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'Agents of SHIELD' Recap: The Wait Is Finally Over

The premiere of Joss Whedon's highly anticipated series is here. So what did we think of the TV sibling to "The Avengers"?

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD Pilot Episodic Blue - H 2013
ABC

As this is The Hollywood Reporter’s inaugural Agents of SHIELD recap, it seemed like the perfect time to get a couple of things out of the way up front.

1) There will be spoilers. Given that you’re all experienced Internet-wielders, I’m sure you understand how recaps work, but if you don’t want to be spoiled, just keep on trucking.

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2) Understand that this comes from a place of love. I am a dyed-in-the-wool Whedonite. A Browncoat, foremost, and on the Scoobies’ waiting list. But nothing that one loves is perfect. Part of love is understanding that. And, occasionally, one is disappointed in the things one loves. So, yes, when something feels off, or unearned, or just plain silly, we’re gonna ding it. Remember ... from a place of love. In Joss We Trust, But We Also Reserve the Right to Pick Nits.

So, here we go.

THR’s chief TV critic Tim Goodman has given his official word on the show itself, and I’m not going to contradict him. It’s a good pilot, but not a great one, primarily because of all the heavy lifting it needs to do to set the table for the episodes that will follow.

So, in short order, we have to meet the case of the week, Mike Peterson (J. August Richards), who is not Luke Cage but absolutely could’ve been. And maybe should’ve been. (Or maybe will be if SHIELD can remove the cocktail of enhancements that the evil-crazy scientists juiced him with and gives him a new identity -- after all, Luke Cage is totally a made-up name.) He used to be a factory worker before he got hurt. Then his wife left. And went broke. And can’t buy his kid one of the “heroes of New York” toys. It’s very sad.

Then he saves a woman from a burning building by Spider-Manning his way up a wall and jumping a few stories to safety, all in front of Skye (Chloe Bennet) and her enterprising camera phone. Meanwhile, Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) gets all smashy-smashy in Paris while uncovering some illegal Chitauri tech and a link to a, let’s admit it, silly freedom-of-information band of rebels called the Rising Tide.

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Ward gets airlifted back to a mysterious SHIELD field office where Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders, prepping for her post-HIMYM life) tells him that he’s been recruited for a response team that the not-at-all-dead-probably Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is assembling with Director Fury’s permission.

And it’s on. They collect a bunch of other team members: the mysterious Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), who “drives the bus” and “kicks the ass,” and Agents Leo Fitz (Ian De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), the comic-relief scientists who will clearly turn evil at some point during season two. A bit of handy detective work leads them to Skye, who then leads them to the About to Explode Man of the People. Big fight in Union Station, big speech from Coulson, happy ending, flying car.

A lot happens, with the same silky smart sensibility that Whedon -- who directed and co-wrote with his brother and sister-in-law, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen -- gives to everything he does. Everyone's got some semblance of a character mystery that we'll explore over the course of the first season and maybe the entire series.

But Whedon has never been very good at beginnings. Every season of every show he’s produced (save Firefly) started very slowly, and took some time to find its legs. He ends those seasons, though, like an all-star -- Angel’s “Not Fade Away,” Dollhouse’s “Epitaph One,” Buffy’s “The Gift” -- but he needs some track before he can work up a head of steam. And that’s fine. This one is good enough to get us to the next one ... which is all, ultimately, a pilot needs to do.

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Some stray thoughts:

First Theory About Coulson’s Not Death ... He’s a Life Model Decoy, an android that looks, feels and has been programmed to act human. In The Avengers, Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark tosses off a throwaway line when Coulson interrupts his wee date with Pepper Potts: “Hi, you’ve reached the Life Model Decoy of Tony Stark.” The wrinkle here is that the Coulsonbot doesn’t know he’s a Coulsonbot. Just a theory. (Which is totally what it is. But we’ll play along, Whedons ... for now.)

The Rising Tide ... is not, apparently, a detergent. It’s a young woman. Who probably smells Downy fresh while podcasting a bunch of rhetoric that apparently has SHIELD all in a tizzy. Why? Kind of unclear. Also unclear: Why, if Skye and the Rising Tide is such a problem, couldn’t they find her before ... especially if she’s just in a van down by the river? On that, if Skye has the web-fu to erase her own identity and hack into the SHIELD database, why can’t she convince a car dealership’s computers to give her a less-crappy ride?

The Deeper Meaning ... It’s buried among all the set up, but that final speech from Peterson/Cage feels like something you’d have heard from a frustrated Freedom Rider. “You said if we worked hard, if we did right, we’d have a place. You said it was enough to be a man, but there’s better than man. There’s gods. And the rest of us, what are we? They’re giants, we’re what they step on.” Those are strong words, good words, but from the mouth of a black actor, they gain more resonance. And I think that’s exactly what the producers were going for.

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Ron Glass ... Yay!

Just Once ... It’d be nice to see a team of super-accomplished, awesome people who weren’t all people who chose not to be supermodels because it got in the way of all that book learning. Yes, this is TV, and I understand the necessities thereof, but I’m all for diversity in casting and I want to stick up for the ugly people. They deserve their heroes, too.

At least they’re not trying to fake New York ... Because TV shows shot in L.A. that try and fake New York never do it right. And yet ... they’re not even faking East Los Angeles all that well, either. I’m pretty sure that the street where Mike Peterson gets all heroic is the same exact backlot street where Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer fought it out.

The Coolest Thing in the Episode ... Lola. Not just that it’s a hovercar right out of the SHIELD comics -- the hoverjets look like they came right off of Jim Steranko’s pen.

Speaking of Steranko ... we got the man himself to chime in with his thoughts on the episode and what it’s like for the man who created so much of SHIELD’s magic goodness to see it up on the small screen. Stay tuned to hear what Steranko Says ...

E-mail: Marc.Bernardin@THR.com
Twitter: @marcbernardin