Thursday, October 3, 2013

Does "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." Miss the Mark or Stay on Target?

As a huge comic book nerd, and a Marvel Zombie in particular, you can imagine that I was excitedly anticipating the debut of Marvel Studios' first television series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. However, even though I was excited about the show, I wanted to see at least two episodes before I weighed in.

The pilot was famously directed by nerd god Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, as well as the writer/director of Marvel's The Avengers and creative guiding light of Marvel Studios.

It was co-written by Whedon with Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, who are going to be the main show runners while Joss will presumably keep his hand in but not be in charge day to day.

Set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (tm), the series follows Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), mysteriously resurrected after his "death" during The Avengers (or was he? This is perhaps the central mystery of the show) as he assembles an independent squad within S.H.I.E.L.D. to investigate the odd and unusual. His team consists of black ops agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), lethal agency legend Melinda May (Ming Na Wen), a pair of requisite nerd science boffins named Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), and Skye (Chloe Bennet), a computer hacker and member of an anarchist group who's been recruited as a consultant.

So, yeah, that's the set up. The question is, is it any good? Well, it could be. It's close. But sadly, it's not there. The problems come down to two major areas.

First, there's a problem with expectations. Marvel has spent a long time setting up a cinematic universe, something which has never been done on this scale. They're basically recreating what Marvel excels at in the comic book medium, namely the construction of an intricate intertwined universe of characters. That's never really been done in movies before, and it's a huge accomplishment. But, it does mean that your audience tends to expect a certain level of consistency, and I can't see the show meeting it week in, week out, even with cameos with prominent characters from the film franchises.

First off, they don't have the budget or the time. The first two episodes demonstrate that, with some pretty ambitious action set pieces. In the second episode for example, there's an extended sequence that has the team's plane have a hole blown out of the cabin, and while the production team does their best, it's hard not to think of similar sequences in Marvel films and find it lacking. In an unrelated action show, it would work just fine, but the people who are watching this show are going to have seen the movies and suggesting otherwise is just being disingenuous. As a result, the show can come off feeling a little small, which is clearly not fair as it's probably got tons of money behind it. But week in and out, it's inviting the viewer to compare it to feature films, and that's a hurdle.

But even the above problem isn't a killer. Over time, people will get used to that smaller scale. It may not continue to get monster ratings, but there's enough people who enjoy the Universe to tune in. But the second problem most definitely is a killer.
It's the casting. Let's open with Clark Gregg. I love Clark Gregg. Have since Sports Night. He's always fun to watch. His range is not huge, it's true, but his dry and wry style is enjoyable, and that's precisely how he turned a minor role in Iron Man into his own TV series. It's hard not to root for a guy like that. But, he's not the most dynamic actor, and the problem is, no one else he's surrounded with is all that dynamic either. The other character that I think really works Is Ming Na Wen's Melinda May. Every action series needs its laconic no-nonsense ass-kicker, and to have it be a woman and a woman who's not 22 years old is great. Wen is really great, and convincingly plays the part and is deft enough to put something underneath the bad-assery that is compelling.

Everyone else is not so good. They are all ridiculously good-looking, though. Even the nerds are good-looking. Everyone seems like they never get colds. I recognize that this is TV, and obviously we're not going to get Ernest Borgnine up there, but does the entire team have to be made up of twenty year old models? What's weird is that if you look at Joss Whedon's previous shows, you see people that are clearly attractive, clearly appealing, but they're not so.....bland. There's character there. Buffy and Firefly were filled with interesting, compelling central characters. Yeah, they had astoundingly good-looking people on those shows, but not everyone was a Gap dancer, and even if they were, they had more going on and were played by actors that could rise to the material.

I'm not the biggest Sarah Michelle Gellar fan, and she is without a doubt easy on the eyes, but you can't deny she brought her game to Buffy and succeeded in doing justice to the scripts and even enriching them in many occasions. So far, I haven't seen a hint of characterization with the younger characters beyond the broadest of broad strokes. They remain types, not people. And two episodes in on Buffy, Firefly, hell even Dollhouse, I couldn't say the same thing. Even on an non-Whedon series such as Fringe, for instance, the central cast was way more interesting right off the bat than our S.H.I.E.L.D. team here. I don't think Fringe was all that better written, but it was certainly better cast.

By the end of the second episode, I actually found myself wishing Fitz and Simmons would shut up, and while I see potential in the Skye character, I couldn't see the actress playing to the strengths of the character as written. This is too bad, as I get the sense she's supposed to be the viewer's identification character, but so far she just seems either naive or self-righteous, without any of the mystery or charm she's supposed to have.

I hope the next few episodes rectify these issues. As I said, it's early days yet, and ABC has too much riding on this association with Marvel to axe the show too quickly. But if it were me? I'd add another team member, someone with some natural dynamic quirkiness who won't try to be cool. I'd honestly suggest getting rid of Fitz and Simmons and replacing them with one character played by an actor who can actually be funny (Alan Tudyk isn't being used properly by anyone right now, and he'd be great), but that's probably too extreme. I'd also lighten up Ward, make him more of a Han Solo-esque rogue, try to inject some spark into the guy. 

Even though I'm a Marvel fan I'd say Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has only got a few more times at bat to keep me watching.

1 comment:

Da Big Hot Chocolate said...

With Ms. Gellar, you always knew that her future would be more futuristic than anyone ever thought...