One of the hardest things to tell with big-budget shows that categorically need to be successful is how much of each episode is what was originally intended by the authors and how much is network notes. In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D‘s – sorry, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D‘s second episode, in which much of the action happens in an unconvincing South America and a cameo is unfortunately (but perhaps inevitably) the best thing about an episode, it seems relatively easy to tell that it’s the latter.
“0-8-4″ starts well enough, with a flash-forward teaser that puts ordinary dialogue in stark contrast to the life-threatening situation immediately following it, but any tension carried over into the episode proper quickly dissipates as it reminds us once again that Avengers: The TV Show this is not.
I wrote last week about how comparisons to the show’s lead-in movie would be damaging, but I didn’t think the creators would actively go courting them by putting the characters in scenarios there really isn’t the budget for.
To wit: Coulson’s team is dispatched to a temple in South America to investigate a glowing MacGuffin that’s incredibly dangerous and is connected to the Tesseract (the MacGuffin from Avengers). Skye has just officially joined the team but can’t quite gel with everyone else despite doing a reasonable enough job in the pilot, but there’s no time for them to work it out by talking because shooting happens and they’re forced to extricate themselves from the cardboard jungle with a bunch of soldiers in tow headed up by an old flame of Coulson’s, a woman who plays their CO about as convincingly as Larry David plays generous.
So the rest of the episode takes place on the plane, which would be fine if it didn’t mean that Team Phil had abandoned the European excavator who found the shiny box in the first place and presumably was killed in the attack on the site.
Safety turns to seduction turns to mutiny and before long Coulson’s tied to a pole, forced to spout exposition about why he’s still alive, and everyone else is left to work together to come up with the solution that results in a massive hole in the side of their brand new airplane.
Credit where it’s due: the climactic action sequence did create a palpable sense of peril, but only really for the bland Peruvian militia because who’s going to buy that a show would kill off its leads in the second episode?
I thought the show would settle into its groove with “0-8-4″ but everything felt much clunkier than in the pilot, with so many repeated lines from the previous episode (“front row seats at the strangest show on earth,” “I’m a specialist!”) as to feel annoying and condescending, like ABC were worried 8 million people might have been asleep in front of the telly last week.
But I still found things to enjoy: Skye and Agent Ward have started to grow on me – despite the writers’ tendencies to give them more of the dumber lines than anyone else (I don’t think Skye’s recitation of “pieces solving a puzzle” to herself despite being surrounded by people will ever not annoy me) – as they’re given some space to grow without shoehorning in any stupid romantic undertones; I’m giving FitzSimmons a pass this episode because I enjoyed them so much last time, but the patter did fall a little flat and the technobabble much more forced this time around; Clark Gregg still manages to elevate occasionally substandard material, because obviously; and the best moment of the series so far came in the final scene when Nick Fury lamented the team’s negligence of his bird by sadly commenting on the mod cons: “It’s got a bar. A really nice one.”
But like I said, if the best moment comes from a 30-second cameo then there’s plenty of character work to be done. I’m liking Melinda May’s stoic badass schtick less and less as time goes on, and I’ve a feeling the writers might feel the same way as the moment in which she’s knocked out by sleep gas felt rushed and like something of an in-joke at the constant teasing of her SUPER MYSTERIOUS PAST SHHH. I really think there would have been more mileage in introducing May as “just the pilot” without all the hoo-ha around her so that six or seven episodes down the line she can save the day to the surprise of everyone (except Coulson, natch). Audiences like surprises. Surprises (note that “surprise” is not synonymous with “twist”) make the audience feel like they’re getting to know a world and the people in it at the same time as the characters, whereas telling them that someone did something one time and then only revealing what that was after a series of agonisingly forced teases results in anticlimax at best.
I can still be hopeful that their long game is worth it, though, and at two episodes in it really is far too early to tell if this show can go the distance. One thing’s for sure, unfortunately – it’s clear to see exactly what missing without Joss Whedon’s sparkling wit and firm guiding hand.
Still, despite everything I find myself excited for next week. Probably appropriate for a superhero show, I suppose.