If there is a new series on TV this fall that’s the definition of “critic-proof,” it’s “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.”
ABC has relentlessly marketed the show all summer. Yet aside from a screening for fans at Comic-Con and another one for critics at the TCA press tour, the network has kept Tuesday’s (Sept. 24) premiere episode under lock and key. So what you’re about to read comes from that TCA screening, not a fresh viewing of the pilot episode and certainly not of anything from further ahead in the series.
On one level, keeping such tight control over the show makes sense. The success of the Marvel movies and “The Avengers” — “SHIELD” is more or less a TV spinoff of that film — in particular strongly suggest there’s an audience that’s going to show up regardless. It’s also kind of novel these days, when pilot episodes stream online weeks before their airdates, to guard a show so closely (though not surprising, given that Marvel properties tend to make the “most pirated” lists each year).
So is it worth all the fuss? Pretty much, yeah. The “SHIELD” premiere, co-written and directed by “Avengers” helmer Joss Whedon, very effectively downscales the action to a more human level as the heretofore mostly anonymous agents of the Strategic Homeland … etc. agency (the somewhat tortured acronym is the subject of the pilot’s best joke) take front and center. Since the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth aren’t going to be making many guest appearances, pivoting toward the non-superpowered characters is about the most important thing the show has to accomplish in the early going.
It manages the change thanks in large part to Clark Gregg, whose Agent Phil Coulson appears to have recovered quite nicely from his death in “The Avengers.” Gregg was a capable sideman in the Marvel movies, and Coulson’s key trait — that he was almost never cowed by the superheroes or fantastic events around him — make him a natural fit as a leading man here.
The rest of the cast fills out crime-fighting team archetypes: Brett Dalton is the capable but cocky young agent; Ming-Na Wen the taciturn, ass-kicking veteran; Iain de Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge the excitable nerds handling the science; and Chloe Bennet the outsider brought into the fold. Whedon and his fellow writers, brother Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, however, give the characters enough room to start establishing identities beyond their types. And as you would expect from a Whedon project, there is plenty of deadpan humor amid the drama and action. Bennet and Dalton in particular seem to take to the Joss-y dialogue especially well.
The questions about “Agents of SHIELD” have largely to do with what the show will look like several weeks down the road. The pilot’s chief antagonist is played by “Angel” alum J. August Richards, and it leaves him in a place that seems to call out for a recurring part. Yet the descriptions for coming episodes ABC has released make it seem as though that at least in the early going, we’ll be watching a Marvel-ized version of a procedural. Whedon’s past shows have managed to pull off the episodic vs. continuing story balance pretty well, so there’s hope that “SHIELD” will be able to do the same after putting down its roots.
Deep knowledge of the Marvel cinematic canon shouldn’t be required to enjoy “Agents of SHIELD,” although fans will pick up on several nods to the movies. (This might help too.) All anyone going in cold needs to know is that a big battle in “The Avengers” wrecked a good-sized section of New York City, and Coulson was presumed dead after the events of that film.
“Agents of SHIELD” is a big swing by a network badly in need of a new drama hit. The show is likely to score big ratings for its premiere, and early evidence indicates there’s enough to keep people coming back.
“Agents of SHIELD” premieres at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday on ABC.