AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. 1.1: “Pilot”

CHLOE BENNET, CLARK GREGGI can best sum up my feeling about AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. by saying that I really wanted to like it more than I did. And I did enjoy it; I just didn’t love it. Even though I wanted to love it.

It felt like the show was coasting too much on Executive Producer Joss Whedon’s reputation and its association with last year’s blockbuster The Avengers movie. I got the sense that the pilot was Joss slapping together a demo piece and telling the network, “This is just a placeholder; trust me, the real series will be great.” And, yes, the script was generously stocked with Whedonesque quips and Easter eggs, but I expected it all to be much more… well, polished.

As such, the pilot for AoS was pretty okay, but it demonstrated nothing close to its potential. It felt a bit like one of the characters, Grant Ward — shiny and a bit smug, and not as charming as it thinks it is.

The story centered on Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) returning to active duty after being killed in the Avengers movie — or was he? (That will be an ongoing plot thread.) Coulson is back from Tahiti (or is he?) to assemble a special team to make first contact with people who suddenly manifest superpowers. Coulson chose veteran pilot Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) and lone-wolf tough guy Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), as well as Leo Fitz (Iain Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), who together form the science team.

shield2Conveniently, an unregistered “gifted” individual suddenly appears in the form of Mike (J. August Richards), a hard-luck factory worked juiced with Extremis, the power-boosting formula seen in movie theaters this summer in Iron Man 3. Mike is also spotted by Skye (Chloe Bennet), a hacker who fronts a one-woman revolutionary group called Rising Tide. Of course she’s so brilliant that Coulson wants her to team with S.H.I.E.L.D. to help poor Mike. Which she does, and so Mike is stopped before he’s overwhelmed by the Extremis power and really hurts someone.

The story was a bit too low-key, relying too much on Gregg’s charisma as Coulson, a part he’s been playing for years in various Marvel Comics movies. By now, Gregg has refined Coulson’s insouciant detachment, and the guy feels like he’s floating above the fray, dispensing advice to the children he’s manipulating into doing things. But Gregg has the chops to pull it off and make Coulson seem charming. It’s a leadership style that’s very different from Nick Fury’s — and it’s a shame that Samuel L. Jackson could not be talked into a cameo, so the home viewer could know that Coulson is operating with Fury’s blessing.

And then there’s Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), whose place in the S.H.I.E.L.D. hierarchy is not clear. In The Avengers, she was Fury’s right-hand gal, but here she appeared to be deferring to Agent Coulson. I don’t watch HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, so I cannot say how personable Smulders is capable of being, but judging by this pilot, the answer is “not much.” She plays Marial as a walking block of ice, which is not really how she came off on the big screen.

shield4I know this was a pilot, but the other characters do not fare much better. They were quite faceless, even for initial sketches. Grant Ward is as generic as his name — the handsome, super-competent “I work alone” poor man’s James Bond who’s overcompensating for something. Skye, the cute gorgeous and spunky free spirit who longs for structure and conformity. And then there’s Fitz and Simmons, the composite scientific team that’s great in the lab, not so great with people. Zzzzzzz. And Melinda the world-weary vet as field leader/den mother? Been there, done that.

I’m not sure I like how trusting Coulson is. Skye may not have been a terrorist, but she did hack the S.H.I.E.L.D. system (or did she? That was unclear), and she has no official background because she erased all the files about herself. Can she be trusted? I get the sense that AoS was winking at the audience, assuring us that Skye is too pretty to be evil. (Speaking of whom, I hope Ms. Bennet is prepared to become an instant geek goddess, because she is crazy ridiculously beautiful, and mobs of fanboys are going to fall at her feet.)

The show is supposed to be about ordinary people confronting the extraordinary in a world populated by gods and monsters. The ending (too) explicitly discussed the thin line between hero and villain without really addressing it. Mike wrecking stuff and hurting people was definitely the stuff of villainy, no question about it. Skye’s hacking could be for good or ill, depending on what she does with the material she “stole.” From the pilot, it would appear she didn’t really do anything with it except blustery podcasts that smacked of DARK ANGEL.

shield3In addition, the pilot had absolutely no sense of danger or menace or even tension. It didn’t feel as if anything was really on the line beyond one guy. Sure, the team was trying to find Mike before he exploded, but Richards usually plays a good guy, so I didn’t think Mike was really going to hurt anyone. Perhaps if Rising Tide were a real anarchist organization and they were looking to kidnap Mike — yeah, that would have helped with the dramatic tension a lot. I’m hoping that Whedon will introduce Hydra or AIM or some other opposing organization from the comic books, and soon.

Look, Joss Whedon knows from juggling a ensemble cast of charismatic characters, so I have no doubt that AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. is in good hands and that the characters will be rounded into shape and interesting threats will be introduced (with a shadowy Big Bad behind it all), and that AoS will become thoroughly entertaining. It’s just not there yet.

Nor is it in Tahiti. “It’s a magical place.”

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