Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Pilot Review: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Tuesdays at 8:00 on ABC)

The look and feel of ABC's new small-screen addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a reminder of how good broadtcast television can be with the right people (and enough money) behind it. Unfortunately, it's also a reminder of what can happen when there are too many cooks in the kitchen pulling a series in too many different directions. While Agents of SHIELD is quick-witted and visually stimulating, it's also a confusing blend of genres without much plot.

The general idea of Agents of SHIELD is that Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), whom the audience was told died in the film The Avengers, is actually alive and still working for SHIELD. His newest assignment is to assemble a team of operatives to investigate the presence of new "gifteds," or superheroes, since the New York battle which served as the film's finale. He gathers agents Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen, ER), a pilot and weapons expert; Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), a black ops specialist; Leo Fitz (Ian De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), both tech and science specialists; and Skye (Chloe Bennet, Nashvile), a newly recruited hacker. The pilot sees the team seeking out Michael Peterson (guest star J. August Richards, Angel), a down-on-his-luck single dad who lost his job, his marriage, and his home, but managed to acquire some super strength.

After watching the pilot, I'm still not entirely sure what the over-arching plot of Agents of SHIELD is. Will it be like a superhero version of NCIS, with the team looking for new heroes/villains each week? Or is this more along the lines of Heroes, which introduced a bunch of characters and a thin mystery over the course of the first few episodes before the real story kicked in? Because the pilot was really just an extended manhunt, just with superpowered forensics. I suppose that's a fine enough idea for a show like this, but I'd much rather there be a serialized plot and not a hero-of-the-week chase.

Aside from that quibble, however, Agents of SHIELD is a very strong pilot. Joss Whedon's touch is evident throughout, from the quick, adrenaline-fueled pacing of the direction, to the sharp repartee of the dialogue. He created the series alongside brother Jed Whedon & sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen, both of whom worked with Whedon on The Avengers and the short-lived series Dollhouse. The same ideas raised in both of those creations are present here: questions of identity and what it means to be human. J. August Richards gets the script's best moment at the pilot's end, delivering an emotional monologue about what a hero truly is and why it matters to be good in a world populated by potential evils. But there's also a lot of humor, as one would expect from this team. My favorite line is courtesy of Chloe Bennet's Skye, a send-up of an oft-repeated Spider Man philosophy: "With great power comes... a lot of weirdness you're not prepared to handle alone!"

The rest of the pilot's funniest moments belong to Clark Gregg, whose Agent Coulson really gets to shine on the small screen. He was a welcome bit player in the Marvel films, but he succeeds even further on TV. Gregg is bitingly funny and full of energy. The remainder of the cast is primarily newcomers, aside from the underused Wa. They're all adequate, though Bennet and Dalton do stand out as the strongest of the lot, probably because they have one of the best scenes in the whole episode involving an unexpected use of truth serum. It's scenes like this one where Agents of SHIELD is at its best: when it's flipping the superhero genre on its head, poking fun at itself, finding humor in all of the action and mayhem, and getting at deeper human truths within an unlikely genre. This is also part of what made The Avengers such a successful film. With a stronger central plotline, future episodes of the series could match the thrills and total enjoyment of its parent film as well.

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