Full disclosure, I hated the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
I found it poorly paced, remedially written and downright boring at its best. That initial season was overrun with a confused audience goal and a premise that was unable to stand on its own two feet. Additionally, its core cast was utterly uncompelling, particularly the supporting man turned lead Clark Gregg, whose bland persona is unsuited for starring duty.
Did the show improve as it went along? I'd say marginally. Certainly the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier injected some form of life into the season's back-quarter, but all of the interesting moments of that tie-in, like Ward switching sides to Hydra (the show's only genuinely shocking turn), were undercut by the series' on-going bargain bucket production values and a need to try and actively "sell" characters like Skye, Mike Peterson/Deathlok, and Melinda May on the audience. To say it vastly improved during this time is a gross exaggeration. This is a show that made Arrow look like The Wire by comparison.
With that said, I rather enjoyed this second season premiere. Sure, the series problems are still there in spades: it still looks terrible in spots, particularly anytime CGI is used. Ming Na as the above mentioned Melinda May is also a major weak link, and whenever Clark Gregg holds court with the camera, I find myself slipping into a coma. But, there are a few moments of promise that I think are worth pointing out:
An arc is already in place: The episode begins with a solid opening featuring Agent Peggy Carter and The Howling Commandos taking out a Hydra base commanded by Daniel Whitehall aka The Kraken. This scene does two things, it gets the audience re-familiarized with our favorite World War II era agent before her mid-season mini-series premiere and it also firmly nails down our central antagonist for this season. One of the biggest issues with last season was the lack of a bad guy to root against. Sure, Marvel Studios as a whole has an issue with villains (Loki-aside), but for much of last year, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was in terrible shape on this front. Finally, with Dr. Whitehall, we see a series that actively has direction from the outset, and if he reappears in Agent Carter, all the better!
New cast additions: While last year's additions like Patton Oswalt and Bill Paxton were momentary points of interest, this season's new members of the team are already head and shoulders above the core cast, particularly in terms of acting ability. Spoiler goggles on here if you haven't seen the premiere, but Lucy Lawless doesn't make it out alive. This is a shame as I was hoping she would become the team's veteran hard ass. Lawless' select scenes displayed a sense gravitas that Ming Na has utterly failed to muster. Additionally, Nick Blood's Lance Hunter already displays more personality than Brett Dalton and BJ Britt combined, and while we didn't get a great look at Henry Simmons' Mac McKenzie, I'm at least very happy that the core cast continues to get more diverse. With Adrianne Palicki's Bobbi Morse/Mockingbird debuting soon as well, with a possible connection to Lance, it's not hard to predict that the new cast will likely continue to eclipse the original team.
Fitz's state of mind: When we left the finale last year, Fitz was laid up from the underwater trauma that he and Simmons had undergone at John Garrett's hands. Now in our current status quo, Fitz is struggling to regain his ability to act as one half of the team's science gurus, unable to think of words and struggling with experiments, though he has Simmons at his side working him through everything and cheering him on; or so we thought. It turns out, she's been gone since the finale, having left S.H.I.E.L.D. and Fitz continues to imagine her presence as a way to cope. I was fooled, despite having seen this trick a few times and in places where it falls totally flat (Dexter), but Fitz's audience revelation was handled well and I appreciated that this wasn't something that was stretched out over the course of a half-season. For the first time, I think I'm able to applaud the restraint of the show's writers.
Skye is suddenly less revolting: I'm no fan of Chloe Bennett as a performer, and her character arc last season was one of its worst elements, but one episode into the new season and I'm at least starting to sorta buy her as a jocular S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Her on-going character dynamics with Ward are fairly predictable (and if a redemption arc for Ward is coming, that might be a "rage quit" moment for me), but this is really a gold star for the things they didn't do with her (such as make her, and her wonderful hacking abilities, the center of the entire show), and the upcoming arc with her father, played by Kyle MacLachlan. As of right now, I don't at least want to change the channel when she's on screen, so that's a big improvement already, though I reserve the right to change my mind at any point. With as terrible as she was last season, I think I've earned those permissions.
Crusher Creel: Yes! This is how you pull together an intimidating threat. Toss aside the "villain of the week" philosophy and have an enemy who actually inspires a little terror. Brian Patrick Wade's Crusher Creel/The Absorbing Man didn't say a lot, but his actions and abilities did all the talking for him. The fact that his actions killed one of the Agents, the biggest star on the roster no less, lends serious credibility to this particular henchman. I hope he sticks around for a while and doesn't immediately get dispatched in the next episode, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needs this kind of threat in the background on a regular basis.
Was it stellar television? Absolutely not, like I said above, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. still struggles with some of its core deficiencies from last year. Yet, its very possible that Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen learned a good deal from the copious amounts of criticism they received last year and have pivoted into making this series a bit more essential to the Marvel canon and watchable television in its own right. Or perhaps "Shadows" is just a fluke and I'm just reeling from how awful Gotham was by comparison. Either way, for the first time, I'm actually somewhat interested in seeing what happens next. That's a victory in of itself, I guess.