ABC‘s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Pilot TV Show Review. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot is a direct spin-off of the big screen blockbuster Avengers movie. Having inherited The Avengers‘ fan favorite writer/ director, Joss Whedon, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. certainly had the wind to its back on its the way to the small screen. Its debut meant turning into that wind and facing an expectant audience.
An opening monologue, referencing the events of the film and complete with glimpses of its action, provided a set up that may very well be the overall theme for the series. Basically, the cat was out of the bag regarding superheroes, the Genie was out of the bottle regarding the new level of threats faced, and shadow operatives, out to put them both back, had their work cut out for them. To underscore that point, an upper story apartment explosion and fire had prompted a single father at the scene into a superhuman rescue. This feat is captured on multiple phone-cams. The would-be hero retrieved his son and slipped away into the crowd but one witness was close enough to see and record his face (he was wearing a hoodie.)
From there, we were taken to France, for a formal introduction to a “shadow operative” at work. All at once, we got a crash course in the gadgetry, stunt choreography, and flip humor that may (hopefully) be the hallmark of the series. The operative introduced, Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), was an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement & Logistics Division) and by retrieving an item of alien design left over from the big screen “battle of NYC,” he was granted a security level upgrad by Special Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). That upgrade came with a perk as important to fans of the Marvel joint universe films as it was to Agent Ward.
Special Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), the hardest working character of the joint universe and last seen as a fatality at the hands of Loki, was alive. Apparently, his death was such an effective rallying tool in bringing The Avengers together that Nick Fury saw it fit to keep him dead to anyone below a certain security clearance (meaning agent Ward was now privy to things even the Avengers shouldn’t know). Coulson set Ward up with a team of scientific wunderkinds, Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), while he convinced another agent, Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), to leave self-imposed desk duty exile, and get back to field work but on condition that she only drives “The Bus.” “The Bus” turned out to be a heavily modified C5 Galaxy transport plane (or it might have been a C17 but between the show’s budget and Coulson’s secret status, it’s only natural the Heli-carrier wouldn’t be available). Once they were underway, Project Centipede, a program that apparently granted superhuman abilities to normal people, was first mentioned; but The Rising Tide, a group of super hackers that had been meddling in S.H.I.E.L.D. superhuman operations and keeping a step ahead, was declared their immediate objective.
About that time, Mike (J. August Richards), the hooded hero from the earlier fire rescue, was being stalked by Skye (Chloe Bennet), the woman that saw his face. When she finally confronted him in a diner it was to warn him about S.H.I.E.L.D. rounding up super beings and advised him to embrace the role of the classic superhero, if only to become too public a figure for S.H.I.E.L.D. to “disappear.” Mike had real world problems, like being a jobless single father, to worry about and walked away from Skye’s offers of assistance. As it turned out, Skye was The Rising Tide – in its entirety, having gone from superhero groupie to conspiracy nut, due to what she saw as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s M.I.B. styled cleanup of NYC after the events of The Avengers. Unfortunately for Skye, Coulson & Co. caught up to her almost immediately after her alter-ego was revealed.
For the next act, Skye is debriefed while Mike confronted his former boss, hoping to get his old job back through his strength and endurance. Rejection triggered a deluded embracing of Skye’s comic book arch-typing and Mike attacked the foreman as a “hero” taking down the “bad guy.” Skye’s debriefing turned out to be a recruitment effort (through very unconventional means by Caulson) and once she was in the fold, the circumstances of the first act’s explosion were revealed. By the time the nature and source of Mike’s powers were revealed (part of Project Centipede), so was his connection to the woman he rescued. Mike had now completely bought into a comic book fantasy scenario.
Mike, his son in tow, decided to “save” Skye so she could help him and his son evade the “men in black suits.” Agent May was knocked out during the abduction but Skye managed to tip off the others which led to a public confrontation between the agents, Mike, and operatives representing the elusive party behind Project Centipede. As his condition worsened, Mike was turning into a serious public threat and agent Ward was tasked with taking him out in the event Skye and Coulson could not talk Mike down. Through the actions of the third party, things got critical and Mike was neutralized; but not in the way we were led to believe he would be. Skye later accompanied Coulson in tying up the loose ends and the episode ends with Coulson being informed of a level 0-8-4 threat and relaying a sense of gravity over that implication to Skye. This narrative tool gave the viewer a reason to tune in next week but subtle arm-twisting had always been Coulson’s trademark.
TV show review
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. marked a return to television for both Marvel and Joss Whedon. There hadn’t been a live action Marvel series since The Incredible Hulk, and Whedon had struggled to keep a critically acclaimed series on the air since Angel. This first installment showed all the earmarks of Whedon’s past works, from allegorical themes (Mike’s story could easily be a statement on the correlation between economic hardship and broken families, with crime in the African-American community), to the casting of / appearances by Whedon regulars, like Richards (who played Gunn on Angel), Smulders (reprising her role as agent Hill, from The Avengers), and a brief cameo by Ron Glass (Shepherd from Firefly). As a longtime fan, I have always appreciated Whedon’s ability to create story arcs told at varying speeds and populated by memorable characters. What had always impressed me the most was his penchant to “scratch the needle across the record:” making abrupt turns in plot, tone, and dialogue for a shock or humorous effect. That particular trademark was well utilized in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; from Coulson’s reintroduction to Skye’s apprehension & debriefing. Those familiar with the source material might have some idea of where Whedon might be taking the series – particularly in regards to its antagonists – but not a lot of ground was covered in this episode. The pilot would have been better served as two-parter to get us more acquainted with its characters and to give a better idea of what’s to come. What we got was the sense that there was more to come from this one episode; mostly concerning character back-stories.
Clark Gregg brought a new, harder edge to agent Coulson. This might seem like a break from character (to some) but it made sense. On the big screen, Coulson served as an envoy and subordinate; on the small screen he is fully in charge and allowed to display the swagger of someone that has earned his rank. His resurrection will serve as the series’ first real ongoing mystery (one even he is aware of). Both Ward and Skye have to be broken in from their previous experiences and perspectives and can be forgiven for being unmolded clay. Agent May has her own history to be revealed that will likely add to the satisfaction of watching her cut loose during the climax. The Fitz-Simmons duo (along with Skye) did a decent job of giving the show genuine geek cred.
There may be too much expected of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with casual viewers taking their cues from The Avengers and Whedon fans expecting a production on par with Firefly or Dollhouse. At this point, it may be safe to say that Whedon is taking a lower-key approach to this series compared to his last two. Comparisons to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. big screen forebear just shouldn’t be made at all. If slow and steady gets the audience to an ultimately satisfying experience then so be it. The important thing is getting the audience to stick around long enough to be satisfied, and I think that, at least, was accomplished here.
I’m not 100% sold on the episode, but I’m definitely sticking around.