Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV Review

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

When a billion dollar film franchise spawns a network TV show the expectations are high. When the pilot is directed and co-written by Joss Whedon, the expectations are even higher. For the premiere of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, I walked in (to my den) expecting only the best and I walked out feeling thoroughly satisfied and wanting more. I expect the other 11.9 million pilot viewers felt similarly and will likely be back for episode two.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., created by Joss, brother Jed, and Jed’s wife Maurissa Tancharoen, is based on the organization of the same name from the Marvel Comic franchise. S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, a lengthy and somewhat ridiculous name that thankfully gets a comedic send up in the pilot. The TV series takes place firmly in the world of the Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and Avengers films. That begs the question, how is Clark Gregg reprising his role as Agent Phil Coulson?

Last we saw Agent Coulson he was getting stabbed through the heart by Loki in The Avengers*. So, when billboards came out featuring star and master of smirking Clark Gregg, fans of the film where understandably confused. Is this a prequel? Was Agent Coulson cloned? Twin brother? Zombie? Rest assured, the question is addressed and answered early on. The explanation was good enough for me and it comes with a hint of mystery that will likely act as a small but welcome through-line for the series.

* I have no qualms spoiling Agent Coulson’s death because if you haven’t seen The Avengers by now then you probably aren’t interested in seeing it and if you aren’t interested in The Avengers then you probably aren’t reading a review of its TV spinoff.

The pilot starts with a literal BANG and doesn’t take its foot off the ignition. The first five minutes take us from Los Angeles to Paris and from secret lab explosions to secret agent fistfights. We quickly and seamlessly learn the set-up. The world is still reeling from the epic alien battle in New York that was the climax of The Avengers. People now know that there are super heroes, and also super villains among us. S.H.I.E.L.D has the task of investigating this much weirder world and diffusing superhuman threats before they endanger humankind.

TV shows are continually blurring the line that separates them from cinema. Episodes of Breaking Bad and Mad Men wouldn’t be out of place at Sundance, just as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would look perfectly at home on the big screen of a megaplex. It’s not just the big budget and production value. It’s the cinematic touches and attention to detail on every level—things that aren’t required (especially on network television) but help make the show more than the sum of its parts. These elements build trust and confidence. We know we are in good hands before we even meet our protagonist.

When we do meet Agent Coulson, the show really takes shape. Clark Gregg is pitch perfect in the dry, sardonic role that he was meant to play. In fact, if Gregg hadn’t played Coulson in the films, I doubt the thought of creating a TV spinoff would have even been a consideration. In the pilot Gregg is immensely likable. He is at once a no-nonsense teacher and a class clown. He is both self-deprecating and proudly vain. Gregg is typically asked to be even-keeled as Coulson but here we also get a glimpse of a controlled anger, something that I hope we will see more of as the series progresses and Coulson is forced to dive deeper into the mystery of his resurrection.

The Whedons are masters at introducing character and their expertise is on full display as we meet the rest of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team. They use archetypes to their advantage, setting up characters we inherently know and then quickly expanding past the stereotypes. Brett Dalton hits the mark as Agent Ward, embracing the role of charming loner while skillfully playing the straight man to comedic effect. Chloe Bennett doesn’t hold back as Skye, a computer hacker who is fully aware that she is the hottest computer geek this side of the Bifrost Portal. As pilot and weapons expert Agent Melinda May, Ming-Na Wen (ER) isn’t asked to do much as of yet, but I predict her reticence to get back into the field means we are going to get a lot more backstory and perspective on Agent May as the series develops.

The most fun and refreshing of these new agents are the duo from across the pond, Agent Fitz and Agent Simmons—or as they will likely be consistently misaddressed, Agent Fitzsimmons. Watching the tech savvy male and female twosome (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge) is very much like seeing that old married couple from a screwball comedy. I don’t think you are supposed to remember which is Fitz and which is Simmons and I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t know either. They operate like a singular unit and with any luck, they will never be separated, finishing one another’s sentences and rustling one another’s feathers.

My only hang up with the cast of this show is that they are more or less a bunch of shades of white. I know the leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. is technically Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, but he doesn’t appear here and likely will not be making cameos. It would have been nice to see some added diversity amongst the other agents.

The actual plot of the pilot is just okay. It has something to do with an alien substance making humans physically stronger but messing with their minds. The story does allow for a solid performance by Angel alum J. August Richards, but ultimately the plot doesn’t really matter. It is simply a vehicle for the theme of “what makes a hero.” More importantly, it does an excellent job of showcasing how this show will work as a procedural week in and week out. Agents will discover a disturbance, they will investigate, they will get in over their heads, and they will adapt to solve the case and protect humanity. As long as they are doing it with the same amount of wit and charm displayed in the pilot, I’ll be along for the ride.

Spinning a major film franchise with a built-in fan base into a TV show might seem like a no brainer, but there was a good chance this show wasn’t going to work. After all, Agent Coulson was a tertiary character in The Avengers and Iron Man films. He was fun while on screen, but what we really wanted to see was a sarcastic Robert Downey Jr. and a CGI Hulk. The S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot couldn’t have been much better, but a lot of that has to do with the tight script and the direction from Joss Whedon. As the series progresses (and Joss goes back to making features), will the writers be able to hold the interest of a fan base accustomed to cheering for superheroes, or will the show simply make us long for the next Avengers blockbuster?

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J.T. Saroufim Joseph Tony Saroufim is a screenwriter and reviewer of film and television. He has worked as a staff writer in Vh1’s creative lab and in 2011 he won the best writing award at the New York Television Festival. Most recently he produced and co-wrote D-TEC, a television pilot that won Samsung’s Second Screen Storytellers competition. His favorite TV shows include Soap, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Veep. His favorite film is Holiday, starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.