Marvel's Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Season 1, Episode 1
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a whole lot resting on it from the get go. It is a spin-off of one of the highest grossing films of all-time, which should help it bring in an audience but which all but guarantees that audience will have baggage and expectations. It’s the first time Disney has actively tried to export a major franchise over to ABC, meaning it is either the opening gamut in a brave new world full of Marvel spin-offs and Star Wars TV shows or a thing that will make those possibilities even more unlikely. It’s a show set in a universe a lot of people love that, by its very nature, will have very few of the things people love about that universe, and will have (at least twice a year for the foreseeable future) big-screen, big-budget competition to remind audiences just how flimsy its television budget will be.
Add to that the fact that Joss Whedon rarely puts his best foot forward in a pilot (though who does?) and the fact that the amount that is riding on this show guarantees a ton of cooks were in the kitchen on this pilot, and its kind of amazing this isn’t a terrible episode of television. In fact, its an outright decent one, with a lot of problems but with enough promise that I’ll be coming back in weeks to come. Because where blockbusters are required to have a lot of studio input at every second, a television show is almost always allowed to grow and change over time. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and god, I hate typing those periods already) will probably never be the most daring, experimental thing on television, but my guess is it will have more room to play in the margins in weeks to come than this pilot had space for.
Centering the show around Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is the sort of thing that may piss off some continuity geeks (though probably not too many comics geeks, who are used to resurrections at the drop of a hat), but its also probably the smartest decision this show made in the early going. Gregg is an incredibly charismatic actor who can balance heightened stakes with a sense of fun. He’s got a cool, seen-it-all attitude but also a sharp, dry sense of humor. And he’s got a history with the audience that no other regular on this show does. Our feelings about Agent Coulson are ported right over from the films, and he provides an immediate anchor in this high concept world that no new character would be able to give us as immediately. Having Coulson around also saves the pilot a lot of character-building time. There’s no need for it to make Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) or Skye (Chloe Bennett) resonate as fully formed characters here; we have one of those already, which is more than most pilots can say for themselves.
But for me, at least, Coulson was not the main draw to this pilot. That would be Joss Whedon, who co-wrote (with his brother Jed Whedon and his sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen, both former Dollhouse writers and Dr. Horrible scribes) and directed the pilot. Whedon is too busy shepherding the Marvel cinematic universe to be running the show, but Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen have more than proven themselves adept at working in his milieu, and with Whedon’s success in film, this is likely the closest we’re going to get to a Joss Whedon TV show for some time to come.
And a lot of its runtime does feel like a Whedon pilot, even if one that’s carrying too much of a burden to be as fleet and fun as he is at his best. There’s the constant quipping here, the sense of disparate personalities forced to form a team, and the climax plays like vintage Joss. Yet for every moment that feels like classic Whedon, there are four or five that feel false, imposed somehow, as if Joss Whedon was being constrained by corporate overlords with definite ideas about exactly how this should progress. Ultimately, this pilot feels like a smartly written procedural that could be a lot of fun and go to interesting places. But it feels like a procedural with some longer arcs hinted at more than the beginning of some grand story with a case-of-the-week to keep things interesting. This is fine, of course. Buffy, Angel, and Dollhouse all started off as procedurals in some sense too, and Firefly had plenty of procedural elements. There’s every chance Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will transcend that classification given time. And if it doesn’t, well, it could still be a lot of fun.
The case of the week at the center of the pilot is fairly mediocre, enlivened a bit by the presence of Whedon alumnus J. August Richards as a working class man who has been implanted with Extremis and is becoming increasingly unstable. The episode doesn’t have enough time to make Richards register in any but the most cursory of ways, but he works fine as an example of the sort of thing this show will be able to do. But this is very much a pilot in the sense that this is more “proof of concept” material than an actual story. The episode needs to introduce us to the team and show us what they’ll be up to every week, and it gets so caught up in that, its more fun elements are often overwhelmed.
The pilot also feels tailor made for the Comic Con premiere it had earlier this summer. It’s packed to the brim with Marvel-friendly references that seem intended to be things only comic book readers will pick up on (like its reference to Journey Into Mystery), but they are all so glib, its apparent there was indecision behind the scenes here. It’s as if one studio suit was arguing that the show needed a lot of references for the nerds, and another was pointing out that the show couldn’t alienate the mainstream and still be the massive hit ABC needs. So most of these references are so obvious even people who see the occasional super hero movie will probably roll their eyes. “With great power comes…a ton of weird crap you are not prepared to deal with,” Skye says at one point, and you can just feel the tug-of-war between “drop a reference here” and “make sure people in the Central Time Zone will get it!” It all feels too callous to be fun, though my hope is this is a pilot problem, not something to dread on a weekly basis.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is fun, and I have great confidence it will get better over the course of its first season. This is a good pilot, and most of its problems are likely to be worked out over the first half of the season, as the writers have time to develop the characters and figure out what works and what doesn’t. But it also feels like there were way too many hands on this thing for it to feel unique or personal in any way. It’s product, at the end of the day, and viewers who care about the difference between a home grilled hamburger and a Big Mac may smell a rat. It feels too cynical and calculated to truly breathe, as if it’s being held under water by the weight of the films it is spinning out of and the multi-billion dollar corporation behind them. When it gets a chance to come up for air, it shows hints of promise, but if these opportunities don’t become more frequent in weeks to come, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. may drown.
-I’ll be covering Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. weekly this season, partially because I am an unabashed Whedon loyalist, and partially because I expect this show’s struggle to gain its own sense of self under the weight of its obligations will be fascinating. I can’t promise it will make for great TV (even though it has good prospects), but I imagine it will always be interesting.
-“It means we’re the line between the world and the much weirder world.”
-“I don’t think Thor is technically a God.” “Well, you haven’t been near his arms.”
-“God, are you dismissed.”
-“Tahiti. He really doesn’t know, does he?” “He can never know.” Guys, there’s a MYSTERY!!!
-“…and by luck, I mean unappreciated genius.”
-“Oh god, this is a disaster.” “No. Its an origin story.”
-“The rest of us, what are we? They’re giants. We’re what they step on.” This speech is exactly what I think this show could be great at. Here’s hoping it gets there.