Easily one of the most buzzed-about fall shows — and one that has the benefit of a brand name behind it and a box-office blockbuster related to it — ABC’s Agents of SHIELD thus sits in an oddly precarious position. It’s either going to cash in on the buzz and familiarity or it will end up as a great idea on paper but another drama that failed to launch.
Honestly, this could go either way. The pilot (airing Tuesday, Sept. 24, at 8 p.m.) is one of those good-not-great propositions that many pilots are, particularly those trying to establish a complex world. But it’s an hour that doesn’t exactly justify ABC and Marvel’s feverish protection of it, like it was a secret that could implode the world if it got out. The pilot was screened at Comic-Con and then to critics at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. But the full pilot is not even available on ABC’s MediaNet player, for those who might have, you know, forgotten about a scene or two.
That might not be smart, but it’s not a fatal blunder. There’s enough word of mouth to guarantee sampling regardless of what critics think (yet if that doesn’t materialize for the pilot, game over), and Joss Whedon‘s name out in front should guarantee at least a month of critical goodwill to see if the succeeding episodes take flight.
I’m betting they do, but I’m less sure that Agents of SHIELD will be the massive hit that ABC so desperately needs. Part of that has to do with history, part of it with concept.
And by history I mean whether or not people less versed in the Marvel world will A) be attracted to the show in the first place and B) find an entry point that’s not confusing. Must you have seen The Avengers to know what’s going on? Or any of the other movies featuring Marvel character who comprise the actual Avengers (you know, like Iron Man)? Well, it would certainly help, let’s put it that way.
Strangely enough, being familiar with the events of The Avengers will also make one twist a little hard to fathom: SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who was killed at the hands of Tom Hiddleston‘s Loki, pops up alive and well in Agents of SHIELD. (I trust that Whedon has a super-awesome explanation that will make the geek set flip out with joy.)
Agents of SHIELD also opens with a voiced-over montage recounting previous happenings from the Marvel world — namely, that all hell broke loose and a bunch of superheroes were needed to save the day. Cobie Smulders, briefly reprising her Avengers role as Maria Hill, is in the pilot as a expositional device. And then she’s gone.
Now, post-Avengers-mayhem mop-up, the Agents of SHIELD characters — who are normal humans with no superpowers — are tasked with rooting out and dealing with worldwide flare-ups of the paranormal variety.
Once you’re in on that premise as a viewer, then the world of Agents of SHIELD begins to make sense. Along with Coulson, we’ve got Ming-Na Wen as agent Melinda May, a pilot and weapons expert. (The agents of SHIELD bounce from hot spot to hot spot in a black stealth airplane.) Brett Dalton plays agent Grant Ward, a black ops specialist who’s more of a shoot-my-way-in-and-out guy.
On the less-guns-more-science side, you’ve got agent Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker), technology and weaponry guru, and agent Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), who’s into life sciences (even the extraterrestrial variety). Together they’re billed as Fitz-Simmons. Chloe Bennet plays Skye, a meddlesome civilian causing trouble for SHIELD but also someone with enough skills to be valuable.
In the pilot, Skye plays a key role because she catches — on her phone camera — what is clearly the act of a superhero who looks like Joe Average. And since this Joe Average seemingly has no idea how he did it, something’s afoot. (And yep, the SHIELD guys are onto it).
Gregg and Ming-Na are the anchors in the pilot but fans will probably warm to Dalton as well. There’s comic possibilities with Bennet, De Caestecker and Henstridge. And the combination of all of them, while not jelling perfectly in the pilot, could eventually make an ensemble that brings people back each week. After all, you have to be interested in the characters or there’s no point of entry.
Now, if you’re a fan of The Avengers then the notion of a Marvel series with Joss Whedon at the helm might be exciting because who knows which Avenger could pop in, right? That might be a problem of expectations as well because Whedon made it pretty clear that Agents of SHIELD is the story of non-superheroes — just the agents on the ground trying to fight the forces of evil without The Hulk. So those who were hoping for a mix might be disappointed.
On the positive side, Agents of SHIELD, which was co-created by Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, has a nice combination of Whedonesque humor and entertaining action. It’s a fun hour and calling it “good but not great” has more to do with expectations in the wake of the Marvel movies than anything else.
Whedon has earned the right to work his magic and perhaps that will take a few episodes. The issue for ABC is that it needs Agents of SHIELD to open huge and stay huge. I think the network would have been better served airing two episodes back-to-back just to cement the tone, but it’s too late for that now. We’ll have to see if the ratings are super … or not.