Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. opens with a soft-toned, unimpassioned voiceover: o brave new world, that has such super-people and super-agents in it. (No exclamation mark). It moves from there to a series of familiar situations, peopled with familiar characters. The sassy hacker. The loner super spy. The down on his luck dad-turned-hero. The tough girl agent with a crush that can never be revealed (why not?).
This is a pilot, and pilots typically rely more on types, than on verve and originality. But really?
The core cast of S.H.I.E.L.D. is introduced in a brisk, workmanlike fashion. It has the factory fresh feel of boxes being ticked–voiceover, badass intro, badass intro the second, speech the first–of a script written by formula, with appeasement in mind. This is a riskless venture, in a washed out, sitcomy unplace–it’s a normal world without particularity. A world not meant to be looked at. We know it chiefly through words, rather than its look or feel. A monologue in an un-set scene. What does the Marvel shared universe feel like? Who knows. Lots of cool gadgets, though.
To put down all of the show’s flaws to pilots being pilots, is, I think, too much forgiveness. It’s a shitty pilot in a television landscape that’s increasingly inspired. There’s potential for a better show, but with all the hoopla surrounding this premiere, I expected more than a “stay tuned, it gets better in episode three”.
So pilots. Breaking Bad’s phenomenal series opener was absent anything typical. It opens big with a pantsless Brian Cranston crashing a motor home, and then takes it time getting back there, with a discomfiting focus on Walter White’s daily miseries. Even crisis-procedurals like Flashpoint are more than capable of rising above. Its series premiere starts with a disorienting camera swoop from a hostage’s underwater perspective, to the capability of Enrico Colantonio’s hostage negotiator. We know immediately that Breaking Bad and Flashpoint inhabit particular spaces. That these shows are characters, situations, and worlds.
I know when I’m watching Breaking Bad or Flashpoint. I don’t know that I’m watching S.H.I.E.L.D. I might as well have been watching Earth Final Conflict. There’s a guy, with a techno-alien-thing, and another guy, who wants to stop him. Oh wait, Thor namecheck. It’s S.H.I.E.L.D.
Of all of Whedon’s tics, my least favourite is his over reliance on words, and especially on complicated arrangements of words. (Says the writer). The episode opens with a voiceover, a narrative hammer, and is held up with a series of mini-speeches. Our mission is, our purpose is, our enemy is–all of this told, told, told, and shown only through a paper-thin story that is somewhat at odds with the organization’s core message. Clark Gregg said a cool thing. Witty banter. A table read with some illustration. Like comics, TV and movies are words and pictures and movement, studies in time and absence, and all that good stuff. You can paper over a lack of mastery of said with smart enough dialogue, as in the case of Kevin Smith, Aaron Sorkin, and usually, Joss Whedon, but here the actors fail to commit, and aside from Clark Gregg seem uncomfortable with that typical Whedon rhythm, struggling with the transition from serious faces, to funny faces. Ultimately, the result is awkwardness, a certain stilted artificiality between the players, and the players and the script.
The agents’ inaugural adventure is one part team-building, one part down home fable. Our previously mentioned dad-turned-hero, Mike Peterson, volunteered for a shady, private, experimental medical treatment that gave him generic superpowers. While having lunch with his son, a nearby building goes up in flames, and he climbs inside to search for survivors. This act of heroism is witnessed by hacker Skye, who tries to convince him to pursue a life of superheroism full time. She claims that she can protect him, by inventing a new identity for him wholesale–not only does she start brainstorming hero names, but she is ready and willing to hack government databases to cover his trail. Yes, they did just meet.
Meanwhile, Agent Coulson assembles a team of grumpy agents, enthusiastic scientists, and eventually, Skye, the wrong-headed, anarcho-fangirl. (She only cosplayed outside Stark Tower that one time, ok?) While we meet the band, and the band’s many toys (planes, cars, flying scanners, and things), Mike is exhibiting increasingly erratic behaviour, and launching into glassy-eyed monologues. After being turned away by them, he attacks his ex-boss, and the doctor who administered the treatment. Desperate, he tracks down and forces Skye to wipe his identity from all government databases, so that he can make a fresh start. S.H.I.E.L.D. saves the day, no one is killed, and Skye is convinced to join the team permanently. A good time was had by all.
Except Mike, ably played by Whedon vet J. August Richards, who has torpedoed his life utterly. Is his breakdown the result of swimming in the deep end of his comprehension (as Agent Ward puts it: “We protect people from news they aren’t ready to hear.”), or the result of the black market preying on the economically disenfranchised? He’s talked down from inevitable mass destruction by Agent Coulson, who agrees with him that “it matters that [he’s] a good person”. But no matter how good he is, he must still be registered and monitored by this shadowy government agency–he can’t be trusted; they can.
Skye, already being called the most annoying character of the fall season, makes a poor case for working against S.H.I.E.L.D. She’s a naive fangirl, who just doesn’t know any better. A day with the inimitable Coulson has her abandoning her van (ps. great hair for someone living out of their van!), the mobile headquarters of revolution, in favour of being part of the solution. The real solution. S.H.I.E.L.D. saves lives, don’t they? But is keeping secret the truth of the Battle of New York, and of the “gods who walk among us” the best way to keep people safe? S.H.I.E.L.D.’s unequivocal answer is: yes. Skye’s desire for truth is self-serving (she wants in on the action), and her dream of from-the-ground-up heroism silly. It’s only in the depths of his alien-tech delusions that Mike comes to agree with her that yes, superheroism is his destiny.
Like most of you, I hope that S.H.I.E.L.D. improves. As it stands, its hamstrung by laziness of direction, writing, and philosophy, bolstered mainly by nerd-baiting shoutouts, and perhaps by its dull-as-dirt familiarity. It’s an easy show; thoroughly unsurprising. S.H.I.E.L.D. exists not so much in-and-of-itself, but as an adjunct to the larger Marvel cinematic universe. It’s the TV cousin of those blockbuster films, built around breakout character, Agent Coulson. It’s a Clark Gregg vehicle with a dash of Whedon–the drawn out punchline to a joke set up in Avengers. It’s designed to be a money-maker, and an already-crowned fan favourite. We love us some Clark Gregg. We certainly love us some Whedon. (Nevermind that his involvement with the project is superficial). The hands of ABC, Disney, and Marvel are all too visible in this cynical act of brand extension.
But will S.H.I.E.L.D. improve? Here’s hoping. But that depends on its ability to find its niche, its in-and-of-itself identity as a show. S.H.I.E.L.D. must be something more than an ellipsis to the assorted Marvel movies; more than an agglomeration of procedural types, and set pieces. S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to figure out for itself what makes this super-procedural unique, and then show us. But not tell us. Enough with the voiceover.