Marvel's Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Season 1, Episode 3
There is a reason I have moved away from writing about the first seasons of television shows over the last few years. When I looked at pilot season this year (and, to be perfectly honest, examined the shows I had committed to write about for other outlets), I decided I wanted to come in on the ground floor of a few shows, so I could have the pleasure of growing with a series again. Yet I have quickly remembered why I mostly wait until a second season to pick up coverage of something these days. TV shows, especially network TV shows, generally take a while to get good. They stumble a bit out of the gate, learn slowly what works and what doesn’t, and eventually figure out how to be the best versions of themselves. For this show, we are still very clearly in the stumble part of the equation, though I have hopes, some of which are evident tonight, that we may see this show find itself sooner rather than later.
“The Asset” was a “lean into the curve” episode of Agents of SHIELD, which mostly confirmed the things I have liked about the show so far and also served as another reminder of all of its problems. This show currently has three characters who work for me, and a bunch who are varying shades of ineffective. The writing is usually very good, but it isn’t always matched by the performances, and sometimes the scripts seem to think they are weightier than they actually are. Basically, Agents of SHIELD is a decent show with a crop of bad characters and a smattering of good action, with aspirations of being something better. On that, at least, the show and I are aligned.
This week, we focus on Skye, one of the bright points in the show’s roster, for a story that is ostensibly about the struggle between a free market for technology and government regulation of knowledge that can cause mass destruction. This is a weighty topic, and a great one to put Skye in the center of, but the episode never lands its rhetorical points, and never properly connects Skye to the philosophical quandary it is theoretically putting her in. Chloe Bennett is incredibly charming here, and her arc toward wanting to become a field agent is strong, yet I couldn’t help but feel the show missed an opportunity to dig deeper into what drives Skye as a character. “The Asset” feints at having her betray SHIELD, but it always seems like a tactic more than an actual betrayal, and the episode doesn’t dig into why Skye doesn’t find the offer to join Ian Quinn (David Conrad) more alluring. He seems to agree with her philosophically far more than her buddies at SHIELD, and “The Asset” doesn’t give us a reason why she isn’t tempted beyond “SHIELD are the good guys on this show.” There’s a faint hint of ambiguity here, but not nearly enough to be truly interesting. Instead, “The Asset” feels like a dry run for a more complex episode the show could try in the future.
While the episode misses an opportunity to dig deeper, it is still distinctly an exploration of Skye as a character, and in that regard, it sort of works. She is one of the more interesting people populating this show at the moment, in large part because Bennett seems to get the tone more than a lot of the others. The episode mostly sidelines the two other characters that really work as of now, Coulson and May, but each has a few solid moments.
The rest of the cast, though, is still kind of a mess. A damp roll of paper towels would be more interesting than Ward at this point, and Fitz and Simmons still feel like they have been woefully miscast. Elizabeth Henstridge understands Simmons’ enthusiasm, but can’t seem to grasp much of the wit that is thrown in her direction. Iain De Caestecker does slightly better on that front as Fitz, but he still squanders a lot of the fun material thrown his way. Fitz-Simmons are supposed to be a lot of fun, I think, and to provide a lot of comedic relief, but neither is magnetic enough to carry what they’ve been given to date. I obviously hope that these early episodes are just a poor showcase for what these characters can do well, but my confidence isn’t all that high.
“The Asset” runs into another problem that Agents of SHIELD is up against, though it is one that doesn’t bother me almost at all. The episode requires a fair bit of CGI, and most of it is pretty terrible, from the semi floating above the highway to Dr. Hall’s (Ian Hart) absorption by the Gravitonium (a sentence I never thought I’d write). This is something the show will run into time and time again as it tries to compete within a movie universe on a television budget. But as a fan of Doctor Who, I am quite used to accepting the limits of television budgets and just going along for the ride.
We have a ways to go before Agents of SHIELD is appointment television, I think, but “The Asset” is a step up from what’s come before. This is a fun hour of television that is rooted in a character’s story. The mission-of-the-week is interesting, even if the show’s treatment of the conflict at its core is undercooked, and the action is, as always, well-staged and engrossing. This show wants to be a funny, exciting adventure for audiences every week, and while it is far from perfect at this point, I think it does manage to be both of those things. If Agents of SHIELD can bring Ward, Fitz, and Simmons up to the level of Coulson, May, and Skye, and if it can occasionally take on heady material in a more substantive way, I think we may have a real stew going here. Until then, well, it’s a pretty nice looking ham bone sitting in this boiling hot water.
-“Did you hear the big laser part? Without a brave monkey…” This is a good line that Iain De Caestecker doesn’t really do justice.
-“You forget, I saw plenty of action with The Avengers.” “And you died.”
-Why is Coulson wearing a suit in the field?
-“Saying his name repeatedly does not increase productivity!”
-“Something tells me that wasn’t the ‘off’ button.”
-One of the things I would like to do more of in future weeks is to sound off on the comics side of things within the show. For example, this episode doubles as an origin story for the supervillain Graviton, and I didn’t really take the chance to discuss that above. Mostly, I think it doesn’t much work as a super villain origin story, though the fact that Graviton is an established character leads me to believe the tag is less a cute ending than a set up for future conflicts.