Much like The CW's Arrow before it, I feel the need to express to you lovely readers that I am not super familiar with the comic arcs' of the various characters depicted on ABC's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which shall forever be hereafter referred to without the studio in its title. You may choose to take my subsequent review of the pilot episode with a grain of salt if you like, but I declare this not to show off an ignorance but rather to prove that no comparisons will be drawn and I will be focusing solely on what worked and what didn't from the story and execution presented in the pilot alone. The truth is, regardless of how much you know about the world set up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. before even flipping the show on, it has to stand on its own and be both entertaining and informative to attract a wider audience than just those who grew up with the comics. And the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot does just that: it actually makes its world extremely accessible for anyone who isn't familiar with the myths and legends of Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) or Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) while setting up a very loud, very high-adrenaline, very fun series. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is pure entertainment, and it should only be expected to be entertainment. It is when the pilot tries to dig deeper to deliver a larger, preachy message that it stumbles a bit through schmaltz, rather than sentiment.
Joss Whedon clearly believes in going big or going home, and there is something admirable about that. A good chunk of the pilot takes place a plane that serves as "base" for these agents, and the show actually bought the plane to be a standing set for the rest of the season. They're not messing around with trinkets or toys, but it's all on a TV budget and timeline, compared to what could be played with for a blockbuster film franchise. At times they do appear to be showing off more than adding something to the storytelling, but it's a luxury most can't afford to take, and they know it. It's doubtful they'll be able to afford the same luxury week after week as delivering episodes on such a tight television schedule gets in the way of excess. So enjoy it while you can.
The opening of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. includes a seemingly ordinary man pulling a hood over his face and plucking a woman out of a burning building, jumping to the street below, only to crack the street but never break stance. It is the start of something extraordinary for this show, but not for the world within the show, that we are later told just survived an alien attack. One guy playing superhero is hardly the strangest thing these people have scene, so there isn't much time for the audience to adjust to seeing them either.
And actually, that's okay. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. smacks you in the face with its action and with its wit immediately, and that all serves to make it feel like Whedon and crew know exactly what they are doing and trust their audience to catch on quickly. In fact, in many ways the audience is granted information they might not really be deserving of: including Level 7 access to learn that Coulson, an agent whose body was shown to colleagues, is actually alive. Though there is some information on the how dropped in the pilot, the overall tone suggests that there is much more that remains a mystery-- even to Coulson. This imbalance of information almost doesn't seem fair, yet there's no time to really dwell on it.
Instead Coulson's hand-selected team has to set out to grab that guy who revealed his unnatural powers for cell phone cameras everywhere to capture. Coulson knows he is not one of his and therefore that he must have come about his abilities in a bit of a shady manner. Just how dangerous that manner could prove for that one man-- or the part of the city he comes into contact with-- is what Coulson needs to find out and fight. The pilot spends so much of its time with it slick quips and sleek technology that everything Coulson is doing clearly comes from a place of business-- but in order to invest in him and his work on an on-going basis, his heart has to be in it, too. And the pilot lets that come out in what is supposed to come off as an inspirational, perhaps aspirational appeal. Gregg infuses it with honesty, but the moment still slows the pacing and makes Coulson look like the exact kind of optimist that should be a liability in his line of work.
You're not going to see Thor or Iron Man or The Hulk or Black Widow or Captain America (I could keep going on) on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so when the pilot name drops some of them, it almost feels taunting. Coulson is a strong enough presence to carry the narrative without his buddies-- and that is mainly thanks to Gregg's solid grounding force in the role-- but by being reminded of these other dynamic personalities, you're forced to compare them with the team Coulson is choosing to work with here. And even knowing the vaguest things about Thor or Iron Man or The Hulk and so on, you can't help but feel a little cheated-- like you're watching Coulson, forced to still stay somewhat in hiding, tutor the next generation of agents, rather than be out there on the frontlines with the current best. Easter eggs and references for the diehard Marvel fans are great-- those are the things that this show should include with abundance to bring the enjoyment for those "in the know" to the next level (and the pilot does a decent job of starting down that path)-- but the focus really needs to stay on developing this new team to make them people we want to watch, not to mention succeed, week after week.
Gregg carries Coulson with a swagger that you wouldn't expect from the man who played a hapless ex on The New Adventures of Old Christine. Of course if you saw Iron Man and The Avengers you have seen this swagger before and would expect nothing less, but as someone who spends much more time with these actors in their TV roles, I felt it important to note the dichotomy and range nonetheless. Coulson is all business in this pilot, and therefore so is Gregg, even when his business includes dosing one of his team with a truth serum and letting another member have her fun with him. He is a solid center to the story, but it is really those who orbit around him who get to have the most fun in the pilot and therefore lighten it up.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. consists of a decent sized ensemble cast, but the show is not a true ensemble yet. Most of the characters are only there in the pilot to service Coulson and his mission. Most don't yet feel like fully interesting people with whom I'd want to spend time if not during specific hours for a specific project or "case." Sure, the banter between Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) tells us a little bit about their relationship as they work with gadgets, but they're mostly just there to work with gadgets. And while Wen is sharp when she's delivering pointed dialogue or actual physical blows-- and though she gets to do both in the pilot-- there is not enough of either for her to do just yet.
Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), the agent whose clearance is raised at the top of the pilot and joins Coulson's team, stands in as the audience in how he has to adjust to everything he is learning and everything that is asked of him more than he gets to assert himself or his personality. In fact, except for when he's high on that truth serum, he really doesn't have much of a personality. He's a device right now-- a way into this team-- and he's certainly an easy on the eyes one. But it's hard to be invested in that on a long-term basis, especially when it doesn't seem like there really is a plan for him on a long-term basis yet. At the end of the pilot he is able to show off his greatest skill, making him one of the most important assets to the team, but there is a bit of a forced "will he or won't he follow Coulson's orders" fake-out that comes first that seems to be the show taunting the audience with a similar "will you or won't you join us on this ride."
Chloe Bennett, though, absolutely radiates off the screen as smart-ass hacker Skye, and many of the pilot episodes highlights include her-- from the aforementioned truth serum scene to simply watching her meet up with Coulson for the first time. Cobie Smulders was also a shining light in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot, but knowing her contract with CBS' How I Met Your Mother will keep her from appearing in any real way for a long while means the pilot sets you up to be disappointed where she is concerned. It's a tease of good things that could come, but you're going to have to wait awhile, which, really, is the feeling with which the overall tone the pilot may leave you.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premieres on ABC on September 24 2013 at 8 p.m.
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