Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S01E05 – The Girl in the Flower Dress

AoS_Girl_In_The_Flower_DressThe Girl in the Flower Dress is an insipid title for a TV episode, and that’s exactly what you can expect the fifth episode of Agents of SHIELD to be – insipid.

I found The Girl in the Flower Dress to be boring and a struggle to get through without becoming distracted, and when I was fully paying attention, I was rolling my eyes or groaning a majority of the time.  The script buckles under the weight of the corny dialogue that often breaks the elementary rule of ‘show don’t tell’. While it has potential to be a fun, fast paced, romp through Hong Kong, sadly the heavy handed cliches and scenery-chewing acting tip it over the edge from okay, to the wrong side of passable.

To get one thing straight though, I think it’s important to point out that before I write my reviews, I always ensure I’ve watched the episode at least twice. Often I can be affected by having a bad day (or the opposite), or I might just not be in the mood for the show when it’s straight out of the box. I watched the pilot three times before I realised I genuinely disliked it, and The Girl in the Flower Dress has had a similar treatment.

That’s not to say that everything about this episode is awful. There are some good moments, and some decent dialogue. Unfortunately the good points are all but drowned out by the bad.

Opening with a sweeping shot of Chinese lanterns, with a background of generic Asian music, isn’t a great start. The freak of the week is Chan Ho Yin, a street performer with the power of pyrokinesis. Considering the dynamic nature of his profession, an opening like last week’s Eye Spy would have been far more appropriate. A background of some C-Pop rather than the tired Oriental Riff would have grabbed my attention, instead of inducing the first eye roll of the episode.

This is also the moment where the titular ‘Girl in the Flower Dress’ appears. I think it’s clear from the get-go that, while the creative team was aiming for the potential romantic interest vibe, they missed the mark, instead hitting sinister a little prematurely. This means a moment which is clearly supposed to be a jump-scare loses its impact. Once again, Project Centipede is the main baddie, and they’re tinkering with Extremis again, gasp! Could they be a new incarnation of AIM? Ehhh seeing as a bunch of people have suggested this on tumblr, it’s probably likely. If it’s one thing this show consistently is, it’s predictable – not that that’s necessarily always a bad thing.

In regards to the team, there are some insights into Coulson and May’s relationship pre-stabbing, but otherwise there’s not really anything new here.

aos5Skye and Ward’s dynamic as SO and trainee is awkward and filled with all the wrong kind of tension. As you would expect, seeing as they start out playing battleship and snarking at each other at the beginning of the episode, one of them is going to do something to screw up the tentative friendship. That’s in the form of Skye doing something stupid with an old hacker buddy (you can guess what that is already, can’t you?) without seemingly considering the super-spy nature of her colleagues. There’s also some gratuitous and unnecessary underwear shots, that would be okay if they were somehow tasteful.

Fitz and Simmons finally make the leap from being a bit of light relief in a team of serious operators, to irritating. So far no writer has really made an attempt at separating the two characters, instead continuing to play on the idea that they’re two halves of a whole. I’m sure one of these days we’ll get an episode that suggests they may have their own brains, but this is not it.

Writer Brent Fletcher crams this episode with Whedonisms that drop like a sack of bricks. He also seems to forgo any sense of logic in many places – a world renowned hacker who honestly doesn’t consider someone having nefarious purposes, travel seeming to happen in the blink of an eye, Agent Cardboard acting like the most obvious spy on the planet (do I need to go back to that line about Black Widow from the pilot to express my disbelief here?) – those kind of plot points that have you shouting come on, how could you be so stupid? at your screen. While the silly suspension of disbelief moments were fine in previous episodes, I really grew tired of them here.

The development of Chan’s story is pretty predictable, his anger and disillusionment feeding his ego. The climax involves some laughable CG, and some extreme overacting on just about everyone’s part. Ruth Negga’s character Raina (flower dress girl), is clearly being set up as a big bad for the show, and this is reinforced with the after credits scene. If we’re going to see more of Raina, I hope she tones down the acting a bit, because while she certainly succeeds in being sinister, she’s also brilliant at laying it on so thick I’m afraid she’s going to suffocate herself.

While over all I disliked this episode, I really did enjoy some parts. May’s role was once again expanded, and I enjoy seeing her in action whether it’s physical or not. Despite Skye being written pretty horribly, Chloe Bennet’s acting is improving every week, and I’m actually starting to enjoy watching her on screen. She also has an important moment of character development at the end that had me breathing a sigh of relief, although it could be a big fake out. There are some interesting themes in the story, mostly surrounding doing things for the greater good – the lives of one over the lives of many, that kind of thing – but they are handled in such a heavy-handed way that it doesn’t really work.

The Girl in the Flower Dress is the kind of episode I can see being enjoyed by many, but for me, it fell pretty flat.

Rating: 4/10

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ep.3: The Asset

ustv-marvel-agents-of-shield-the-asset-1So, we have reached episode three. If my life were an episode of Friends right now, it would probably be titled ‘The one where Kim decides whether or not she gives a shit’.

And I do. Give a shit, that is. After a shaky start, I think this show is starting to figure out what it is, and where it needs to be heading. Even if it’s not exactly what I had hoped for in an MCU based show, it’s fun, silly and unpretentious. The in-universe name drops are beginning to abate, and it’s becoming self aware in a way that’s amusing, rather than grating.

I didn’t enjoy The Asset quite as much as 0-8-4, but that’s probably thanks to – following the pilot. The sudden upturn in the acting and writing cast a rose coloured tint on 0-8-4, rather than it being a particularly successful episode of a television series in its own right. Where 0-8-4 was a sharp U-turn as far as my enjoyment is concerned, The Asset holds steady despite a few speed bumps, but ultimately succeeds in being an entertaining episode.

The Asset has one huge plus on its side, and that’s the introduction of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first new character from comics canon. I really love seeing the interpretations of both the heroes and the villains’ origin stories, and while I kind of wish Franklin Hall’s plot here was a bit less cliché, it’s a decent take on Graviton’s beginnings.

The show’s core characters are still finding their feet here, but Agent Cardboard does seem to be a bit less… stiff. Not an overwhelming shift, just more going from 5mm solid board down to the double sided corrugated stuff they use for boxes. Everyone else is largely the same as in 0-8-4 – Coulson is still solid and in character, Skye is still a bit annoying but mostly pretty okay, Fitz and Simmons are still adorable motormouths, and Melinda May still doesn’t say much while continuing to be the most interesting character on the screen. Here’s hoping for a bit more development in the next episode, now that all the introductions are over.

There are hints on what’s to come here, from Coulson’s unexplained and frustrating difficulty with a gun, through to the teaser after the final scene. I’m really thrilled that AoS is continuing with the end credits idea from the MCU films. It’s a great way to build anticipation, without relying on the obligatory next week on…

As with any show of this type, there are a bunch of plotholes, convenient coincidences, and just as many things that just don’t make any sense at all. The opening sequence shows Dr. Hall being transported in the back of a truck, driven by someone who appears to be just your run-of-the-mill truckie, but (of course) turns out to be a SHIELD agent. Skye gets an invite to a private party held by a power crazed billionaire after a few taps on her smartphone. There’s an incredibly rare element called gravitonium. Hall just happened to be FitzSimmon’s favourite teacher. Needless to say, there’s some pretty serious suspension of disbelief required, but it’s okay because The Asset is fun and entertaining.

The focus is once again mostly on our audience surrogate Skye. I get it, she’s pretty and cute, and it’s a neat thing to have a computer nerd who is a hot chick (they exist, who knew?). I really want to like her, and enjoy her story, but she’s still not quite interesting enough. I also really don’t like the forced tension being created between her and Agent Cardboard. Not only is it unnecessary, it also feels a bit condescending towards the audience.

There’s some neat scenes in the back half of the episode which feature the gravitonium (I’m sorry, I can’t not put that in italics, it’s just too funny) causing things to go haywire, while Skye is talking her way into Quinn’s (the power hungry billionaire dude) trust, and gets to have a moment where she successfully acts like an agent of SHIELD, followed by the sudden skill development being thankfully subverted. We also get a welcome character moment for Melinda May right at the end of the episode, which should mean plenty of action from her in episodes to come.

Part of the reason I was hoping for something a bit less gimmicky, and more political from this show, was because I enjoy the idea of exploring a more realistic side of the Marvel universe. Now that a precedent has been set for something a bit more OTT and less grounded, I’m happy enough to be along for the ride, but I think I’m still going to be hoping for something with a little more substance.

Rating: 7/10

Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 ep. 2: 0-8-4

SHIELD-6After the cliché laden clunker that was the pilot episode of SHIELD, you can imagine my trepidation going into the second episode. Despite my concern, however, I do like to give every new series three episodes before deciding 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 heavy handed references.

The bad news is, the episode doesn’t start off on the right foot, with some VFX that just don’t quite look right – even for a TV show – and a fairly stereotypical ‘hero has to get out of impossible’ situation, followed by ‘[insert arbitrary timeframe here] hours earlier’. So far, so average. In addition, the further we get into the episode, the more obvious it becomes that Agent Cardboard Cutout isn’t going to become any more animated any time soon.

The good news, is that while the production values are still mediocre when compared to high budget cable series (which is where the pilot episode should have been sitting, considering its reported $14m budget), the show looks far more polished this week, and looks great for a network TV show. Sets look less studio backlot, and more like they were shot on location. The visual effects are still a bit iffy in places, but are generally pretty good, and the acting has improved vastly.

The great news, is that this episode is engaging. It’s clever, witty, and self referential in a way that doesn’t whack you over the head with an embarrassing desperation to please all the fanboys (and girls) this side of Jupiter. While many will look at the script and see huge similarities between the pilot and 0-8-4, the major difference here is subtlety. Lines are delivered in a far more low key manner, rather than with a comical, over the top facial expression, and a tone dripping with irony. While the writing team was hanging lampshades all over this episode (particularly in reference to Skye’s place on the team), rather than expecting to hear a ba-da-boom-tsssch drum punchline, they garner a chuckle, and a smile.

This episode is fast paced, fun, and a little silly in places, but not so much that it becomes tiresome. Last week, I bemoaned the likelihood of getting something like Burn Notice or Covert Affairs, with a bit more grittiness thrown in. This week, we got the next best thing – something that resembled a cross between Burn Notice and Covert Affairs. Enjoyable, episodic but with the undercurrent of a longer plot, and with a slight feel of guilty pleasure about it.

Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen, and Jeffrey Bell have done a great job of the script. There are still a few moments where I could have struggled to suspend my disbelief, but the whole episode is so nicely put together that I found myself not caring. I was particularly impressed with the dramatic shift in the quality of the acting, and if this is down to David Straiton’s direction, then I applaud him. Where most of the actors felt like they were reading from an autocue during the pilot, in 0-8-4 they actually feel like they’ve learned their lines sooner than two minutes before walking on set. Agent Cardboard Cutout is still a weak link, but at least he sounds like his accent isn’t something I put on after a few too many drinks on a Saturday night.

One real revelation for me was Skye. While in the pilot, she felt like an attempted replacement for Darcy Lewis (who, if you’ve read the Thor: The Dark World prelude comics, you will know managed to hack SHIELD without much preamble), in 0-8-4 she’s really settling in to her character. Her place on the team is called into question a number of times, including by herself, and at the end of the episode we start to get an inkling of her real motivations.

The rest of the team (apart from Cardboard), are also well characterised and acted. Melinda May’s woman of few words personality is reinforced, and I’m really excited to see more about how she came to be who she is. Fitz and Simmons are more of the same high speed talking over the top of one another, and despite Skye being the clear attempt at an audience surrogate, I can’t help but relate to these two far more.

I’m a little uncomfortable with the obvious attempt at creating sexual tension between Skye and Cardboard, when there’s very little chemistry between the actors. Suggesting that Cardboard will become her trainer towards the end of the episode doesn’t help with those reservations. I just have my fingers crossed that they’ll subvert this somehow and move on. Or more to the point, I hope my theory on the conversation between Agent May and Agent Cardboard is correct, but you’ll have to wait to find out what that is.

Coulson is firmly back in character, benign expression in place, dropping the odd terrifyingly efficient threat. It’s great to see him get a bit of history, with Leonor Varela guest starring as Peruvian Commandante Camilla Reyes, with whom Phil has an history of not much working. Go Phil, you dog!

It’s a relief to see the name drops and references delivered with far less of a feeling that the actors are winking at the camera. While a bunch of existing MCU characters and ideas get nods in this episode – the device they’re recovering is supposedly based off the HYDRA WWII weapons from CA:TFS – they fit nicely into the flow of dialogue, and actually got my brain ticking over with ideas, rather than being the basis of an eye roll.

I have a few theories on some of the carrots that are continually being left dangling in front of the audience’s noses, like Coulson’s magical time in Tahiti, and this episode has me actually excited to find out what the reveals are going to be.

Fast paced, enthralling, and excited for more. The plot is still predictable, but not irritatingly so, and the characters are no longer all one dimensional caricatures. I’m so thrilled to see such a dramatic turnaround after such a disappointing pilot. If it werent for Cardboard, 0-8-4 would be getting a solid 9/10, but as it stands…

Rating: 8.5/10 – the .5 is for the cameo at the end

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.


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