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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., "Pilot"

Season 1, Episode 1

Grade: B+

Verdict: In an experimental foray into extending its cinematic world to television, Marvel is mostly successful with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  Fans of the numerous comics which have told of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s various exploits may be a bit disappointed at the more light-hearted approach, but this is a series which anyone who loved last year's The Avengers should enjoy.  There are a few bumps along the road in this pilot in terms of some story issues, characters, and connectivity to the larger Marvel Universe, but it is overall something which Whedon, Marvel, and Disney can consider a success.  This episode gives us an interesting perspective on the Marvel Cinematic Universe that we have not truly gotten in any of the films.  With plenty of "Whedonisms" and references to Avengers characters, this is a good start to a series that still has some things to prove.

The announcement that Marvel would be launching a new television series focusing on the exploits of the secret government agency S.H.I.E.L.D., which had been an ever present aspect of all of its films, there was some expected hesitation from fans.  Avengers  writer/director Joss Whedon's involvement seemed to ease a few, but there were still utlimately a lot of questions surrounding whether or not what had been a source of so much economic success on the big screen could cohesively translate to television.  Though this pilot does not answer all of those burning questions, it at least gives us enough of a taste of what Whedon and Marvel are working on that we can most likely know what to expect.

Taking place after the events of The Avengers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. follows Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) as his clearance is bumped up from Level 6 to Level 7.  With this promotion comes Ward's inclusion on a team of specialized agents hunting super-powered humans when they appear...as well as the startling information that Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) survived his apparent death at the hands of Loki.  Meanwhile, Mike Peterson (J. August Richards), a man recently given superhuman abilities, rescues a woman from a burning building, an event which will put him on a crash course with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s newest team.

Perhaps one of the biggest questions going into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was just how the story would be handled.  Would this be a platform for Marvel characters who would never appear in film to have their place in the MCU?  How would the series address the continuously shifting continuity of the MCU as other films are released?  More importantly, would this show be formulaic or have a more sweeping, season-long story?  The answer to that last question would be...a bit of both.  Considering the set up we get here for the future of this series, it is very easy to see S.H.I.E.L.D. taking a more monster of the week approach until it can really get on its feet.  Depending on your personal taste in TV, this could be either a positive or negative direction.  In many ways, the story that unfolds in this pilot is very expected from what we have seen from S.H.I.E.L.D. in the Marvel films.  The biggest attempts at humor come from that fact that you have a secret organization with limitless resources, giving any writer semi-truck sized loopholes to write through.  Secrets aren't a bad thing by any means, but this approach does not work as well when your story is using the perspective of the place that keeps all the secrets.  Small hints are made at potential stories which could be stretched out throughout an entire season, but none of them are interesting enough at this moment to warrant the whopping 22 episodes this series has been given.

If there is one thing which Joss Whedon does exceedingly well, it's characters.  Surely, then, the characters would be this show's strong suit right out of the gate, right?  Well...not necessarily.  Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson is certainly the spotlight of this episode, and Gregg fills the shoes again very well.  Some hints are given about Coulson's muddled return that could prove interesting later on, which, unfortunately, makes him the most interesting character.  Not a good thing when the rest of your case is brand new.  The rest of this cast of characters is filled with a variety of cookie cutter people one would expect to find on your standard show like this (Your NCIS's and the like).  This is particularly true of Agent Ward, the character who is supposed to be our eyes into this world, a man who is written and played so flat in places that one wonders if Brett Dalton is actually made of paper.  You also have your mysterious Asian female stereotype being taken advantage of here (complete with kung-fu action!).  Whichever characters are not utter copies of things we have seen on other government dramas fall into what you may consider Whedonisms.  Agents Fitz and Simmons in particular feel like the typical quirky individuals we are used to seeing in anything touched by Joss Whedon.  It is a practice which can, frankly, grow very old very quickly.  Although Whedon gets points for making this team infinitely more diverse than what we saw in Avengers, one cannot help but wish we had some more characters with a comic book history to draw from to add a bit more newness and depth.

In addition to story, the cohesion of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was perhaps the biggest question mark surrounding this entire series.  For the most part, this episode handles its connectivity with the likes of Captain America and Iron Man with a ton of rapid fire references in the pilot's first 15 minutes.  The first few of these references are definitely appreciated, but, after about four or five, it starts to become such a contest of winks and nudges that one almost expects a character to face the camera and ask, "Everybody got that?"  Perhaps the biggest surprise of the episode is a reference to Extremis, the explosive technology seen just over 6 months ago in Iron Man 3.  It is in this reference that we not only get a general idea of when this show takes place, but it also gives us a taste of how the continuities of the films which backbone this series will be interwoven into the story of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  In the future, however, viewers will eventually grow tired of the references, instead demanding for more than just cameos of Maria Hill.  It seems unlikely this series could make it through a first season without a Nick Fury or Tony Stark appearance without disappointing fans.

Overall, this is a pilot which succeeds in what it sets out to do: show us how the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be translated to television, but also keep itself in its own corner of that world.  It is an action-packed hour that seems very much so like The Avengers condensed for television (complete with overly loud score).  One wonders how much ABC paid to make this pilot, and it is a particularly sticky element which could spell a premature ax for this series if the viewership doesn't stay.  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. definitely gets more than a few things right its actors, premise, and most of its story.  It is more in some disappointing aspects of the story, the characters, and its over-reliance on Whedonisms where this episode does not really take off as it should.  On the whole, however, there is definitely enough here to make one want to watch what happens next...and perhaps, in television, that's all that really matters.
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