TV: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Season 1)

The fact that I made it through the entirety of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first season speaks more to my investment in the Marvel universe than it does to the quality of this series. Which is, uh, low.

I love the Marvel movies. Yes, they’re big, silly, popcorn blockbusters, but they’re exciting, clever, and fun, and they push my nostalgia buttons. If movies were food, Marvel movies would be pizza.

Well, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is frozen pizza, and not very good frozen pizza. There are moments when it reminds you of pizza, a tasty bite of cheese and pepperoni here and there, but mostly it’s just the cheap, cardboardy, freezer-burned kind. This is almost entirely a failure, I think, of character design. The show builds around the Marvel movies’ most unlikely breakout character: Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), the deadpan, quirky side character who’s been working the fringes of Marvel superhero action ever since Iron Man. Unless you live under a rock, you’ll know that Coulson died a heroic, tragic death in The Avengers. Here, he’s back to life. But how, and why?

The show tries to build a compelling central mystery around these questions, but it also builds its world around the journey of an arriving outsider: Skye (Chloe Bennet), a quick-witted, street-smart computer hacker with ties to an activist group called “the Rising Tide.” Skye’s charms and talents catch Coulson’s eye, and while she initially disagrees with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mission, she allows herself to be recruited, and eventually comes to respect the organization and her teammates. The team includes agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), a one-man wrecking crew reluctantly reassigned to Coulson’s team; Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), a combat badass and pilot with a dark past; and a pair of plucky scientists, Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge). This core team of five, much as Coulson did in the movies, works the fringes of the action: investigating scientific mysteries, tracking supervillains, and combatting threats from “the Bus,” their personal Air Force One.

It’s a promising enough set-up on paper, and in light of the insane popularity of the movie franchise and the robustness of the Marvel canon, its potential should be limitless. But after a decentish pilot, it falters spectacularly, primarily due to its flimsy characters. Agent Coulson is central to the show’s problems; Clark Gregg’s cameos in the movies were subversive and funny, but he makes rather an awkward and hollow leading man. The team members surrounding him are thinly conceived. The most successful character is Skye; Chloe Bennet brings plenty of charisma to the table, although especially in the early episodes the dialogue is working way too hard to make us like her. Alas, the rest of the characters fail rather badly. Ward is, at best, a Serviceable Action Guy. Fitz and Simmons are a disaster of babbling, accented tweeness. De Caestecker and Henstridge eventually evolve into a more likeble pair, but even at their best they seem more like private school students on a field trip than secret agents charging into life-threatening situations. Melinda May…oh, brother. Ming-Na Wen is physically convincing, but her character is flat, and she comes off like an automaton.

In a team-based show like this, created-family chemistry is key, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t have it. It plays at it, it pretends to have it, it wants us to believe it has it, but until the late stretches of the season, it just doesn’t. It seems like they designed these characters down to match the nebulous personality of Agent Coulson. They’d have done better to surround Gregg with some serious dramatic firepower, and paint him as the scheming mastermind quietly pulling the strings. Coulson was interesting when you were trying to figure out what was going on in his mind. He’s not even remotely interesting when he actually tells you.

The episodes occasionally have promising premises, but the structural and emotional payoff is often lacking. For such a high-profile project, the special effects are often pretty terrible. And throughout, Coulson’s team lacks credibility. They’re pitched as “the best of the best,” but events rarely bear that out. Especially in the early episodes, the plots hinge on huge mistakes they’re making, traps they’re falling into, and villains they’re creating.

There does come a point late in the series, right after the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, when S.H.I.E.L.D. finally graduates from clumsy to interesting. The characters start to breathe a little, and the plots start to intrigue. Chloe Bennet takes over the series, and the rest of the cast improves. Steps are taken to reshape the team, and reboot the show’s world. It bodes well for season two, but I still feel like it’s only climbed from bad to average at this point. Overall, it’s a hugely disappointing season of television, perhaps all the worse for how much I was looking forward to it.

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