September 25, 2013

THE SKED Pilot Review: ABC’s “Agents of SHIELD”


AGENTS OF SHIELD:  Tuesday 8PM on ABC – Potential DVR Alert

Even without any connection to the multi-billion-dollar entertainment monolith that is Marvel (and behind it, Disney), the arrival of a new TV series from Joss Whedon would be an event.  Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a bedrock not just of the TV drama renaissance, but of giant chunks of pop culture in general, from Harry Potter to Twilight to Orphan Black, and with that show and the later Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse, he’s demonstrated himself a master of idiosyncratic teams of heroes.  It was inspired of Marvel to bring him on for their mega-hero epic The Avengers, and the result was $1.5B in worldwide revenue (and that’s just in theaters), the third-highest grossing movie in history.  Having him spin out the Avengers universe into television (with brother Jed and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen, both of whom have collaborated with him in the past) was a no-brainer.  (Note:  the Marvel’s part of the series title, like the Lee Daniels’ part of The Butler, is a matter of business more than titling, and will be dispensed with here.)

Of course, The Avengers cost about $200M to produce, and the pilot for AGENTS OF SHIELD, its TV descendant, probably about 5% of that, so no cities are pulverized in this off-shoot, and while the production values are generous by network standards, there’s a shortage of spectacle.  (Not necessarily a bad thing, at least for those of us who spent the summer watching the world blow up over and over again.)  Our heroes are also not the super kind; instead, the series focuses on the quirky geniuses who serve as back-up to the gods, genetic mutations and Iron Men of the Marvel universe.  They’re led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), rescued from his apparent (and perhaps actual–the pilot hints at further mysteries) death in The Avengers, and as dryly collected and unflappable as ever.  Back from wherever he’s been since his death (he thinks it’s Tahiti), his team includes Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), who serves as supervisor on the ground and has a history we don’t yet know about; Fitz (Iain de Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), one of whom is an engineer and the other a biologist, but who specialize in speaking at the same time and finishing each other’s sentences; and Ward (Brett Dalton), a moderately antisocial soldier type.  Before the pilot is over, Coulson has also adopted Skye (Chloe Bennet) onto the team, from her previous crusade of exposing organizations like SHIELD for her WikiLeaks-ish group called Red Tide.

SHIELD’s mission, of course, is to battle wrongdoers and protect and support the super, and there’s the danger that its episodic assignments will prove routine.  The pilot, involving a superpower version of steroids that eventually causes the user to spontaneously immolate, isn’t the most original story in the world, and in a culture now inundated with superheroes and supervillains, that may prove to be the norm.  What Whedon and his team are expert at, though, is undercutting the cliches and developing rich characters amidst the action–Buffy, for its part, was hardly anyone’s first ride around the vampire carousel.  Building the characters will take time, especially since the pilot required a ton of exposition to set out the Marvel world (with callbacks to various Avenger characters) and introduce all the players.  Whedon’s playfulness, though, is already on display, notably in an interrogation scene that nimbly reverses the expected, as Coulson injects Agent Ward with truth serum rather than suspect Skye, causing to Ward to ramble on embarrassingly about his deeper feelings and making Skye consider trusting the “men in suits”.

Agents of SHIELD comes onto the scene with enormous expectations, thanks to its gold-standard pedigree.  Whedon and his co-writers aren’t operating under the radar, as in their WB days, and will face instant and continuing pressure to deliver some version of the action and mythology of the comics and the movies, as well as establishing characters and storylines that are satisfying in themselves–and, incidentally, lead off an all-new night of ABC programming while doing it.  It’s too early to tell if they’ll be able to pull it off, but the pilot, effectively scripted and with an appealing cast led by Gregg, is certainly promising.  One winces a bit at the idea of Marvel/Disney spreading its hegemony to small screens as well as the multiplex, but at least as mass market deities go, Joss Whedon is a benevolent one.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."