adds more pressure to making him click with the audience.
"With a lot of the things we do, what we're excited about we're also very nervous. We always like to be a little scared going into a season," Whedon admitted. "I think Ghost Rider is a good example of something we were not sure would work, and we just kind of went for it. This had a similar feeling, you know? But I also think the thing that you're talking about that is a disadvantage is also an advantage. [Sarge] saying something that's so anti-Coulson will be shocking. It actually has its own power that we can dig into. This person is beloved, so what will it feel like for the audience to see that? So the moments would have more weight than they normally would have. We sort of just went for it and thought [Gregg] could pull it off."
"Inherent in a story like this is, when you meet the evil Coulson, the audience's hope is the same as the cast's hope, which is, 'Is there good in there? Is there a way to reach the person that we know?' Or is it just a failed mission after a failed mission?" Loeb added. "That's really the tension of the show, which is, who is he, what does he want, where does he come from, how do we interact with this and this person who was really the father of the family, how does the family [respond] when the dad's gone rogue? All of that just makes a good story, and that's what these guys excel at. Creating an opportunity for other stories, for every single character to interact with this at best improbable, hopefully, impossible situation."
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is set to return to ABC on Friday, May 10, at 8 pm ET/PT with 13 new episodes. The series stars Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet, Henry Simmons, Iain De Caestecker, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Elizabeth Henstridge and Clark Gregg.