September 25, 2013



ABC has guarded the pilot episode of MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. (with its annoyingly long title) almost as closely as Colonel Sanders used to guard his 11 herbs and spices. It’s an odd choice that ended up starting fanboy chatter of a major letdown. You can breathe easy…there is no bomb here. To be clear, AOS is not the best scripted drama of the new season (so far, that honor goes to SLEEPY HOLLOW) but it’s off to a darn good start.

The easiest way to enjoy AOS is to lower your expectations slightly and be very, very happy that writer/creator Joss Whedon is back in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER mode. It is now officially safe to call DOLLHOUSE a one-time lapse. The script for AOS is sharp, full of well placed in-jokes and funnier than most sit-coms. That’s a big plus because the pilot is very talky. In fact, if I was to ding the opener for anything, it’s a lack of one really mind-blowing action set piece. 
Deconstructing an explosion.
AOS is on ABC so top notch production values are a given. Still, the opening scene reeks of backlot sets and theme-park-style explosions. Pay no attention this brief moment of cheese. What follows is an almost elegant foray through the world of secret agencies and super heroes. It’s refreshing to see a television series with enough confidence in itself to not rely on the crutch of non-stop gadgets and digital effects. What is on display is there for a reason and is organic to the story. Nice!

AOS picks up after the terrific box-office smash THE AVENGERS (which you really should watch if you haven't seen it yet). S.H.I.E.L.D. is a secret organization that sometimes functions like a high-tech version of the poop sweeper who follows horses in a parade. Other times, it’s a globe trotting operation that tracks down rogue individuals with special powers. If S.H.I.E.L.D. contains them first, they can prevent a potential super hero from being corrupted, exploited or dissected by nefarious forces. These baddies, known as The Rising Tide, are mentioned but barely seen in the pilot.
Coulson (Clark Gregg) tries to contain Mike Peterson (J August Richards).
Most of the first hour is a tennis match of sorts between scenes of the team being assembled by a resurrected Agent Coulson (fan favorite Clark Gregg) and an attempt to track down a mysterious “hooded hero” (nicely played by J. August Richards) who rescued a woman from that opening sequence boom boom. These twin tracks eventually converge at Union Station in Los Angeles for the oddly muted action finale.

Big kudos for choosing Union Station for the final act. It’s an underappreciated architectural wonder and Whedon uses his big screen directing prowess to maximum effect in this small screen production. Why then, with such an epic backdrop, do we get a chase and fight sequence that seems so familiar and conventional? I don’t need lasers and alien beasties but we are definitely led to the water expecting something a little more spectacular than a few gang bangers being hurled into news kiosks. It’s a bit of a letdown.
Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill.
What doesn’t disappoint is the decision to bring the Coulson character back to life. It’s immediately clear that there’s more to his story that we (and he) have been told, thanks to a very well-played bit between guest stars Cobie Smulders (reprising her role from THE AVENGERS) and Ron Glass (in his second great guest stint of the year after a bang-up performance in MAJOR CRIMES on TNT).

Gregg is in top form here and really let’s his snark flag fly. His timing is impeccable and his chemistry with Smulders makes their intro scenes sparkle. Coulson’s self-referential emergence from a shadowy corner and her run-down of the action from THE AVENGERS (reacting to being told Thor really isn’t a God: “You haven’t seen his arms.”) are both priceless moments. Let’s hope AOS sticks around for awhile so she can make a return once HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER finally bows out.
Tech duo Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge).
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag of (mostly) newcomers. It’s hard to call it on any of these actors after what amounts to brief introductions but I’m already not grooving on the Simmons half of tech nerd duo Fitz-Simmons (get it?). Elizabeth Henstridge fills the now de rigueur role of “hot female sidekick with British accent” but I didn’t believe a word that came out of her pretty mouth. She’s just not a very good actor. Faring much better is Iain De Caestecker, the Frick to her Frack. He's a delightful player from Scotland who makes the role of Leo Fitz his own without hamming it up.
Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) takes aim.
The hot guy role is filled by Brett Dalton. He plays black ops agent Grant Ward but doesn’t do much more than react to stuff and express disdain. To be fair, that’s really all he is asked to do. Dalton is, however, the second male lead and he’s not good looking enough to skate by on charisma and manliness alone. If the writers want to pay more attention to one of the regulars, I would start with him. The guy is a graduate from the Yale School of Drama. Time to let him put that MFA to work.

Rounding out the team is Chole Bennet (playing computer hacker Skye) and Ming-Na Wen (playing Agent Melinda May). Bennet, who had a supporting role in NASHVILLE last season, grew on me over the course of the opener. She starts off as your stock “annoying angry computer nerd” but, once the nuances of her character start bubbling up, her potential is much more obvious.
Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) finally kicks some ass.
Less satisfying is Wen. I love that they’ve cast an actor who is pushing 50 but, sad to say, she has zero presence. Melinda May is a role that screams for a Kelly Hu or Maggie Q type but instead, we get someone with a range that runs the gamut from stern to really stern. Her character has a reputation as a formidable agent but she is easily overtaken in one clunky scene and her sole bit of ka-ra-tay would have been better handled by my old GI Joe with kung fu grip. Fingers crossed that Wen comes into her own in future episodes. I’m kinda rooting for her.

At the end of the day, this is an “origin episode” (which is nicely referenced in the script at one point). Is it a home run? No. Is there enough here to merit coming back for more? Absolutely. Long running series have been launched with much shakier foundations and few of them were better written than AOS. The key, however, will be keeping Joss Whedon as present and attentive as possible. My worry button is pushed just a little knowing that he did not write or direct the next two episodes. MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. is one of those series where what goes on behind the cameras is infinitely more important that what happens in front.

MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Tuesdays at 8PM E/P on ABC and next day on Hulu.