“Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Pilot episode are a tricky proposition. You have one episode — 45 minutes — to hook the audience. Most new shows have it trickier than (Marvel’s) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which airs Tuesday nights on ABC. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. already has a built-in audience, being a spin-off of one of the most successful Hollywood blockbusters of the last decade (it’s The Avengers). Yet, like the series of films on which its based, it needs to cater to both those in the know and the uninitiated. Thankfully, Marvel and ABC have Joss Whedon to help them out.
The Avengers essentially guaranteed Whedon job security for the rest of his life with Marvel (to the point where the studio will go to great lengths to have him involved in projects), and with his extensive background and (critical) success in television (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly), it seemed only natural to have him head up a weekly spin-off series. Much of the pilot shows Whedon’s strengths; he has a gift for balancing a large cast and ensuring each member has something to do. Whedon’s plotting is terrific here too, as he builds on well-worn clichés before flipping the audience’s expectations. This episode contains so much plot — and so much happens so quickly — that it’s almost ingenious the way Whedon burns through half a season’s worth of story in under an hour.
Yet, the show also exemplifies Whedon’s gift for dialogue, giving characters various witty barbs, exchanges (“I don’t think Thor is technically a god.” “You haven’t been near his arms.”), and pop culture references (Hermione Granger! T-1000!). The cast that’s been assembled handles the material well, particularly Clark Gregg (returning as Agent Phil Coulson) and Chloe Bennet (as Skye). Bennet, in fact, feels like a Whedon stock-in-trade character: her Skye is strong, clever, and quirky without being forced and overbearing.
As one character reflexively acknowledges — “this is an origin story” — this episode is primarily dedicated to establishing a framework for the show and introducing this elite team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents (S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for ‘Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division,’ by the way). Coulson is tasked with recruiting a number of agents including Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), Leo Fitz (Ian De Caestecker), and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) while investigating both a hacker organization called Rising Tide and the emergence of another super-powered being. But the focus of this episode is mainly Skye, the mysterious, young tech whiz with unclear motivations and allegiances.
Despite the episode’s strengths, it does suffer from many of the same problems as other pilots. Even though Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a built-in audience and essentially half a dozen films leading up to it, the show still needs to cater to viewers who may not be familiar with the universe Marvel has created. This leads to the biggest problem, which is the show’s attempt to cram in a ton of exposition before the first commercial break that comes off as clunky (for even clunkier exposition, see this season’s James Spader-starring The Blacklist). As well, the reveal that Coulson is, in fact, not dead is treated in an off-the-cuff manner that is both in-line with Whedon’s style and wholly unsatisfying. Though, a long glance and a wide shot held for too long suggests there’s more to Coulson’s recovery than we’re given.
While it’s pegged as a superhero drama, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. dabbles more in other genres, leaving the superheroics on the sidelines. Tonally, the episode is consistent, but it has a difficult time settling on a single genre. Agent Ward’s opening fight recalls the close-quarters combat of The Bourne Ultimatum and Fitz and Simmons recreation of bomb site points to a sci-fi CSI. It may be a detriment to this episode, but in the future this flexibility of genre can work in the show’s favour, much as it did for The X-Files (which deftly balanced procedural elements with horror, sci-fi, and comedy), offering something unique on a weekly basis.
Based on the episode, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shows tremendous promise, not just because Whedon’s influence is reassuring or the strong cast (Gregg makes the perfect anchor), but because of wealth that the Marvel universe provides and the potential for adapting the material to a number of genres.
[I’m going to try to provide weekly coverage of the show. I’ll be getting into more depth with each episode — I wanted to keep the discussion of the pilot to general impressions — which means spoilers ahead, people. Adjust your expectations accordingly!]
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., “Pilot.” Directed by Joss Whedon. Written by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen.