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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - "Heavy is the Head"

After a surprisingly worthwhile premiere episode, I return to take another look at Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the hopes that thing is getting whipped into shape and can become a watchable series. With the second episode, "Heavy is the Head". There are moments that continue the more exciting threads of last week's episode, but some of the series' weaknesses are still as glaring as ever. So on balance, I would say this episode a step-down from last week, but there's still enough there to get me to tune in next week. Let's dig into the whats and whys, particularly what works best:

Lance Hunter is awesome - Well, that might be an overstatement. He's a bit of a character archetype, the thuggish rogue, but that's still more personality than the guy he's basically replacing (Ward) ever displayed in an entire season. I've always held that Han Solo is my favorite character in the Star Wars franchise, he's the heart that keeps it running beyond the bland boy-scout that is Luke Skywalker (and the prequels lacking that element show how much he's missed). Lance is cut very much from that same mold. A work for hire mercenary whose loyalties are held into question the entire episode. We've seen it before, but its one of those tropes that when you have a core cast of characters that are as bland as dry toast, any sort of character wrinkle is a welcome addition. It seems fairly clear that Lance is also a bit of a stand-in for Clint Barton/Hawkeye, who himself has a bit of a shadier past than his fellow Avengers, and has a similarly surlier disposition. Obviously the series can't quite go the Secret Avengers route (despite the premise of this show basically be the same) and use Jeremy Renner, so Lance it is. If I had to take a guess, the debuting Bobbi Morse/Mockingbird will likely be the love interest he referred to this episode.

Coulson works best behind a desk - I like Clark Gregg in his Marvel Cinematic Universe appearances. His dry wit worked really well and he played off of the key Avengers in really fun and funny ways. He made a neat every-man in a nice supporting role. Once he was made the lead of a television series, so many of those traits that worked in limited appearances for the character became overly-burdened by the need to add more complexity. The problem being, Coulson isn't really that fascinating and Gregg, for all his positive traits as a performer, is not a strong lead. His being placed in the role of Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a great move for the series, because instead of being the guy driving the dramatic action of the show, he's instead the "M", barking off orders and showing off his muscle (via intel and firepower). This is basically where Coulson should remain, provided the cast around him develops in a worthwhile way (more on that in a second). Of course, the Kree-symbol mystery and how that material that was used to resurrect him is affecting his mind reared its head again. Though, I liked the fact that they made May aware of what's going on with him. This Kree mystery is the kind of thing that could really drag the show down if it was a mystery that Coulson had to keep from everyone. The fact that he has someone to bounce this information off of is a bit of a relief for storytelling purposes until it becomes this huge plot that will eventually have to be dealt with. This also gives May some kind of worthwhile role that goes beyond her typical "glower, look tough" posing.

Fitz and Mac make for a decent duo - Henry Simmons is not the strongest actor, but I value the fact that he's on this show just because his character fills a few facets that didn't exist before (one, another character of color, two, a bit of a blue-collar engineer type that surely populates more of the organization that we realize). I was worried he might get shuffled to the background quickly post-introduction but to have him as a bit of a partner for Fitz's work in the lab is a nice touch and gives Iain De Caestecker (probably the show's best performer) someone to work off of beyond his hallucinations of Simmons. Speaking of which, I really admired the specific role that "Simmons" plays here, basically acting as the missing information that Fitz can't quite seem to communicate. It's a clever little device, and for a series that's lacked that sort of smart writing for so long, I have to celebrate the little victories. Kudos!

Everyone else remains window-dressing - May, Skye, and Triplett basically served little to no function in this week's plot (beyond May's interactions with Coulson). Usually when that happens, you tend to think that somebody may be at risk for a character death. If that were the case, I surely wouldn't miss any of them. But, with the done in one aspect of Lucy Lawless' sadly departed character, May isn't going anywhere and Skye's plot is about to start ratcheting up with the first appearance of her father (played by Kyle MacLachlan! YES!) at episode's end. So, any bets of Triplett biting the dust? I'd hate to see this series pull take a page from The Walking Dead where one black actor continually just replaces the last one that died, but Triplett remains an absolute bore and doesn't really serve much of a purpose at this point beyond being muscle. He's basically a "red shirt" that talks. The fact that BJ Britt is still listed as a Guest Star is the credits is also a reason for you Triplett fans (if there are any) to squirm a bit.

The Woman in the Flower Dress reminds me of everything I hate about the First Season - Raina aka Flower Dress Lady or whatever the show would like her to be called was on-going, annoying presence throughout all of the worst episodes of last season. And given that every episode that season was an unpleasant experience by and large, that's saying something! Her return last night gave me visions of "Scorch" and all of the other disposable elements that I'd prefer to forget in this new status quo. The only benefit of her character is that she acted as a vehicle for the arrival of KYLE MACLACHLAN (!!!!), who I hope will take over the focus of this side of the story and Raina will shift into the background, though I'm sure I won't be so lucky.

Regarding the other bad guys - Look, I like Adrian Pasdar and have great memories of Jim Profit from back in the day (points to anyone who remembers that series). But, General Talbot really doesn't work. Pasdar feels grating when he should be menacing (compare him to Sam Elliott or John Hurt as General Ross, for example) and the bargain basement look of the show really doesn't do him any favors. His military force looks utterly ridiculous whenever they appear en mass, more like a local community re-enactment than an actual threat. Chances are though, he's probably off to the races at this point as the show can't really deal with three active antagonists. Hopefully, the series will be able to pull off HYDRA troops better, but probably not. It sure didn't work at all last season. And yes, like I sadly predicted, the Absorbing Man was gone as quickly as we got introduced to him. He's not dead, so he could always return at some point, but I'm sad that the one's one true worthwhile threat has already been put back on the shelf. We'll see what he gets replaced with, but beyond Dr. Whitehall, a generic HYDRA approach isn't really something I welcome. An actual super-villain can take this show a long way. But then again, they can barely get that right in the big budget films, so to hope it gets ironed out on this show is probably too much to ask for.

On next week's previews, it looks like we get the return of the real Simmons in what looks to be deep HYDRA cover, which will likely be the method that gets us to the debut of Adrienne Palicki's Mockingbird. This kind of shift in perspective, particularly if it gives us more access to Whitehall, has some real potential. Much like the series. I'm not fully on-board yet, as I don't quite have faith in the writers to pull it all together, but there's promise. And while this episode didn't quite carry the momentum of last week, it didn't completely sink it either and the elements that worked for me, continue to do so.

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