At this point, it is almost tradition. A television network cancels a series, and fans of that series revolt. Back in the day, devotees would organize letter-writing campaigns and inundate studios and network offices with missives pleading for their favourite show to be renewed. In this modern era, with the rise of social media, the reaction time is greatly reduced. Now, Twitter fills with bitter tears, and digital petitions are quickly circulated. Such is the case for Agent Carter – which was recently cancelled by ABC and is now the subject of a popular change.org petition, initiated by ‘Arnau S’ of Spain, asking Netflix to save the show.
Agent Carter has been a fantastic series. It was unlike anything else on television – including its stable-mate, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. – and it consistently delivered high quality storytelling and a remarkable central performance from Hayley Atwell as the titular spy. For those of us, in particular, that are fans of this Marvel character, the series was an absolute pleasure to watch – not least because we so rarely get to see fully realized female characters in Marvel feature films.
Inevitably, some of those disappointed by the cancellation news have pointed to the show’s perceived feminist stance as a factor in the decision to call time on Agent Carter – but this is not what killed the show. In reality, as enjoyable as the show was, it was the Marvel version of feminism that was being pedalled – which is barely feminism at all. Marvel feminism is the kind that concedes one relatively well-constructed female character, while cementing in sexism elsewhere. While Agent Carter was certainly a show that leaned toward feminism – with its great lead character, and a premise that focused on a woman battling the sexism of the 1940s – it failed to hire any women directors in its first season.
Despite being produced by F&B Fazekas and Butters (along with ABC Studios and Marvel Television), and despite having Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas as showrunners (along with Chris Dingess), the directing roster remained entirely male until the final two episodes of season two. In addition, the cast was overwhelmingly male and white, with women of colour, in particular, being almost entirely absent.
Despite these continuations of the status quo of inequality, Agent Carter developed a devoted fanbase – just not one that was big enough to keep the ratings in high enough numbers. When the show premiered in January 2015, it drew in 6.91 million viewers, which fell to 4.02 million by the time season one reached its finale. Season two opened with 3.18 million viewers, which dropped to 2.35 million by the time it wrapped up in March 2016. Given that this is a period piece, we can assume that it is relatively expensive to produce – so an audience of 2.35 million is not going to be enough to warrant renewal. But, if the show is of such high quality, why were the ratings so low to begin with, and why did they shrink so far in the end? Well, this is where the argument of gender inequality comes in – not in the cancellation, but in the beginning, with launch and handling of the show.
The closest comparison to Agent Carter is its forerunner and stable-mate, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. This is essentially the flagship of Marvel Television, co-produced by ABC Studios and Mutant Enemy Productions, with the show being created by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. This series was commissioned at a time when Joss Whedon had just delivered a film – 2012’s Avengers – that earned $1.5 billion against a $220 million budget. With 22 episodes per season, the show premiered to an audience of 12.12 million viewers.
By the time it reached its season one finale, however, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. was pulling in an audience of 5.45 million – which is a spectacular drop in viewership. Furthermore, the show has never recovered, and its audience has, in fact, continued to shrink. By the end of season 2, there were just 3.88 million people watching and, though its season three premiere drew in 4.90 million viewers, its downward trend would indicate a projected lower number for its coming finale. It continues to be a shoo-in for renewal, however, because it has always had the full support and confidence of its network and studio.
Agent Carter, by contrast, was mishandled from the beginning. Though it was ordered straight to series, its order was for only 8 episodes, and it was placed at the mercy of mismanaged scheduling – as Variety’s Maureen Ryan highlighted in March 2016.
“But the show’s low viewership is most likely the result of the questionable scheduling decisions made by [Channing] Dungey’s predecessor, Paul Lee. Agent Carter took over the slot of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD — a much-improved show that has its own ratings woes — and Peggy Carter’s drama has received lackluster promotion, especially this year. The botched rollout of Season 2 included a changed premiere date and episodes that were difficult to access in advance on Marvel’s dreadful media site. Capping the mishandling is the fact that the full first season was only made available on ABC.com days before Season 2 began, which frustrated viewers who might have wanted to jump on board in advance.”
It is conspicuous, to say the least, that Agent Carter has always been undermined by what feels like a hesitant broadcast network – both in the U.S and in the U.K, where it initially and quite inexplicably struggled to find a broadcaster at all – especially in comparison to the progress of Marvel shows made over on Netflix. The Marvel’s Defenders project, comprising of several 13-episode series for individual Marvel characters, is produced by Marvel Television and ABC Studios – just like Agent Carter is – but they produce them exclusively for Netflix, as opposed to broadcast television.
Disney anticipates having spent $200 million on the project by the time Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage (and now, Punisher) are done. The key point there is Jessica Jones – a female-led superhero show, created and run by a woman, which received high critical praise and popular success, and which now remains (for the time being) the only female-led Marvel project. To be clear, the Marvel’s Defenders project on Netflix enjoys vast corporate support and resources, and is highly successful. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC is constantly marketed and made easily accessible, but receives continually reduced viewership. Agent Carter, on the other hand, never really got a fair crack of the whip, as a result of network mismanagement.
Under these circumstances, it is entirely understandable that Agent Carter fans would want to rally support for a call for Netflix to snap up their favourite show. Unfortunately for them, however, series star Hayley Atwell has already committed to a new ABC show, called Conviction – so unless Agent Carter is dusted off for a TV movie, or perhaps an occasional limited 2-3 episode run in the vein of Luther or Sherlock, chances remain slim that we will see her triumphant return. The sad fact is that Agent Carter would probably have thrived had the show been on Netflix in the first place – because the streaming service would have known her value, and the narrow, limited perspective of broadcast television wouldn’t have mattered.