Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Pilot Review: Agent Carter

Agent Carter (Tuesdays at 9:00 on ABC)

Agent Carter is, in almost every way, the exact opposite of Marvel's other television series, Agents of SHIELD. Whereas that series started with a massive bang (and a budget to match), focusing on visual effects and extending the sensibility of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the small screen with its ensemble cast, Agent Carter enters the field with little more than a murmur: it's a relatively quiet (by comic book adaptation standards) period piece more interested in creating dynamic characters than dynamic explosions. Not everything works, but what does is a huge step up from the misfire that SHIELD turned into after its entertaining pilot.

Agent Carter is essentially a spin-off of 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger, and the first scene of the show is a repeat screening of one of the film's final moments as Steve Rogers bids his kind-of-girlfriend Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) goodbye before plunging into Arctic waters. The series picks up a year later, with Peggy still silently mourning her hero while dealing with the everyday stresses of being a woman in the men's world of international espionage in the SSR, the predecessor of SHIELD. She's repeatedly stymied by her male counterparts, particularly by her boss (Boardwalk Empire's Shea Whigham) and two fellow agents (Chad Michael Murray and Kyle Bornheimer), who would rather see Peggy filing ("You're better at it than I am," Murray's Agent Thompson says at one point, to which Carter replies, "At what? The alphabet?") than catching criminals. Speaking of, Public Enemy #1 is now Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), whose most dangerous inventions have been stolen and sold on the black market, resulting in the government attempting to charge Stark with treason. He reaches out to Agent Carter for help in recovering the objects and clearing his name, offering the help of his butler and confidante Edward Jarvis (James D'Arcy, Broadchurch) and so begins another chapter in the double (triple?) life of Agent Peggy Carter.

To start with, the primary focus of Agent Carter is unmistakably its title character, played to magnetic perfection by Atwell. One of Agents of SHIELD's biggest problems early on was that none of its characters were defined by personality. Peggy is a round, clearly motivated and easily understood leading lady. She's more than just a spy, just an agent, or just Cap's girlfriend. She's a woman struggling against misogyny, a person who's lost all (or nearly so) those closest to her, and someone with a lot to prove and a mission to complete. Jarvis is similarly dynamic, a seemingly stuffy Brit (he must complete his duties to Peggy by 9:00, as that is when he and his wife go to bed) who has a lot more brains and bravery to offer than is initially assumed. Atwell and D'Arcy have an easy chemistry and are at their most humorous in the scenes they share, each bringing a smart wit and instant likeability to their respective characters.

The pacing of the first episode is handled well; it's never overly exciting, edge-of-your-seat stuff, but it's never dull either. Atwell gets to don some fun disguises and play with her accent, all while kicking bad guy ass, but there's still a sense that something bigger and better could be happening. The second episode doesn't fare as well; the opening minutes are good, the second act drags, then we get a fight on the roof of a moving dairy truck filled with explosives. Despite the pilot lacking some action, I preferred its even clip to the hills and valleys of the second outing. (Although, the sophomore episode's framing device of Peggy repeatedly hearing a fictionalized version of herself portrayed as a damsel in distress in a Captain America radio play is both hysterical and smart.)

Also problematic is the characterization of the supporting male players. Sure, it's a lot of fun to see Peggy use their misogyny against them in a scene where she sneaks information because they assume she is simply refilling their coffee cups. And yes, this type of behavior very much existed in the 1940s. But Murray, Bornheimer, and Whigham come across as silly caricatures rather than characters. All they do is make sexist comments and then look stupid when they're constantly one step behind Peggy. The laser focus on Peggy also made it hard to care about her roommate's murder about three quarters through the pilot, since we barely knew her name, let alone anything about her.

But still, Agent Carter is a really fun show. Atwell is clearly having a ball, and her electric, charismatic performance is worth a watch all on its own. But there are also some really great touches of 1940s nostalgia in the snappy dialogue by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely's pilot script and in director Louis D'Esposito's visual style (one of the pilot's best moments is Agent Carter walking through the SSR offices in a bright red hat, the only color in a sea of gray, black, and white) and composer Christopher Lennertz's big-band tinged score. There's a lot to like in Agent Carter, not the least of which is its central character and all she stands for, and it's already off to a more assured start than Marvel's first television foray, thanks mostly to its wonderful leading lady. So far, it's solid and fun, with a great sense of humor and small-scale adventure, and that's more than I expected from a short-order series filling in an hour on the schedule during a bigger show's winter hiatus... but as it turns out, Agent Carter may be the smaller but better series.

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