Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
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Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.

Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. arrives essentially pre-sold. It’s the Disney corporation’s first big attempt to shift one of its major franchises to ABC, and if it works, more Marvel series (and possibly even a Star Wars series) will follow suit. It’s a big gamble, but only as big of a gamble as a series spun off of one of the biggest films of all time, shepherded by that film’s director, and starring one of its most important actors, could possibly be.

That connection to The Avengers is at once good and bad: Good because the pilot can lean heavily on something that worked before and bad because the pilot feels more picked over than others. TV series work best when they feel like they’re organically evolving and mutating; giant film franchises operate best in precisely the opposite way. For better or worse, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the best network drama pilot of the fall, but that’s mainly because so many of the other network drama pilots don’t even seem to be trying. There’s good stuff in S.H.I.E.L.D.; there are also things that feel curiously muted and cautious.

The best decision the series made was to build everything around Clark Gregg. Though the actor’s character died in The Avengers, comics characters rarely stay dead for long, and the pilot is already building a minor mystery around just how he successfully came back from being struck by the full fury of Loki’s wrath. With Gregg at the center of the show, what feels like a superhero hybrid of NCIS and The X-Files goes down more easily than it might otherwise. He’s exactly the kind of actor who fits best as the star of this sort of show: dryly funny and able to act as if he’s seen it all in the face of the impossible.

Of course, there’s also the need for characters who are new to this world, even if they’re not adjusting to the idea of a world with superheroes in it. (Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. decidedly takes place within the larger Marvel film universe, right down to a major guest spot from another Avengers actor in the pilot.) To combat that problem, the series deploys a whole mess of people who can stare at the superheroics around them in awe, but it places the bulk of this weight on Brett Dalton, as a new employee of S.H.I.E.L.D. (presented as a sort of CIA for superheroes), and Chloe Bennet as a mysterious hacker who’s drawn into the agency’s web. Dalton’s a bit of a blank slate at this point, but Bennet is fun, particularly the deeper her character gets in over her head.

The main reason to watch S.H.I.E.L.D. is because it’s the first new series from creator Joss Whedon since Fox’s Dollhouse went off the air in early 2010. Since that show’s cancellation, Whedon directed The Avengers and became one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, an unlikely turn of events to anyone who’s been following his career. But even when burdened under the immense corporate constraints of a property such as this, Whedon remains emphatically the man who created such all-time classics as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly. The dialogue is quippy and constantly undercutting what’s happening onscreen. The female characters have agency and a way with a one-liner. The male characters are world-weary and sarcastic. The pilot builds to a final 15-minute showdown that’s vintage Whedon, and in that section, it’s easy to imagine this will be exactly as fun as his other shows have been.

But Whedon earned his reputation by avoiding caution, by throwing out plot twists as quickly as he and his writers could think of them. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s pilot is precisely the opposite of this. The first two-thirds of the episode are almost cautious to a fault, catching anyone who hasn’t seen Avengers up to speed and taking the time to make sure any larger mythological elements—like the mystery of Gregg’s resurrection—are back-burnered in favor of the case of the week. That case is all right, as these things go, and at least it involves Whedon alumnus J. August Richards having strange powers, but it also feels incredibly paint-by-numbers. The only things distinguishing this episode from its timeslot competition NCIS are the presence of superheroes and Whedon (as director) having a great sense of pace.

Worse, it seems unlikely Whedon—who’s got Avengers 2 to direct, after all—will be as deeply involved in this show as some of his earlier ones. He’s got an army of able lieutenants, including Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, who wrote some of the best Dollhouse episodes, and Jeffrey Bell, a longtime hand at shows like this (including Whedon’s own Angel), all of whom will share showrunning duties. There’s also the thought that Whedon’s previous shows were able to get away with so much because they were so far under the radar. The struggling ABC network needs this series to be a hit, and that usually results in greater network interference than usual. (For a recent example of just how wonderfully this can work out, please see Smash.)

The idea of a superhero procedural is a good one, and there are enough fun and funny moments in the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot to suggest the kind of show that will settle into a groove with time. Yet there are also moments that seem boring, cautious, and predictable. To be sure, Whedon’s series have rarely begun with their best foot forward—both the Dollhouse and Angel pilots are bigger messes than this episode—but even when his shows are messy, they feel like they’re trying something new. Even in its best moments, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. feels like the product of several hundred cooks.

Created by: Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen
Starring: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet
Debuting: Tuesday at 8 p.m. Eastern on ABC
Format: Hour-long superhero drama
Pilot watched for review