Pilot Review: AGENT CARTER

Marvel’s new TV effort is snappy fun, buoyed most of all by a winning Hayley Atwell.

Can you file these? You’re good at that sort of thing.

–Thompson

What sort of thing? The alphabet?

–Carter

The best thing that Agent Carter, Marvel/ABC’s new spin-off series for its ever-expanding universe, has going for it is that it’s not beholden to anything the studio is currently producing. As a period piece, set in the aftermath of World War II, it doesn’t have to connect to any overarching narrative; we don’t have to wonder what the Avengers or the Guardians are up to, or even have seen all the movies to make sense of it all. It’s a standalone, and at only eight episodes, something of an “event series.” Not to mention the period slang!

The next best thing is Hayley Atwell, who first got our attention as Captain America’s support and foil in The First Avenger, and here proves that she is more than capable of supporting her own story. With her heart-shaped face and prim English accent, Atwell stands out in stark (heh) relief against the sculpted/goateed/caped heroes of her movie brethren, and is also a more fully-realized character than any on Agent Carter’s sibling show, Agents of SHIELD. Where that series felt more like crass brand extension, a kitchen full of cooks serving up a show that took over a full season to figure out exactly what it was and why we should care (full disclosure: I stopped watching long ago, but I have heard it’s gotten good of late), Carter has a clear identity and vision on beat one. It’s Alias with fedoras and a big band soundtrack.

One of the first images we see of Peggy is of her walking the streets of New York in a violently colorful ensemble like Carmen Sandiego, a beacon in an endless sea of grey suits. She brings that iconoclastic zeal into her office, which is not a faceless telephone company, but the headquarters of the Strategic Scientific Reserve. Their role, since Captain America went into the deep freeze, is to stamp out tech-based threats to the American people. Peggy Carter’s problem is actually less solvable, in that almost no one wants to take her seriously. Both her misogynistic boss (Shea Whigham) and her boorish colleagues (Chad Michael Murray, Kyle Bornheimer) think she only has her job because she romanced the Captain, and delegate to her only menial tasks.

Carter takes it in stride, however, even asking Agent Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), the only dude in the office who sticks up for her, to stop because she doesn’t need to be coddled, either. Carter is a tough dame, and basically the best. In the two-hour premiere, she takes out multiple henchmen in fistfights, including one on a moving car; she cracks a safe and engages in 1940s spycraft; she defuses one bomb and outruns another, all while leaving her “tough guy” colleagues quivering in her wake. I don’t believe she gets a run in her pantyhose even once, because she’s just that cool. And she’s got a mission of her own, to clear the name of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, also reprising his role), who has been accused of selling one of his “bad babies” to a nefarious organization: a dangerous formula for “molecular nitramene,” which can level whole city blocks.

Stark meets with Carter in secret and explains that the formula was stolen, but he can’t admit that because…reasons — so he needs Carter to discover the truth, but on the underneath, ahead of the SSR. Before he rides away in a motorboat, however, he leaves her his butler, Jarvis (James D’Arcy) — yes, that Jarvis — which is when the episode, and the series, really takes off. D’Arcy and Atwell have a spectacular rapport, both bringing a stiff-upper-lip, get-the-job-done mentality that often makes their American counterparts look like petty children. And thankfully, Jarvis is happily married (so much so that don’t call him after 9 PM, because he might be busy making a soufflé), so their relationship is more brother-sister instead of a hackneyed future romance. Even only two episodes in, it’s just fun to watch them be awesome together. “A real butler provides service without being asked,” Jarvis says of disabling a bad guy’s car when Peggy told him to stay in theirs.

Atwell continues to excel in the show’s heavier moments; she dearly misses Steve Rogers, but she’s not mindlessly mooning over him. Her steely intensity makes the moments she lets those emotions out — like when she finds her roommate shot — all the more important, and Atwell sells it. Sure, we have the usual Marvel tropes: shadowy organizations (Leviathan?), a glowing orb (or several) that everyone wants, and weird names (“Is Leet Brannis a person or a place?” someone asks, and, gosh, isn’t that the truth), but the throwback earnestness of the Captain America films continues as well, and that’s welcome. Creators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have more on their mind than just continuing Marvel’s dominance of the entertainment landscape.

In the second episode, there’s a fun running gag involving the “Captain America Radio Show,” whose version of “Peggy Carter” is a nasal-y damsel in distress. Our Peggy keeps getting stuck listening to it, and Atwell’s face — vexed and revulsed — is priceless. The series is full of these little throwaway details, like when she pours herself a drink after defusing the nitramene grenade, or shouts “too late!” when she’s in the car before Jarvis can even open her door. And with cameos from faces like Andre Royo and Ray Wise, the swing music, bewigged femme fatales, and low-fi tech, Agent Carter confidently sets itself apart as a fizzy, retro pleasure.

Grade: B+

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