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The short Teletype on Marvel’s Agent Carter is that it gets right all the things that Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD got wrong — and that’s the biggest cartoon brawl you can win when you’re looking for a hit.
And yes, ABC is looking for a hit.
Tonight’s two-hour premiere of Agent Carter will make you wish it wasn’t the start of an eight-episode trial run that, with enough viewers, might garner a second-season order. (I immediately wished it were a full season and Agents of SHIELD was sent back to the shop for an overhaul.)
The reasons Agent Carter works while its longer-named, more modern sibling does not come down to relevance and story. While the small-screen SHIELD may lack the big-screen superheroes that fuel the Marvel franchise, that isn’t its greatest fault. After all, Agent Carter lacks Captain America, but that doesn’t stop it from being a badass and riveting bit of screen magic.
In SHIELD, ABC and Marvel gave us a series that lacked a purpose, for starters, and had an ensemble cast featuring no one engaging enough to make you identify the series through the characters’ magnetic storylines. In SHIELD, every episode was a caper looking for a purpose and an hour looking for a reason to exist.
In Agent Carter, the identity is immediate. First, British star Hayley Atwell fully embodies the character and has the panache and allure to be the face of the series. Also, Agent Carter is a period piece, which makes it distinctive. Set in 1946, with a retro look that becomes its own important and identifying character, we find Agent Peggy Carter back from war and excited to use her considerable talents at the Strategic Scientific Reserve to help the country — only she’s reduced to secretary status as the men dismiss her or whisper that she’s merely the Captain’s ex. Agent Carter uses the era’s heavy sexism to its advantage because it knows, and lets the audience know, that while Peggy is none too happy about how she’s treated, she’s not going to sit there and complain about it. She’s going to outsmart her co-workers, show up before they do and handle the damned problem herself. If that involves kicking a significant amount of ass with her hands and feet and weaponry — including, tonight, a stapler — so be it.
This is why we like her.
Comparing her character to that played by a man reduces her importance, but there’s really no current comparison that’s worthy. So, Peggy Carter is the Jack Bauer of her era (if Jack, in 24, were harangued and dismissed by Chloe all day long). Or, to reference a show fewer people watched, she’s the precursor to Sydney Bristow on Alias.
In the two-hour premiere, the story revolves around the government’s attempts to nail Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) for treason because his scientific weapons experiments — he calls them his “bad babies” because they are the most lethal — have fallen into enemy hands. The government thinks he sold them, so Stark, on the lam, turns to Peggy to help him clear his name (and lends his almost-able butler Edwin Jarvis — played by James D’Arcy — to assist).
You need not have seen the Captain America movies or read the comic books to follow this fun little romp of a show. That’s how having a clear identity is helpful in ways other than being favorably compared to Agents of SHIELD.
There’s definitely mushy comic book overtones present here, with the action never seeming very scary or dangerous, and a cartoony swagger to it all. The men of the Strategic Scientific Reserve may be sexist cads, but they are also broadly slow in the process, which ensures that Peggy will, for the most part, easily outwit them. That said, Chief Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham), Agent Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) and Agent Ray Krzeminski (Kyle Bornheimer) may be stereotypical when we first meet them, but creators Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas at least give viewers the more sympathetic Agent Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), whose leg injury from the war also makes him a bit of a second-class citizen in the eyes of the other SSR boys. It’s this kind of advanced planning and slow rollout of characters that gives Agent Carter more credibility and the audience some faith.
It will need that audience, of course, though lack thereof hasn’t stopped ABC from keeping SHIELD alive.
As it stands after two entertaining episodes, there’s a lot that Agent Carter can do going forward. It already feels like a series, and if it can keep that up — plus highlight the hell out of Hayley Atwell — then a second season should come easy.
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