Leave it to Nick Fury to save the day. “0-8-4” is an adequate hour of action-adventure television, but the first 59 minutes are missing the spark of the final post-credits scene, which features Samuel L. Jackson making his first appearance on this series to berate Agent Coulson for blowing a giant hole in his very expensive new toy. After five years of playing these roles, Jackson and Clark Gregg have fostered fantastic chemistry between their two characters, and they understand the heightened style of acting that is required for the fantastic world of superhero stories. Everything is a little more dramatic when dealing with Asgardians and alien invasions, and an actor has to fully commit no matter how ridiculous the story or dialogue.
Jackson and Gregg needed to have that passion to make their characters stand out on the big screen, but the rest of the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. ensemble is struggling to fill out the TV screen. I don’t know if it was Iron Man director Jon Favreau or Clark Gregg who gave Coulson his sarcastic but lovable superhero fanboy personality, but it was the exact voice that the Marvel movies needed, providing the perfect counterpoint to Jackson’s severe, straight-laced Nick Fury. Gregg is coming to this series with all the momentum he’s built up in the Marvel films, and it’s no surprise that he’s the first thing most people are mentioning when discussing the highlights of the pilot. The other actors are essentially playing catch-up; their characters are very flat by comparison, but that’s as much due to the writing as it is the performances.
Joss Whedon takes off after the premiere, but this second episode remains incredibly faithful to the product promised by that first installment. Angel alum Jeffrey Bell joins pilot co-writers Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen to script “0-8-4,” the team-building episode that gets all these conflicting personalities working together when they’re faced with a common enemy. Before Skye gets a chance to adjust to her new role as a S.H.I.E.L.D. consultant, the group is called in to investigate an “0-8-4,” the code used for an “object of unknown origin” (example: Thor’s hammer). The agents end up at a temple in Peru where they discover a Tesseract-powered Hydra weapon left over from the days following World War II, but their investigation is cut short when they’re ambushed by an old flame of Coulson’s and a band of violent Peruvian rebels.
The characters may need work, but Agents is definitely delivering on the action front. These heroes may not have superpowers, but the sharp hand-to-hand choreography and intense gunplay make for powerful fight sequences. ABC has put a considerable amount of money in this show to make it look as close to cinema-quality as possible, and the investment is paying off with sleek special effects and intricate action setpieces. The physics are completely wonky in the sequence where everyone is moving through an airplane cabin with a giant hole in it, but it sure does look cool! This show isn’t about sophistication, it’s about fun, but hopefully the writers will begin to explore more challenging material down the line. The cliffhanger reveal that Skye is a double agent for Rising Tide introduces a new wrinkle in the story, and the series will only improve as more serialized plotlines enter the picture.
Chloe Bennett was a nice little diversion when she guest starred on Nashville last season, but at this point she doesn’t feel quite right as hacker/S.H.I.E.L.D. consultant/double agent Skye. The easy breezy make-up, the hip but still commercial wardrobe, the lustrous brown hair that falls over her shoulders like ribbons of finely shaved chocolate—how the hell does this girl look so good if she spends all day on a computer in her van? (Would it have hurt to throw some glasses on her to help sell the tech wiz image a tiny bit?) Bennett is doing fine work building Skye’s personal relationship with Agent Coulson and creating sexual tension with Brett Dalton’s Agent Ward, but she’s less skilled with making her technical fake-science dialogue believable. That said, Bennett has a fairly difficult role to play as a 20-something techno-terrorist who suddenly joins the world’s foremost peacekeeping agency, and she does her best work when she lets the character’s naïveté shine through.
Elizabeth Henstridge’s Agent Simmons is the least captivating member of the cast, but she’s also the actor having the most difficulty adjusting to the rhythms of Whedon dialogue. Her scene partner Iain De Caestecker fares much better with his portrayal of Agent Fitz, but he also has more to explore with his character’s short-fused temper and potential OCD. (There’s a moment when Fitz freaks out about Skye not putting his robots away correctly that suggests he may have some Sheldon Cooper-like tendencies.) Having read a variety of Nick Fury comics this summer, I wouldn’t mind seeing Dalton turn up the charm to make cocky alpha male Ward more likeable, because right now he’s a frown that punches and kicks and occasionally makes googley eyes at Skye. He has the potential to be this show’s Captain Mal, but right now he’s closer to Buffy’s Riley.
The most experienced actor of the group, Ming-Na Wen has the benefit of playing the silent but deadly Melinda Mae, establishing her character’s “voice” with furtive glances and kick-ass action sequences. Melinda also has the most clearly defined backstory of the new agents, giving Wen meatier material to play than her costars. The history being built for Melinda establishes her as a sort of legend among S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, nicknamed “The Cavalry” because of her remarkable skill in the field. It’s also a nickname she doesn’t ever want to hear again, and the mystery of Agent Mae’s switch from action to administration is quickly emerging as one of the show’s most promising subplots.
Melinda’s grizzled veteran isn’t the most original character type, but it’s clear that Agents isn’t going to be the most original show. “0-8-4” situates the series somewhere between Firefly and Dollhouse on the spectrum of Whedon TV influences, combining the former’s ship-centric team dynamic with the latter’s present-day secret agent/espionage angle. Throw in the forensic elements of a CBS crime procedural and you have the formula for success. The pilot garnered the highest ratings of a drama premiere in four years, but the last thing Agents wants to be is formulaic.
It would be very easy for this show to slip into a pattern that alternates between the team encountering 0-8-4s and “registered gifted” superhumans each week. Except for Firefly, all the Whedonverse TV series initially struggled to break free from the repetition of “case of the week” storytelling, but once they did, they were able to reach their full potential. The micromanagement of this series means that the formula will likely stick for a while, so it’s up to the writers to add more character depth so people have a reason to keep coming back.
- When it comes to actors fully committing to drama in goddamn ridiculous circumstances, my hat (head?) goes off to the cast of Sleepy Hollow, who are doing remarkably well with some of the goofiest dialogue on TV.
- I am getting really excited for Thor: The Dark World, which looks like it will expand on everything that was good about the first film. Plus, putting more attention on the Asgardian cast is the best possible choice.
- Coulson’s comment that Tahiti is a magical place now has me wondering if his resurrection was mystical in nature.
- The robots named after Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs characters make me very nervous that there will be a Once Upon A Time/Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. crossover. Anything could happen…
- “I’m calling this. But your frown will be on record.”
- “Do you know how much this plane cost? It had a bar. A really nice one.”
- “You know, I have the authority to downgrade your ass to a Winnebago.”
- “Yeah, we’re gonna have to kill the fish tank.”