Thursday, September 26, 2013

TV Review: Agents of SHIELD (plus Sleepy Hollow)

This post is late because I wanted to be able to put my thoughts on the new Marvel Studios show out there.
I liked it a lot. I didn’t love it, but the foundation was set for me to feel that way in the future. I think it was very smart to keep the pilot somewhat grounded and basic. We got a mild introduction to the cast of characters, the nature of this portion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was established, and the overriding conflict was set up. Nothing too heavy was thrown at us and nothing too concrete was, either. At this point we really don’t know what to expect from the show and I think that’s a good thing.
The SHIELD pilot had to accomplish two major things – it had to blend in with the universe that has already been established in the Marvel movies and it had to realign the expectations of viewers used to watching those big-budget Hollywood movies.
The weight of the former task rested mainly on the shoulders of Clark Gregg. Bringing his character, Agent Coulson, into the show was a brilliant move not only because he was such an integral part of Phase 1 of the MCU but also because he died. That second fact is being used as Mysterious Plot Point #1 on the show, which is a compelling reason to watch. It was revealed in the pilot that there is more to Coulson’s seeming resurrection than we – or Coulson – know.
The latter task was accomplished by a subtle scaling down of the things that we saw in Avengers. What we saw there was the highest echelon of SHIELD operations – bases deep underground and high in the sky. The entire world was at stake and SHIELD’s top resources were utilized. In the Agents of SHIELD pilot we got the ground-level operation. Office buildings and mobile operations centers in jumbo jets. Slightly more mundane settings, but accompanied by all of the livery of the movies – SHIELD crests everywhere, guest star Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill in her skintight SHIELD jumpsuit, a very familiar-looking case to store some Chitauri tech. We’ve seen these things before and they are all cues that this is a familiar universe.
Another interesting – and liberating – plot point is that SHIELD is no longer a completely covert operation. After the Battle of New York, SHIELD had no choice but to make its presence publicly known. So now we have neat-o SUVs and sedans with SHIELD logos on them. Also, we don’t have to worry about agents running around and doing big things in broad daylight. Because that’s another thing this show is apparently going to offer – big things in broad daylight.
This world knows about superheroes. It knows about Tony Stark and Thor and Captain America. And while it loves them – there is a celebrity worship facet to the narrative that I am looking forward to seeing pop up from time to time – the world is also a little bit nervous about them.
Side Note: There is a slightly disparaging line about “cosplay girls hanging around Stark Tower”. I’m curious to see the social media reaction to that.
The entire closing act of the pilot centers around the idea that after the Battle of New York the average Joe is left wondering what his place in the world is. It’s a theme that was touched on in Iron Man 3 that I think is worth exploring further in a longer format.
Speaking of Iron Man 3, there is direct fallout from that narrative in the form of Extremis being exploited by the unknown Big Bad of the show. In addition to utilizing gamma radiation and Chitauri tech for nefarious purposes, this entity is bastardizing Extremis technology. I’ve got to admit - it was pretty thrilling to see such a recent development depicted in that way. It’s just one more device that shows how tightly meshed the TV and movie narratives are.
While Agents of SHIELD got all of the above tonal elements right, that success would be meaningless without the right cast. Obviously Clark Gregg is a key element (for now, anyway), but he is surrounded by a cast of newcomers that we as viewers are going to have to accept as our new heroes. I am lousy with names, but I actually managed to pick up a few in this show. I don’t know exactly what that means, but typically I don’t remember characters’ names until the second season of a show. I’ll do a quick rundown here:
Agent Phil Coulson – Everybody loves Clark Gregg. His job here is to put a team together for reasons that are slightly unclear but basically “We need just a few people to build a show around”. I would love to think that he’s going to be around for the long haul, but the Mysterious Secret of his resurrection creates an out for once this cast is established. We’ll see.
Agent Melinda Mae (May?) – I am predisposed to thinking Ming Na-Wen is awesome. Her character here has a Mysterious History that I’m sure will be revealed over the course of the show. She does not want to be doing the field work that Coulson has recruited her for, but he feels that it’s what she should be doing. I like this character quite a bit. She might be my favorite on the show right now.
Fitz & Simmons (Fitzsimmons) – These two annoyed the piss out of me at first, but by the end of the episode I liked them quite a bit. Their sheer delight in nerdery and technology was a lot of fun. I look forward to seeing their characters develop beyond just being tech geeks and – given that this is a Joss Whedon show – the inevitable demise of one or the other.
Skye (sp?) – In addition to being easy on the eyes, this new SHIELD recruit is a ball of fire and energy (not literally – I thought I should clarify that given the nature of the show). To me, she successfully walked the line between being sassy and enthusiastic and just being an asshole. I also liked her response to the aforementioned cosplay line, admitting she’d done that once. Also, I think there is potential here for her to end up as a Big Bad. As Coulson said – they don’t know anything about her; and that doesn’t happen.
Mike (aka “Not Luke Cage”) – I don’t know how permanent a role J. August Richards will have on the show, but I’m hopeful he’ll be sticking around. He is the first superpowered individual that this new SHIELD team deals with and his character arc is very relatable. He’s a dad who is just trying to get by and agrees to have the gamma/Chitauri/Extremis tech – called Project Centipede - implanted in him. The Extremis makes him go a little crazy, but SHIELD comes to the rescue. Granted, this is more of the trademark Whedon “redeemable bad guy” that I was complaining about yesterday, but it was short-term and different enough to work.
Agent Whitemeat Bad Boy – Despite the fact that he was presented as a primary protagonist I can’t remember this guy’s name. He was fine. The guy kind of came off like an Amateur Hour Eddie McClintock, but I’m sure over the course of the series he will grow and develop his own character. He was the butt of many jokes and for now that’ll do.
Evil Doctor Lady – Also easy on the eyes. She appeared to be a victim early on, then was revealed to be behind Not Luke Cage’s Project Centipede implant. I doubt she’s even near the top of the mysterious Big Bad organization, but I bet we’ll be seeing here frequently. She played innocent and evil equally well.
We were also treated to appearances by Cobie Smulders and Ron Glass(!). I imagine we’ll get occasional appearances from Smulders for big plot occurrences, but I’m hoping we could see Ron Glass a bit more.
I was completely satisfied and entertained by the first episode of Agents of SHIELD. It gave me a cast that piqued my interest without overwhelming me with characterization and backstory. A world was established that is familiar, but that is a new layer to one we already know. To me it was very reminiscent of the Star Wars Expanded Universe in that the movies presented a huge, shiny surface world that could be taken in over the course of a few hours, but the show (or books and comics in the case of Star Wars) presents a much deeper and more engrossing world that we will be able to settle into and learn about over the course of (hopefully) several years. Enough of the familiar was used to grab my attention, enough mystery was revealed to keep it.
Side Note: There were a lot of Whedonisms peppered throughout the show – Skye telling Not Luke Cage, “With great power comes… a bunch of crap you’re not ready for,” and Coulson asking Skye if she was ready for this “Journey into mystery”. Also – Lola flies.
Sleepy Hollow
Before I go I wanted to touch on Sleepy Hollow. I wasn’t neccesarily excited about this one, but I was intrigued. I wanted to see how Washington Irving’s short story could be adapted into a weekly drama. While I enjoyed Tim Burton’s vision, the animated Disney adaptation is still the best.
Yes – still the best.
If I had written this after watching the pilot there would be an entirely different tone. That first episode was excellent. It had a fantastic atmosphere, great music, a good cast, and a clever variation on the well-known tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. In 42 minutes the creators managed to set all of that up, as well as establish the rules of the world and the mythology that was being used (mostly witchcraft and biblical apocalypse with a touch of Illuminati/conspiracy). The two leads – Crane and a female police officer – had good chemistry and were likeable. As a matter of fact, the policewoman (sorry – names again) is probably one of my favorite new characters on TV in a long time. She broke a number of stereotypes, but in a subtle way that didn’t say, “Here’s this character that’s going to break stereotypes”.
So at the end of the series premiere we had a centuries-old conspiracy, weird supernatural stuff, a clear set of goals, and a new team to root for. The stale roles of believer and skeptic seemed to have been moved past, as the modern-day policewoman had already seen too much to doubt.
Then the second episode started and for some reason she’s treating Ichabod like he might still be crazy and acting like the stereotypical skeptic. Despite fighting a Headless Hessian and seeing all kinds of magic shit just one episode prior.
And then the – admittedly well done – Monster of the Week showed up. And managed to totally succeed in everything it needed to do without the heroes saving anybody. And the heroes only defeated it by blowing it up because it just so happened to be in a room full of explosives.
The second episode wasn’t just not as good as the pilot, it felt comparatively incompetent and almost like an afterthought. It was like a professional author wrote a story and then let some high school kids continue it.
With so many similarly-themed shows out there – Supernatural, Once Upon A Time, American Horror Story: Coven and a bunch more – Sleepy Hollow really needs to be excellent. And this second episode was not. I’ll stay tuned because it’s possible that this sophomore episode was an aberration, but to have gone from such an excellent pilot to such crap so quickly pretty much killed my enthusiasm. I’ll keep you posted.
-Phantom

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