Review: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D – Pilot

agents of shieldWhen I first saw the teaser trailer for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (which will from here on be referred to as SHIELD), I wasn’t impressed. While the internet was going crazy over it, I was sitting in my own little bubble of dislike, hoping what I saw as dreadful clunky dialogue wouldn’t be an indication of the entire script.

Despite my misgivings, I was excited for SHIELD. I was hopeful that the trailer was simply a ploy to get those who enjoy Joss Whedon’s trademark pop culture saturated dialogue, delivered by a mismatched team of Whedon box-tickers, to tune in. That in the actual pilot, the clichés would be kept to a minimum, and instead the show would be a taught, tense, action-drama.

Suffice to say, SHIELD lived up to the wrong expectations. Not only is the entire pilot an endless string of [supposedly clever] one-liners, barely managing to hold together the melodrama and paper thin plot, the acting is sub-par, and it doesn’t work as an introduction for those not already well versed on the Marvel Cinematic Universe – believe it or not, the entire world hasn’t seen every instalment of the cinematic behemoth. Viewing this show without favour is tough, but if you ignore the good faith of the MCU, and don’t let the Whedon fans sway your opinion, the writing is on the wall. SHIELD Isn’t great. I’m not even sure I can stretch to call it mediocre.

What I wanted from SHIELD was something like Burn Notice or Covert Affairs, with a bit of Breaking Bad grittiness, but this is network TV, so I would have been more than thrilled with an Alias vibe  (the TV show, rather than the comic). What we got, was NCIS crossed with Eureka (thanks to @myleftkidney for this analogy). There was also an underlying sensation that this show could have been a failed nineties attempt to compete with Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

Lois_and_Clark_Animation

Don’t lie, you remember it fondly.

SHIELD opens with narration, which is common for a pilot episode . The narration is also an indication of the quality of acting throughout. I’m not sure how to describe Skye’s (Chloe Bennet) opening monologue, other than dire. Not only is it badly written, it’s overacted, and doesn’t at all have the tone you would expect of underground journalism, which is what this is supposed to read as. It does however, inform us that SHIELD has been made. There are people who know about the organisation, even if they aren’t aware of their exact operating capacity, and that conspiracy theorists are keen to get their claws into any leads they can dig up.

We’re introduced to the pilot’s main plot point straight away, just like any other procedural. The plot point is Michael – a juiced up black dude who isn’t Luke Cage, played by J. August Richards.

No seriously, that’s all this guy is. A  inner city black guy cliché with little to no personality other than he’s an angry factory worker single father, who got fired and is now enhanced by something called Project Centipede. He’s also the only character in the whole pilot that doesn’t look like they stepped straight out of a fashion catalogue – clothes, makeup and all. He’s basically the worst kind of vaguely racist black guy trope there is, and this continues right to the end of the episode.

Everyone else is impossibly pretty, and well put together. Even Skye who is supposed to be living out of a van, exposing the conspiracies of the world, has perfect hair, and even more perfectly pressed clothes. Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) has the personality of a brick, and the scientific team of Fitz and Simmons (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge), are clearly a product of Whedon’s fandom awareness – a pre-loaded ship complete with it’s own portmanteau (FitzSimmons), and brain-twin style dialogue. The only shining light of the team is Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May, who doesn’t get nearly enough screen time, despite the large hints of an interesting, if cliché, back story.

joss-whedon-strong-female-charactersConsidering Whedon’s championing of strong female characters, I find it surprising that he has apparently chosen Agent Ward as the secondary main character after Coulson (Clark Gregg), rather than Melinda May. I can’t help but feel they’re keeping things open for Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill to come to the show full time once How I Met Your Mother has finished.

Joss has taken an idea right out of about fifty percent of MCU fanfic, and explained Phil Coulson’s survival (after he was callously stabbed in the chest by Loki) as a way to motivate the Avengers. Yawn. If I wanted that explanation I’d just head on over to AO3 and read any one of a few thousand stories with this same idea. They’d probably be better written and more interesting, too.

Continuing with Coulson,  I couldn’t help but feel that he was out of character during the whole show. We know him as a man with a singular expression, occasionally making a wry observation, or coming out with a memorably clever quote. A man with a slightly sick sense of humour, that delivers his lines with a benign, bland, almost vacant look. In SHIELD, he cracks wise every second line, smiles often, gets a bit shouty, and talks down bad guys without a megaphone in hand. Overall, temporary death seems to have changed Phil into an entirely different person. Even if he is an LMD, it’s still a bit weird.

shield-coulsonSo character wise, it’s a misfire. I can only hope the actors grow more into their roles over coming episodes, but thus far, even their accents feel fake. It’s not all bad – there are some moments where Skye is genuinely charming and a bit goofy, and Fitz and Simmons are pretty funny with their cute brand of talking over each other humour, but the good moments are unfortunately outweighed by the not so great. Is it too much to ask to have one single character that gets through an episode without snark?

Most of what I’m presuming was a huge budget, has clearly been spent on Joss Whedon’s creative input, with what was left over used to create Lola and her groan inducing reveal at the end of the episode. The visual effects are on par with, or below what we were seeing in TV shows like 24, Alias, and Dark Angel, back in the early 2000s (shows that SHIELD should be looking to for more than just visual cues).

While I have issues with the acting and visual effects, my main gripe is the writing. Like most of Whedon’s shows, SHIELD is trying very hard to be self aware. So hard, that it manages to come full circle, and lose itself in what it’s trying to be. The episode felt like little more than a bunch of snarky dialogue and in-universe name drops, strung together with various instances of lampshade hanging to get through forty-three minutes, in the hopes of snagging viewers with references to various parts of the Marvel Multiverse. There is little here to grab the interest of someone completely new to both Marvel, and Joss Whedon’s style of storytelling. I feel like the team of Whedon/Whedon/Tancharoen have forgotten that a shows success isn’t just about generating approval from an existing fanbase. It’s about gaining new viewers, introducing them to this universe, and keeping everyone interested.

Lesson #1: Don't piss off a huge part of your fanbase

Lesson #1: Don’t piss off a huge part of your fanbase

The one liners not only become tiresome, but some are downright offensive. One in particular, which I think may have been aimed at taking a dig at how we treat celebrity here in the real world, instead came across as derogatory towards female cosplayers, a problem that could have been easily rectified by having Skye call out Agent Ward’s attitude. Instead, she shrunk away and admitted in a small voice, that she was one of the fangirls he was referring to. Considering the prevalence of negativity towards women involved in geekdom, this is not at all a good message to send.

Over all, ABC has missed a golden opportunity to deliver a gritty, interesting spy drama, and has instead given us something that would have worked just as well as a cartoon. Part of the MCUs appeal, is the way it has managed to ground itself in the real world, instead of being a direct adaptation of the comics. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. feels like it has forgotten this in its very first episode, but it’s not until the final scene that the ability to suspend your disbelief goes from wavering to shattered.

Despite these misgivings, I am going to continue watching, if only to keep up with MCU continuity. I sincerely hope the show improves, and with the showrunning being handled by Whedon’s younger brother Jed, and his wife Maurissa Tancharoen, there may be scope for something new and compelling to come from a pilot that had more failures than successes.

Rating: 3/10

Comments

  1. I think you hit on the head a lot of the issues I had with SHIELD. It was a lot of banter and very little substance for the universe. I totally understand that Whedon can’t pin down the Avengers actors for a TV show, but finding doubles of Scarlet Johansson and Jeremy Renner to walk through the halls – or even a text message from them – would make such a difference. A phone call from Fury! Just something to really anchor them together. It would be the greatest fan fiction cliche, but even just an envelope on Coulson’s desk with replaced and autographed Captain America cards would have helped.

    There wasn’t any character I particularly liked; Melinda May didn’t get enough screen time for me to judge her well. Agent Ward just pissed me off; I spend most of the episode wanting to shoot him in the ffoot.

    What I want this to be is smart – I don’t want heaps of super quirky and best-in-the-world agents; I want humans who are good at what they do fighting against the best. I think that examining flawed, fragile humanity vs superheroes and mutants would be an interesting way to go. Just more than what it is.

  2. http://Potkanka says

    I agree with most of what you’ve said (And by “most” I mean, I like Lola… yes, it’s probably cliché and stupid as hell, but I found the car suddenly flying away so weird and somehow unfitting that for some reason I found it totally awesome. Also, I had been pretty sure it was going to be able to fly anyway, what with everyone talking about it, so no big surprise there, just the unfitting-ness.). And I like that among the many who criticize this episode, you’re one of the very few who mentioned Coulson’s personality and how it doesn’t seem like the same Coulson we’ve seen in the movies. I totally agree and it makes me sad, I hope he’ll go back to being more like the “previous” Coulson (considering he’s really just a LMD). Oh, about Coulson not being Coulson, I like the idea I read somewhere that this IS in fact a LMD, but that the real Coulson is still alive and connected to it while lying somewhere not able to move and he himself isn’t aware of it (kind of like in Matrix, only both the real and the fake body are in the real world).

    Anyway, I really liked your review, as well as the fact that you’ll continue watching – my bigest fear about negative reviews is that they’ll cancel the show before it gets better. Well, I hope it gets better. We just need to give it a chance. Sure, it should have been good from the beginning instead of us waiting for it, but this show was a really good idea in my opinion and they just need to try more to make it not only a good idea, but also a good show. Oh well, I’m an optimist, so I’ll just wait for that to happen.

  3. http://Torkil says

    Good review. Although, I don’t agree. Not everything needs to be a gritty drama.

    I will concede that it didn’t meet my expectations either, but then mine were a little different to yours.

    Also, this seems like a dangerous opinion to hold:
    “I feel like the team of Whedon/Whedon/Tancharoen have forgotten that a shows success isn’t just about generating approval from an existing fanbase. It’s about gaining new viewers, introducing them to this universe, and keeping everyone interested.”

    I don’t know if this was your intention or not, but it sounds like you’re saying: Ignore what your fans want, make something more generic and accessible so more people will watch it, even if that means no-one will really love it.

    • I’m not suggesting that it needs to be like Homeland or The Wire, just that as it stands it feels far more cartoonish, which isn’t the tone we’ve seen so far in the MCU, and it doesn’t really sit in the universe well for me. Shows can be dramatic, interesting, and challenging/thought provoking to watch, while still being funny and out there.
      But then I really enjoyed IM3, and we all know THAT opinion’s not a particularly popular one either.
      As for the quote, what I’m saying there, is that the show felt like an endless string of in-universe references, which isn’t really accessible to the new viewer. Yes, I know, the MCU is a huge, blockbusting franchise. I still know heaps of people who either haven’t seen any of the films at all, or wouldn’t get the jokes. Heck, I make jokes like these sometimes around people I KNOW have seen the films, or read a lot of the comics, and they still don’t get them!
      Accessible doesn’t necessarily mean generic. It can also mean better.

  4. Thank you so much for this. I am a huge Marvel and Whedon fan, but I couldn’t hel but feel that the whole pilot was ‘off’ somehow and you pretty much laied out all my misgivings very neatly, I am really rooting for the show to work if we want gritty superheroes shows on HBO and such there needs to be something showing that the format can work on tv, but it needs to get a lot better than this.

    PS: It weirdly reminded of The Cape, for all the wrong reasons.

    • Ahahahaha! Oh the Cape. The best thing about it was the references in Community that were so incredibly clever (now THAT’s a show that does meta humour well). I’ve had a lot of people accuse me of just being a Whedon hater, but that’s not the case at all. I went into watching this completely prepared to love it, hate it, or be somewhere in the middle. I at no point said to myself ‘these are my expectations’, even if I did have concerns following the trailers.
      Like every other show I watch, I’m going to give it three episodes before I make a final call on whether or not I’ll watch it week for week. To compare it to my feelings on two other Whedon shows, it’ll either go the way of Firefly (binge-watch) or Dollhouse (three eps and you’re out)

  5. I wouldn’t necessarily say that a crossover between NCIS and Eureka is a bad thing considering I enjoyed both shows and still do, so I’d say that would be a compliment more than anything else.

    And the thing about Coulson’s death to motivate the Avengers, that was clearly used to simply explain things away to Ward and in a sense to Coulson and to make way for the fact that there is something else involved and not just that’s the end of the story – we’re clearly still not over with Coulson’s death/return which is one of the storylines still to come – and maybe fanfics have written many stories over this and that’s great but it’s pretty clear the show will be going somewhere just beyond what they are telling about Coulson’s return

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  2. […] whether or not I’ll continue watching on a week-by-week basis. As I also mentioned in last week’s review, I had a hope that without Joss’ direct input, the series could improve past the snark and […]

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