Probably this fall’s most anticipated new show, as well as the one with the longest title, MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered tonight on ABC. This spin-off of the popular Marvel movies, which include Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Captain America, The Avengers, and their sequels, picks up right where the films leave off, giving us a look inside the most secretive, powerful government institution on the planet.
Many are familiar with S.H.I.E.L.D. because of the appearances of operatives in the films, most notably Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg, The New Adventures of Old Christine), who tragically dies mid-way through The Avengers, just before the Battle of New York. But you may not know exactly what they do, or even what the acronym stands for. It’s Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division, by the way, which means, as one character quips in tonight’s “Pilot,” someone really wanted the initials to spell out S.H.I.E.L.D. They protect the Earth from aliens, super powered people, gods, and the like.
AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. is not going to give us a typical view of the organization, though, as it centers on a select task force put together by Agent Coulson, who is not in fact, as most believed, dead. This group is Coulson’s baby, a gang of unique individuals who don’t always play well with others, but are the best at what they do.
Coulson is around a lot in the movies, but it’s not until this “Pilot” that we really get a look at his personality for an extended period of time. Being near death has changed him a bit, re-focusing his purpose with laser sharp precision and a determination not to take any lives her doesn’t have to. It’s with that attitude that he puts the group together, and he strongly influences both mission and tactics.
How is Coulson alive? Well, Coulson has a tale he tells, though Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders, How I Met Your Mother) and Dr. Streiten (Ron Glass, Firefly) seem to know something else. But since they aren’t main characters, it may be awhile before we find out the whole story. That’s OK; we can wait.
Coulson’s group is made up of five young agents. There’s Grant Ward (Brett Dalton, Killing Lincoln), the by-the-book pretty boy, Skye (Chloe Bennet, Nashville), the super-smart, justice-crusading, independent reporter newly recruited by S.H.E.I.L.D., Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen, Mulan, ER), the washed-up soldier tasked with “driving the bus,” but capable of so much more, and Fitz (Iain De Caestecker, The Fades) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge, Delicacy), the brilliant, creative techies.
What’s cool about these characters is they are all just so bursting with personality. Creator Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse) has perfected putting together a group of clashing dynamics by this point, bringing together a bunch of very different people, much as he did in The Avengers film, but with more time to delve into them. Each of these five has serious back story to explore, secrets to uncover, and various opportunities for growth and potential. They are fantastic ingredients for a very satisfying epic series.
Plus, Whedon’s witty dialogue and clever twists are obvious in the “Pilot,” too, from a switcheroo involving truth serum, to hiding in a shadowy corner, to telling a suspect things can go down one of two ways, Whedon takes the familiar and predictable, then turns them on their heads. It’s a delight to follow his writing.
Whedon does recruit a couple of familiar faces from his past shows to appear in this episode, and likely will bring in more down the road. There’s Ron Glass, whom I’m mentioned, working in Agent Hill’s base as Dr. Streiten, and J. August Richards (Angel) plays the “case-of-the-week,” Mike Peterson, a man who gains super powers but doesn’t know how to control them. Populating this universe with such people will only make the show more enjoyable, and Whedon has quite a roster to draw from.
Now, I did say case-of-the-week, as there are definitely procedural elements built into AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D., and I frequently complain such formulaic shows. However, Mike’s circumstances take a back seat to the formation of the central cast, and his case also kicks off a larger arc involving a project known as Centipede. As such, while stand-alone stories will probably be mixed in, it’s equally likely that there will be a bigger purpose to the show, which is expected on such a series and appreciated.
AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. plays homage to the movies without relying on them. The Centipede project brings in the science theater-goers have already been introduced to, Coulson’s car, Lola, returns, and action figures connect the properties. But knowing about these things going in is not necessary, and I doubt very much anyone just watching the show will be lost.
Taken on its own, the “Pilot” is enjoyable. It can’t be taken on its own, though. There is too much structuring for further plot and serialized scenes leading to more to see this as a stand-alone installment. As the beginning of the journey, it sparkles, and there really isn’t anything to complain about. It’s well-paced, looks great for a TV budget, and has clearly been thought out carefully. It lives up to the hype.
MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.