I’m going to try not to be too biased here, but I guess it’s kind of telling that my favourite moment from the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D was when Shepherd Book was on screen for all of ten seconds.
Yeah, this show’s definitely for the fanboy in me. I’ve always been a fan of rich world-building (one of the reasons I most enjoyed Pacific Rim so much was that the universe felt fully realized even when the dialogue and character work was a bit iffy), so the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D already had seven movies’ worth of world behind it was always going to work in it its favour. I can’t think of any other show that’s been pre-sold so well, and my first viewing of the show was entirely coloured by an astonished wonderment that it was able to exist in the first place. This is genre programming brought to life by the preeminent nerd in all of pop-culturedom, but it gets a prime time slot, a gigantic budget and the biggest debut ratings on US TV since 2009?
Somebody pinch me; I think the fanboy in me’s having a wet dream.
[Yeah, I know: gross.]
Let me get all of my geek-out baggage front and centre first: it’s wonderful to have Joss at the helm of a series once more. The ensemble format feels like a well-worn glove and we get right into the groove of team dynamics that feel like they’re lifted right out of Angel Season 5 (shady, incredibly wealthy operation, bosses with secrets) specifically and everything else Whedon’s ever done generally. Despite there likely being even more pressure and scrutiny on this show than there ever was on Dollhouse, S.H.I.E.L.D manages to feel much more comfortable with its characters and set-up (though, again, that could be the seven-movie run-up and the fact that Joss had that whole Avengers thing to figure out where to pitch superhero humour). There are certain archetypes present that many of us will be aware of, some more welcome than others, but what’s more important is that each character feels like enough of an outsider within their own sphere to generate empathy and, y’know, get me to care whether they live or die. I could make a joke about beloved fan favourites dying right now but I think we’re all pretty sick of that tune by now, right?
Speaking of jokes, there’s more than enough self-deprecating wit to undercut a whole season of melodrama, and it’s just what the doctor ordered; without humour, a sci-fi show about superspies and capes without the tights might collapse under the weight of its own ridiculousness. And boy, does this get silly. While the main point of the episode is to get the team together and introduce the key mysteries of the season, the more plotty scenes deal with guest star J. August Richard’s (Gun from Angel, looking a little more jowl-ish than we’re used to) increasingly problematic superpowers and the gang’s need to stop him before he, well, explodes and stuff. While not especially original or dramatically interesting, the plot serves more as the crux on which to establish the show’s ethos, which would appear to be “save people at all costs, even if they’re morally grey and there aren’t a whole lot of options”, summed up much more succinctly in the affable but tough Agent Coulson’s (Clark Greggs) words, “Don’t ever tell me there’s no way.”
That line seems pretty apt for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D‘s ideology in more ways than one, as if preparing us for the slightly more outlandish flights of fancy that are about to come our way. I won’t spoil the final shot of the episode, but suffice it to say that it’s just as unabashedly silly as I could have hoped for.
All of this makes it sound like the show’s really rather slight, and while it’s definitely not a sombre homicide procedural and knows when to poke fun at itself, there’s a certain emotional sincerity that always shines through in Whedon’s work and the danger definitely isn’t fleeting, even if the action sequences do suffer somewhat from being downscaled from the silver screen. Again, it’s Richards who mostly features in these sequences and they really are the weakest links in an admittedly pretty strong chain – not helped too much by a commentary on cartoonish super hero stereotypes that doesn’t quite stick the landing and results in some uncomfortably knowing, hammy dialogue – and the fact that his character is struggling to provide for his son isn’t aided too much by said child having all of two lines in the whole episode.
But yeah, if that’s the only real gripe I have about the pilot then at least it’s not a truly major one. And that’s an important thing to bear in mind, too: this was a pilot, which are notoriously difficult to make in a way whereby they don’t totally suck. Definitely a great start to a fun show and an introduction to a bunch of characters I’ve already started to fall in love with…some nerdy British girls more than others. What can I say? I have a weakness. For characters created by a middle-aged comic book fan and his family.
It’s not weird. Shut up.