[Review] - Agents Of SHIELD, Season 1 Episode 1, "Pilot"

Courtesy of Marvel Television
Let's take a moment to recognise how absurd it is that we're here, talking about a Marvel TV series. This shouldn't have happened, the Avengers experiment should not have succeeded. Iron Man didn't have a finished script when filming began, and because of the writer's strike, it never would get one. On top of that, it was a film about a (let's be honest here) third tier character that only diehard fans would have been able to say anything about, played by a washed up actor who hadn't had a hit in years. It was followed by the Hulk, a franchise that had already stumbled in a previous outing, and is doggedly entrenched in the memory of the 30 year old TV show that people were complaining that the giant green rage monster not being a body builder painted green made it look too fake.

Against all odds, a series of films focusing on obscure characters who all had their heyday in the seventies became a hit. And the mashup film became a phenomenon. Which doesn't happen either. The last successful mashup film was a Universal monster movie made before the War, and even then it was mostly crap. Nothing Marvel has done to this point had any reason to work. and neither should this series. Billion dollar film franchises don't get TV spinoffs. They get TV reboots twenty years down the line. They get TV ripoffs, and bandwagon jumpers. They don't get concurrent supplements, to sate a constant craving from the adoring fans. So, how did they do?

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that, where they're going, don't need roads.

I tend to reserve judgement on a new series until I've seen at least two or three episodes. Pilot episodes are rarely indicative of the quality of the show, because they are a sales pitch. They are used to present the characters, in basic form, and show the potential of a series. They are written cold, without a full grasp of the characters and how they will work together. The actors haven't settled into the characters either, making everything feel a little stiff. I'd rather not see the pilots at all, but unless there is a major cast change, they are rarely rewritten or reshot. It's just too expensive. So, we get to see pilots as premieres, but it isn't until further down the line that the show really takes shape. Joss Whedon himself has said that he looks at the first six episodes as the actual pilot, the chance to convince the audience that what they are doing is worth sticking around for. So, I have no opinion on SHIELD as a series as of yet. Like all things in the MCU, I have no idea what to expect.

The episode plays it pretty safe though, with the universe. There isn't any establishment upsetting going on here. Whedon has written and directed a very straight forward piece of television, which reminded me of what I remember from Dollhouse at certain times. It's a procedural, and I'm sure ABC is happy for that. Characters were, as I said, introduced, but not delved into with any detail, save one. It was mostly concerned with getting everything in place, so that Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen have plenty of room to play. It was plot heavy, rather than character heavy, though Whedon's other series have used this same style, allowing the characters to reveal themselves over time as the plot unfolds. Early seasons of Buffy and Angel were more concerned with what was going on, than who was going on. The who reveals itself in time, and I'm fine with that method so long as it works.

The exception to this was J. August Richards as the one-off baddie, who I hope we'll see some more of down the line, and who also presented the series thesis: what makes a hero a hero? The juxtapose of Richards and Coulson is a good a place to begin as any. Is it action, is it ability, or is it intent that defines a person's identity. Is it the suit of armour that makes Tony Stark a hero, or is it Tony Stark that makes Iron Man a hero? This is a theme well explored in the films, and I have no doubt this will be a theme that we revisit with Coulson later on in the year, but it was Richards time to shine here. His belief that he was in the right, that despite his actions and his desperation, his intention to be good therefore made him good is a tragic belief. And Whedon is genre aware enough to know that, in the comics, the suffering of this character is absolutely the stuff that would have made him "one of the team." But this is the MCU, where stuff like that can really screw you up.

It's nice to see Coulson again, but he wasn't the centre of attention here. Maybe it was a side effect of having to introduce so many completely original characters, and such an extreme focus on Richards' character, that Coulson never really stood out as a team leader. He wasn't immediately and obviously the central character of the show, in the way that Buffy or Angel or Mal was. He was a participant, not a leader. Not yet, and hopefully that will change. Because he's worthy of it. And that's not just because it was nice to see a familiar face (one of a couple). We've seen in the films that this is a guy who knows how to do his job, and do it well. The show just has to give him the opportunity. And those closing scenes, with Richards, and with Skye in Lola, showed the potential of the character as a strong lead. 

I was somewhat disappointed that a mystery was forced on the character. I've said before that, even as I was watching the film, I never believed that Coulson died in the Avengers, that Fury lied, and I would have been perfectly happy if the series kept it as simple as Coulson says: he stopped breathing for eight seconds, and the medic brought him back. The back hand mystery of his resurrection is needless, when there is so much more to explore in the world. So, bets now on what "he must never know." I'm going with Life Model Decoy, which would then play into the theme of what makes a man a hero. If this is a Coulson-bot, with all his memories and experiences, does that make him Coulson? But that, I'm sure, will be for a later time.

The rest of the cast are fine, though they haven't had time to really impress us yet. Ming-Na Wen had the least to do as the apprehensive Melinda May, while Brett Dalton and Chloe Bennet as Grant and Skye got the most exposition. Skye represents another mystery, having wiped her identity from the record books. My money says she'll be revealed as an established character from the books with a revamped origin, just because the show is so far removed from the rest of the universe at this point, it needed the cameo from Maria Hill just to cement that it actually is part of that world. The move to distance themselves from the films is a smart one, but the series could have used a couple more adapted character. I suspect those will come in time as well.

Already, we can see set ups for certain story lines. No doubt Skye and Fitz will show romantic leanings towards each other, which will spark jealousy and previously unknown feelings for Fitz in Simmons. Likewise, Grant's and Melinda's past actions will continue to affect them until they are forced to confront them in the field. The bootlegged superpowers, and the oddly young Doctor providing them will be a constant thorn. I liked the premise of bringing Extremis into the story (nice marketing trick too, premiering the series on the day Iron Man 3 was released on DVD), though throwing all the Avengers superpowers into a blender seemed a bit much, with Extremis then thrown on top. A little more patience in future might be called for. But again, it's early days. It was a decent episode, but not spectacular. Good enough to keep me watching, to get me interested in this "new world," as Hill calls it. And that's all it needed to do.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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