Pilot Review: AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.

There’s an awful lot riding on this one. With the full weight of the Marvel/Disney publicity machine behind it, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t be anything less than an out-of-the-box smash. Good news? It’s probably the best drama pilot of the year. Bad news? All it has to be to clear that bar is “okay.”

Sorry, that corner was really dark and I couldn’t help myself.

–Agent Coulson

How do you a make superhero show, set in the same world as Iron Man and Thor, without showing Iron Man and Thor? You make it about the little people, the “regulars.” You have to bring the fantastic down to a very human level, and it’s in this sense that I’m eager to see what SHIELD (no, I’m not typing those periods anymore) brings to the table each week.

Adding to the plus column is the guiding hand of geek god Joss Whedon, who made the quantum leap from low-rated FOX dramas to the big screen and back. Unfortunately, he won’t have much involvement in the day-to-day of the series, but his chief deputies Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen should know what they’re doing. As always, the evident sense of humor is the show’s biggest asset, as many of the characters are essentially quip machines — hey, it worked for Buffy and Firefly.

Clark Gregg, as the back-from-the-dead Agent Coulson, is another huge plus. His dry delivery was a hightlight in the big-screen saga and is the perfect anchor for a smaller, more intimate series — I just wish that the rest of the cast was a little more fleshed out. Whedon has a tendency to cast rather bland actors and retrofit the characters as the show goes along, and the supporting players look like they stepped off a Hollister storefront.  They’re mostly too young and too pretty to be believable as crack anything, let alone crack government agents, and while I hope these guys come into their own soon, it was distracting here.

We’ve got all your basic Whedon archetypes present: the tough-but-witty leader (Gregg), his butt-kicking female #2 (Ming-Na Wen), the charming and handsome “new guy” (Brett Dalton), a pair of neurotic scientists, and a cute young hacker chick (again, not buying all those descriptors) played by Chloe Bennett, who seems game but whose induction to the team here doesn’t make a ton of sense to me. One minute she’s hacking into the SHIELD mainframe as part of a group called “Rising Tide” (bleh), the next she’s being given free rein on their aircraft and getting to play with all their cool toys? It felt rushed and more than a little contrived, but that’s the nature of the pilot. You gotta bring the whole team together in 42 minutes.

Okay, so what about the plot? The “supe of the week” doesn’t matter, but here goes: regular guy who has agreed to a scientific trial giving him volatile super strength breaks bad in order to provide for his son, and SHIELD has to catch him and bring him in before he can cause damage or hurt others. There are a couple of exciting action sequences, and a climax that approximates something close to actual human emotion, but it’s mostly saddled with cliched dialogue (“It’s an origin story!”) and unmemorable side characters. But where the actual plot of the episode flounders, the interplay between the agents largely succeeds.

The show is technically impressive, as network shows go. It never feels like anything more than a network show, but at least the sets and effects aren’t cheesy or distracting. ABC needs this to be their cash cow, and they’ll pour everything they have into it to make sure it succeeds. There’s a real sense of corporate investment behind Agents of SHIELD, and it occasionally feels like there are too many voices dictating its direction, but I’m going to give it a chance to wow me. I think it can.



Extra Thoughts:

  • We’ve got one major mystery to solve moving forward: what really happened to Agent Coulson. He thinks he was nursed back to health on a beach on Tahiti, but Cobie Smulders (who you can probably expect to join the main cast once How I Met Your Mother is done) and Ron Glass (Firefly alum!) know the truth.
  • How long can the show keep up the Avengers teases and references without giving us a cameo? If you’re ABC, you hope the answer is “forever.”
  • Is the Rising Tide group really meant to be the series antagonist? Because if hacker chick is representative, seeing as she does online broadcasts on their behalf, they’re not much of a threat.
  • So Agent Coulson’s car can fly. That’s cool, I guess.  The show aspires to be something like Alias for the caped-hero set, and the more willing it is to be fantastical and self-aware, the better it’ll be.

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