Videophiled TVD: The troublesome debut of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’

AgentsSHIELD
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: The Complete First Season (ABC, Blu-ray, DVD) is a problematic debut season. I think we can all agree on that. Critics have been less kind and fans more indulgent but the fact is, this series took most of the season to find its mojo. Perhaps it’s because creator Joss Whedon, who also directed the pilot, left the show in the hands of regular collaborators Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen while he directed his focus on the second Avengers film.

The first TV series set within the fabric of the Marvel Universe of the movies takes place in the aftermath of The Avengers, where the superheroes and god and monsters exist and the world knows all about it, and it resurrects Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who died in that movie. The series teases out the secret of his resurrection throughout the season as he forges his own special operations team that includes bad-ass battle veteran Melinda May (Ming-na Wen), hunky field agent Ward (Brett Dalton), science squad Fitz and Simmons (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge), and rebel hacktivist Skye (Chloe Bennet), who has her own secrets teased through the season as the loner learns to become a team player. Their mission is to find and help “gifted” beings before the bad guys (namely Hydra) get to them. Which leads to colorful but routine types of episodes: capers, computer hacks, undercover operations, and the occasional mission to retrieve alien technology or supernatural artefact.

The series was never actually bad but it was often just a cut above mundane and it kept tripping over its squad of poorly-defined characters and lively but routine team dynamics. Gregg is great fun as Coulson, embracing his unconventional approach to the S.H.I.E.L.D. super-agent with a legendary past, and Wen brings confidence and focus to her role as the legendary agent who earned the nickname “The Cavalry” (the story behind the name is so mired in myth that no one actually knows where it came from) and has to be coaxed back into the field. But the young agents are not very interesting and the actors fail to give them any grit, the episodes rehash familiar stories and situations, and the show spins its wheels for most of the season without forging its own distinct sensibility or identity. It has great production values, impressive actions scenes, some memorable guest stars from the movies (including Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury), and of course the Whedon brand of pop culture riffing and humor, but no sense of a bigger picture beyond the basic idea of the maverick squad fighting the interference of organization commanders as well as taking on the threat of the week.

The season’s storyline pivots around the events of the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier and that’s where the show finally gets interesting: the maverick unit becomes the rogue team battling the S.H.I.E.L.D. takeover and the traitors who have sided with Hydra and the intrigue within the squad itself takes some unexpected turns. Bill Paxton added his brand of enthusiasm as a recurring character, Angel alumnus J. August Richards became an interesting (if not fully satisfying) tragic figure, and comedian and comic book fan Patton Oswalt gets to geek out by getting his own distinctive role in the Marvel superhero universe. The final episodes finally deliver an engaging series with a promise of a better second season. It rewarded fans who stuck with it, brought other fans back to the show, and gave the critics reason to take a second look. The second season launches this month with hope that the new direction, with Coulson faced with rebuilding the organization from the ground up, continues at the level established in the final episodes of the season.

22 episodes on DVD and Blu-ray, with commentary on multiple episodes, the TV special “Marvel Studios: Assembling a Universe,” featurettes on five episodes, the 2013 Comic-Con panel presentation.

Five episodes are available to stream on Hulu, otherwise the only streaming solutions are Digital purchase, either a la carte or full season.

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