Wednesday, October 9, 2013

TV Review: Agents of SHIELD, Revisited

We’re three episodes into Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD now, and I’m starting to feel like I have an understanding of what the show is--and what it isn’t.  And what it isn’t, unfortunately, is the best show on television.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s okay, but really, if it weren’t tied into the Marvel Universe, I’m not at all sure that I would keep watching it.  With the storylines and plotting that we’ve seen so far, the show feels more like a TV version of the old West Coast Avengers comic series that ran from the mid-1980s to the early 90s than it feels like a continuation of the triumph that was the Avengers movie, and if you ask me, that’s a problem.  It’s a problem because the bar was raised substantially when the decision was made to explicitly tie the show in with the movie universe, and it’s a problem because there are other, similar shows on TV (and in TV’s recent past) that are doing the same kinds of things to much better effect.

In case you’ve forgotten, the West Coast Avengers spun out of one of Hawkeye’s storylines from the classic 80’s Avengers’ days.  They haven’t played him this way in the movies yet, but in the comics, Hawkeye has typically been a hot-head and a bit of an anti-hero, and in this role, he’s often served as a foil for Captain America, who thinks of being a hero in much more traditional terms.  The two have very similar powers, after all--which is to say that neither actually has “super” powers--but somehow Cap is the leader of the team and a role model while Hawkeye has been stuck as Cap’s lackey.  To most of the team, Clint Barton is nothing more than a former carney who couldn’t possibly lead the team and is frankly lucky just to be included in most of their adventures.  Over time, however, Barton begins to mellow a bit.  He gets married to Bobbi Morse, aka Mockingbird, and though he still chafes under Cap’s leadership, he proves himself to be a reliable teammate.  So they finally let him establish his own franchise of the Avengers, out on the West Coast.  And thus is born on of my favorite four-issue mini series of all time, the West Coast Avengers.
A it happens, Graviton was also the first major
villain for the West Coast Avengers.
The problem with the West Coast Avengers, though, was that after that initial four-issue mini-series, the team felt like a cast of also-rans.  The team--Hawkeye, Mockingbird,James Rhodes as Iron ManWonder Man, and Tigra--didn’t feel like the Avengers at all.  And as a matter of reality, they were nowhere near being Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.  Instead, the characters themselves mostly spent their time trying to reassure each other that they were really Avengers, and that they didn’t need help from the East Coast team to save the day.  Which is basically Hawkeye’s personal story-arc, writ large.  He’s not Captain America, but he’s almost as good.
There’s probably a good story in there somewhere.  But as an “Avengers”-branded title, this was not a concept that was gonna work long-term.
And unfortunately, I think that’s sort of where we find ourselves with the Agents of SHIELD.  They’re not the Avengers, and that’s fine.  But in the backs of our minds, I think that idea that they ought to be almost as good is ever-present, and while there very well may be a good story in there somewhere, so far I’m not convinced that we’ve seen it yet.  What we’ve seen feels instead like the random adventures of a collection of also-rans, using the Avengers’ movie formula on the small screen to a much lesser purpose.  In a world that wants to save the world in an epic way, these guys come across as plodders and also-rans.
Part of that, though, is the acting.  Put simply, I don’t think anyone on the cast with the exception of Clark Gregson has been at all good.  In particular, Brett Dalton’s Grant Ward is terribly miscast.  Ward is supposed to be the loner on the team, the experienced SHIELD assassin working his first group assignment, but Dalton himself is maybe thirty-five, and he plays the character like the character is in his late twenties.  Dalton comes across as a naturally nice guy, but the character he’s playing needs to be gruff, gritty, and menacing.  A loner and an anti-hero with a reluctant crush on the new team hottie, not Saved By The Bell’s Zach Morris, now all grown up and an agent of SHIELD.  
I can lead a team.  Really.  I can!
It’s annoying.  Compared to Gregson, Dalton’s Ward comes across as the junior captain who’s just joined the battalion staff and hasn’t yet settled into his new job.  And that’s okay if that’s the story, but then don’t make him the team’s bad-ass heavy.  Make him what he would be--eager to learn, not completely sure of himself, and in way over his head as part of a whole group of folks who’re also in way over their heads.  
But that, of course, would require jettisoning Coulson’s constant refrain that his people are “the best.”  Then again, I don’t think that would that be such a loss.  They could easily play his team as a bunch of rookies with one burnt-out vet in Ming Na’s Melinda May who nevertheless get all the tough cases because: a) SHIELD is a non-governmental agency with a relatively small staff, and recruitment is a bitch, b) Nick Fury trusts Coulson because Coulson has performed well under pressure before, and c) Fury badly needs Coulson to train the next generation of SHIELD agents because the world is getting out of hand.  Unfortunately, that training is gonna be more like trial by combat than traditional SHIELD agent training, but what can you do?  This is SHIELD.
Instead of that, what we have now is a chaotic mosh of ideas that’s trying to be too much.  Like it or not, they’re not staffed with the right horses to pull in that many different directions at once.  
Also: Chloe Bennet (Skye) might be a complete hottie, but she belongs on the TBS reboot of Pamela Anderson’s old VIP series, not in the leading role of ABC’s flagship show of the new fall season.  ‘nuff said.
Finally, I think the show is suffering from a serious lack of superpowers.  Or code-named super-agents, anyway.  I mean, in the comics, SHIELD has all manner of super-folks working for them.  Spider-WomanCaptain Marvel, Mockingbird (technically not super-powered, but still…), etc.  Me personally, if I’m making a TV show set in the Marvel Movie Universe, I’m building it around street-level heroes and shadowy groups like AIM or The Serpent Society.  The way they built the show’s pilot was a good example of how they might do that.  But since then, we’ve seen neither hide nor hair of a super-stuff, and its lack is evident.  I wanna see Luke Cage cruising around Harlem or maybe the kids from Power Pack when the spaceship crashes in their backyard.  I want to learn that there are Kree living on our planet, planning their invasion.  But so far… no dice.
Anyway, I don’t hate the show, but it’s also not quite where I hope it’s gonna get yet, either.  As with everything else on this blog, you can take that for what it’s worth.

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