Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  Ep. 1 Review — It’s “Just the Pilot”

Posted: September 26, 2013 by Brian in Recap, Television
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AgentsOfSHIELDMarvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered on Tuesday, and it was the strongest debut for a scripted drama in years.

On the other hand, Jim Steranko (a highly respected writer/artist whose groundbreaking 1967-68 run on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the stuff of comic book history and a huge part of the reason we’re watching this in the first place) hated it, calling it too weak, too ordinary, and aimed too much at fanboys.

I was excited about this premiere for weeks leading up to its airing. Now that I’ve seen it? Well, read on to see if it lived up to my expectations.

The fact is, there was essentially zero chance that the pilot episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was going to be the single greatest hour of television ever broadcast.

Still, you can’t blame me for expecting a lot. Joss Whedon and Marvel Comics are two creative forces that have most reliably entertained me over the course of my life, and when they came together to make The Avengers, the result was every bit as awesomely satisfying as the fanboy calculus led me to hope it would be. Actually, I think the endeavor that has come to be called the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been entirely successful.

So yeah, when I heard that Joss was bringing a spin-off from the Avengers movie to television as an ongoing series, there was no way the expectations facing it wouldn’t start off insanely high. There was no way I wasn’t going to want it to be “Avengers II on the small screen.”

It wasn’t.

But I’ve been around long enough now that I’m able to recognize when my expectations are stupidly high, and so I can tell you that while the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t break my television set in half with its awesomeness, it did deliver a worthy, satisfying hour of entertainment that lays the first flagstones of what can clearly grow into something truly great.

Agent Coulson lives!

Agent Coulson lives!

The big news here is that Agent Phil Coulson (played by Clark Gregg), the fan-favorite second banana who apparently died in a most Whedonly tragic way in The Avengers, is alive and well, and putting together team of field operatives to investigate X-Files strange cases in a world changed by the events of The Avengers. He does explain his survival, but a remark by Dr. Streiten (a nifty little guest role for Ron “Shepherd Book” Glass) makes it clear that neither we nor Coulson know the whole story. Yet.

Skye: Hacker or HOTcker. amirite fellas? Um, fellas...?

Skye: Hacker or HOTcker? Amirite, fellas? Um, fellas…?

It all starts with a down-on-his-luck single father (played by another Whedon alum, J. August “Gunn” Richards) revealing some pretty badass superpowers when he saves a woman from the top floor of a building that just exploded. His superheroic leap from the burning window with the woman in his arms is caught on video and used as anti-S.H.I.E.L.D. propaganda by Skye, a skillful hacker (played by the stunning Chloe Bennet) who is apparently part of a shadowy group called the “Rising Tide” and lives in a van. “By choice,” she insists. Skye seems to know more about the new super-hero than S.H.I.E.L.D. does, which, frankly, nonplusses Coulson… so he has Skye kidnapped. Ooh, not exactly the best way to convince an outspoken critic that you’re not a sinister bunch of oppressive Big Brother types.

Long story short, Coulson discovers that the superhero dad got his powers from a mysterious, shady project codenamed “Centipede”, then uses his wry, avuncular charm to stop the dad from blowing himself up in outrage, and convinces Skye to join his field team.  Along the way, we meet the rest of the team:

  • Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), a manly, very competent field agent who is pulled away from a life of punching bad guys in the face and defusing bombs to join Coulson’s band of misfits. There, he’s appalled to learn he’ll have to undertake missions that don’t involve punching bad guys in the face and defusing bombs. He’s kind of like Michael Weston minus the people skills.
  • Melinda's badass present is less secret, apparently...

    Melinda’s badass present is less secret, apparently…

    Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), an agent Coulson pulls from some sort of self-imposed exile over her protests that she wants no part of field work any more. She’s clearly trying to leave something behind, and has a secret badass past:

    Ward: Is that… who I think it is?
    Coulson: She’s just the pilot.
    Ward: Melinda May is “just the pilot”? Come on, sir.

  • Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), an altogether too-cute pair of scientists—collectively known as Fitzsimmons—who are given to babbling excitedly at each other about their theories and discoveries while the other team members stare blankly at them. Clearly meant to fulfill the “quirky one who explains stuff” part of the Whedon team template. It’s just a good thing I have a high threshhold for cutesy.

Of course, the dialogue was witty and self-aware in the way that has become the calling card of anything with Joss Whedon’s name on it (although I believe it’s Joss’s brother Jed and Jed’s wife Maurissa Tanchareon who are doing the actual day-to-day showrunning). My favorite line:

Maria Hill: What does “S.H.I.E.L.D.” stand for, Agent Ward?
Ward: Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Divison.
Hill: And what does that mean to you?
Ward: It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out “S.H.I.E.L.D.”

There’s also a nice (possible) intertextual shout-out: A prominent running theme in Marvel’s “Ultimate” comic stories has been a crackdown by (that universe’s) S.H.I.E.L.D. on illegal genetic alterations, and questionable government actions justified by the conviction that “the next war will be genetic.” With Centipede and their questionable experiments looking like an ongoing concern, we could see that same theme explored on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Rule #1 of S.H.I.E.L.D. field work: Don't touch Lola. (Rule #2 appears to be "There are no other rules.")

Rule #1 of S.H.I.E.L.D. field work: Don’t touch Lola. (Rule #2 appears to be “There are no other rules.”)

Plot-wise, this pilot episode looks a lot like a run-of-the-mill procedural. But I’m pretty sure the plot wasn’t really the point. In addition to introducing the characters, it also lays the foundations of its (apparently) ongoing stories: Centipede, the Rising Tide, Melinda May’s past, and what the hell really happened with Coulson, just for starters. I’m confident, given the track record of those involved in this show, that those foundations will grow, link, and contextualize into the stuff of truly epic and mind-blowing plots over time. In other words, the pilot did exactly what was necessary to convince me to give it plenty of time to make its case.

The bottom line: The be-all and end-all of televised entertainment, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s pilot wasn’t. It couldn’t have been. But a solid, thoroughly entertaining introduction to a story that I’m sure will get richer, deeper and more complicated as it grows, it definitely was. I’m still excited, folks. Bring on episode two!

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