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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Pilot

"With great power comes... a ton of weird crap that you are not prepared to deal with."

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the most buzzed about show of the autumn TV season. Not only is this series a spin-off from the third biggest movie of all time, but it sees the long awaited return to the small screen of writer/director/mass murderer Joss Whedon, now the creative overlord of all Marvel's live action endeavours (when he's not making Shakespeare movies in his backyard). Of course, buzz can be a dangerous thing. One week you're the show everyone is excited for. The next you're the show everyone was disappointed by. So did Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. manage to live up to all the hype? Was this the bestest, most brilliantest pilot ever made?

Yes and no.

As pilots go, this one was impressive rather than mindblowingly spectacular. In terms of Joss Whedon pilots I’d place this ahead of ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’ and ‘City of..’ but behind ‘Serenity’. I’m leaving Dollhouse out of equation because it has two pilots and I have no clear memory of either. I can't even remember their names. I think one was called 'Echo', but I'm not sure if that was the one Fox ditched or not. I know I could easily look it up but that isn't a top priority right now. Reviewing this episode is.

It's a brave new world following the Battle of New York (as seen in The Avengers). We know this because Maria Hill tells us so. After all, an alien army, led by a mythological god, invading one of the world's major cities and having their asses handed to them by a group of superheroes is not something that can be swept under the rug. To deal with the potential new threats this world will throw at them, S.H.I.E.L.D. has put together a special team of agents lead by Agent Phil Coulson.

Coulson is the reason we are all here. This entire series was created as a vehicle for this character. Thanks to his laidback charm, Clark Gregg effortlessly makes the leap from supporting player to leading man without sacrificing any of the character’s essential Coulsoness. This guy may be able to take down armed robbers with nothing more than a sack of flour, but at heart he is just a big kid, someone who gets giddily excited that he's found the place the red tape is made.

I should address the elephant in the room, namely, that Coulson is supposed to be dead. Like really, really dead. Killed by a god dead. You don’t get much more dead than that. And yet here he is, alive and well and criticising Hill’s doodling skills. The show is quick to offer us an explanation for his miraculous recovery, one that sounds somewhat plausible, but is really a load of bollocks. It seems there is more to this; we just going to have to wait to find out. The popular theory is that he's a Life Decoy Model (a type of android S.H.I.E.L.D. uses) implanted with the real Coulson's memories. Judging by the nonchalant way he dodged that van door I wouldn't be surprised if that theory turns out to be true.

One of the problems with doing comic book superheroes on the small screen is that TV shows just don't have the budget to do justice to many of these characters. This is how we ended up with a body builder painted green and a Superman who never actually flies. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sidesteps this problem by keeping the costumed superheroes firmly in the background. When the show does feature a super-powered individual they are 100% spandex free and have powers that are very TV budget friendly.

The first case Coulson’s team dealt with was fairly straightforward with a straightforward resolution. Say hello to Mike (J. August Richards – doing his best with a rather dull character). He’s your average down on his luck, working class, single dad with a cute kid and bills to pay. After being laid off from his job following an accident, he is given superpowers via mysteriously shady experiments by mysteriously shady individuals. As is so often the case, said superpowers quickly begin to get out of control and disaster seems inevitable. Luckily Coulson and team (who really need a cool nickname) swoop in at the last minute and save the day. Hurrah!

Keeping the story simple served two purposes. First, it makes the show more accessible to potential viewers unfamiliar with this universe. S.H.I.E.L.D. and the world it exists within may have already been well established, but there is a very good chance that a lot of people tuning in (an arcane term, I know) will likely never have seen a single Marvel movie. Nothing is more likely to alienate new viewers than bombarding them with dense mythology or complex plotting. When you only have 40 odd minutes to work with, sometimes it is best to simply get all the backstory basics out of the way quickly, even if it means clunky exposition, and then spend the rest of the episode showing everyone what this show will be about most of the time.

The simple plot also allows Whedon to focus on what matters to him the most – the characters. Coulson’s team, a mixture of no-nonsense field agents (Ward, May) and overexcited tech geeks (Fitz, Simmons, Skye), spend the majority of this episode hanging around their fancy school bus, investigating strange stuff and trading exceptionally witty quips. Which was great because we got to see how well all these characters played off each other (Fitz and Simmons are my favourites so far). With such a limited runtime, some characters didn't get as much attention as others. Besides Phil, the characters who got the most attention were Ward (who I liked) and Skye (who I did not, something about her just bugged me). May was the one who suffered the most. We didn't learn anything about her except that she has a troubled past and is an extreme badass. Hopefully she'll get more to do in future episodes.

Intel and Assets

--Cobie Smoulders briefly showed up for what is likely to be the first of many appearances by Agent Maria Hill. At least that is who she was meant to be playing. The character she was actually playing was Robin Scherbatsky cosplaying as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.

--Firefly alum Ron Glass (Book) also had a nice little cameo.

--The early scenes were marred by some of clunky exposition as the Avengers all got name-checked, while the final scenes registered a full Fromage frai on the cheese scale. But this is only the pilot so I’m willing to overlook such faults.

--S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. In the comics it stood for Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division before being changed to Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate.

--The organisation was first introduced in the 1960s by the great ones themselves, Stan "the Man" Lee and Jack "King" Kirby. It was Marvel's attempt to cash in on the spy-fi boom of the 60s spearheaded by big screen adventures of certain well-dressed British spy. The comics, particularly those by the great Jim Steranko, eschewed gritty realism in favour of the strange, the fantastical and the downright trippy.

--I'm not surprised Skye was a little flushed when May took out that assassin. It was awesome. Hail to the bus driver.

--ABC really splashed out the cash for this one. Location shoots in Paris are not cheap.

--S.H.I.E.L.D. Flying Cars are a regular fixture in the comics and standard issue for field agents.

--The 'Bus' was like a five star hotel version of Serenity.

I'm keeping the quotes section small because I know if I don't restrain myself I'll end up transcribing the entire episode.

Coulson: “When you get shanked by the Asgardian Mussolini, you can tell it your way.”

Ward: "She might as well be one of those sweaty cosplay girls crowding around Stark Tower."
Skye: "What? I would – it was one time."

Ward: "I don't think Thor is technically a god."
Hill: "You haven't been near his arms."

Ward: "Gramsy."

Three out of four gorgeous flying cars named Lola.


  1. Yes, the characters — that's what matters the most. Unfortunately, I found myself not caring about any of the new characters. I don't know why. And yes, Maria Hill lost all her badassness (is that a word?) and became boring. So, it's only agent Coulson who keeps me interested. Clark Gregg is a capable actor — but, unfortunately, not capable enough to drive the whole series.

    I'll keep watching for now, but that's definitely a step down. I expected to be immediately hooked — and that just didn't happen.

    One more thing: agent Ward reminds me of captain Harkness — and, while I liked him in Doctor Who, his own series (Torchwood) I find painfully boring. That probably makes me like Ward less then he deserves.

  2. "Serenity" is certainly a high bar. Then again, "Welcome to the Hellmouth" is a pretty low one.

    Some absolutely gorgeous shots of Union Station.

    Maria Hill didn't get to do any badassery but I think I'll blame HIMYM for that. I can't imagine they had Cobie Smulders for very long. Maybe she can come back next season as a regular? *fingers crossed*

    I really thought they killed Mike for a minute. It seemed like a very Whedon thing to do. Then again, killing anyone seems like a very Whedon thing to do.

    What didn't seem very Whedony is that the superpowered being was a middle aged man and not a teenage girl. Joss is branching out.


  3. I liked it. I spent the whole hour trying to convince my non-TV-loving boyfriend to come watch with me, and when he finally did, all he saw was Mike's cheesy speech. I guess this will be another series I watch by myself!

    Skye and Coulson were my favorites. Knowing Joss Whedon, I assume the others will grow on me soon.

  4. Great review! I probably enjoyed it a bit more than you, though. :-)

    Also, it's J. August Richards, not Richardson. :-)

  5. Okay, this is why I need to re-watch Angel. Thanks, tucsonbarbara.

  6. Also, it was Melinda May who took out the Assasin, not Skye. :)

  7. I wrote a sentence before that talking about May, but I took it out and forgot to add May's name to the following sentence. Now fixed.

  8. I thought it was fine for a pilot. Definitely nothing that blew me away, but good enough that I'm curious to see how it settles into its weekly vibe. Seeing how the team dynamic develops will be key.

    Re: Coulson now being alive. I'm hoping for a biological clone implanted with Colson's memories. Surely they kept his DNA and memories on file for just such an occasion, right? I'd rather he be flesh and blood than android. Because I like his vibe with Ms. Hill, and once Colbie Smulders is able to join full time --- yes, that's what I'm hoping for --- I'd like to see them explore a relationship. But I think I'd find that squicky if he's an android. No matter how common "sex with robots" is in the Whedonverse.

    It's funny, I reacted to the characters almost the exact opposite way. I did not care for Fitz and Simmons squabbling (I hate it when people talk over each other), and I liked Skye a lot better than Ward. May and Coulson are the ones I most want to spend time with though. And Maria Hill. Darn Ted and his nine-year story of how he met his wife.

    Mark, I assume you meant "no-nonsense" field agents, right? Because I'll maybe give you Ward as a nonsense field agent, but not May. :)

  9. No matter how common "sex with robots" is in the Whedonverse.

    It's more common than people think. :-)

    I didn't love this. Perhaps I should have prepared by re-watching all the Marvel movies to remind myself of why Coulson is important/loved. But without a preemptive affection for him, there wasn't much appeal in this pilot for me. I do like Ming Na, and hope she gets more screen time soon.

    I'm definitely going to stick with it, since Joss series and season premieres are usually not good. But I'm curious to see if the excellent ratings (best drama premiere in 4 years, or something) stay high.

  10. I liked it. I think you're right about its weaknesses, Mark. I haven't clicked into the characters yet, and my beloved J. August wasn't used as well as he could be.

    But I thought it was fun and Whedony. I mean, if someone had blindfolded me during the credits and if I hadn't seen anything in the news for the past year, I still would have known it was a Whedon show. And of course, Whedon's shows improve as they mature.

    Terrific review, Mark. And congratulations on completing your first Agents of SHIELD review! That is, if you don't count your reviews of the Avenger movies.

  11. hi! I'm a regular reader, I really love your site!

    just wanted to add my 2 cents...

    I wanted to love this show so much, but it just felt indifferent, generic somehow. The hero storyline kept reminding me of Heroes... the exploding man and such.

    it was a big 'meh' for me.

    My son is a Marvel supergeek and was ready to hate the show - but he thought it was pretty good for a pilot, he thinks it has potential.

    thanks for the review!

  12. Okay, this is just getting embarrassing, let''s make it fun. Next person to spot a mistake with my review gets a mystery prize.

    Also, never try to edit this with an iPad, it's a freakin' pain in the backside.

  13. Does the double apostrophe in that comment count?

  14. I enjoyed your review, Mark! I also enjoyed the show for what it was. I don't expect a lot from premieres. Person of Interest comes to mind in this respect. It was enjoyable enough to keep me watching while it seemed that a lot of people gave up on it early. Now, it is a highly entertaining hour of television with some good character development. It is still episodic television for the most part (with a lot of great arcs throughout it). I am hoping this show goes in that direction, too.

    I liked Skye better than Ward, too. Coulson was my favorite, of course. The two bantering scientists might grow on me, but for now I was annoyed that I couldn't hear what they were saying.

  15. Liked it. My wife may have liked it too, her comment was "Is this a show for teenagers?"
    Maybe it is, maybe it isn't...

  16. Hi Mark - I am not a comic book reader and have seen a few of the Marvel movies - I was completely clueless that they are connected. I watched S.H.I.E.L.D. and enjoyed it, references to the larger story blew by me but didn't seem to lessen my enjoyment of the show. But now I am interested in going back and re-watching/watching the movies so that I understand the connections. I searched around for the "order" to watch the movies and got many different answers. What's your take on that? I've seen IM, IM2 and Thor - and understand I should leave the Avengers for last.

  17. I am one who came to this show never having read the comics nor seeing a single Avengers movie. The first Iron Man has been sitting in its Netflix envelope for I am ashamed to tell you how long.

    While this didn't wow me, I didn't hate it. I liked the characters, but all the mythology get a bit dense and boring. I would have preferred that the writers gave us back story in smaller doses.

    I will stick with it for the time being as I trust Whedon to draw me and make me obsessive about the show.

  18. I'll admit that the comic book stuff is what makes me worried that this is the first Joss Whedon series I won't fall in love with. And this from a woman who reviewed ten seasons of Smallville. (Which became a real chore. I just kept thinking it couldn't go on another season, but then it did... and it did... and it did...)

  19. I fall into the same camp as everyone else, I guess - I thought it was a good start. Not great, but good, and being a life-long Marvel fan I'll keep watching it as long as it's on regardless. I'm interested in seeing where it goes from here, which is about the best thing you'd want out of a pilot - wanting more and seeing what happens. I know they don't have the budget, and I know that Joss has said a billion times already that this show is NOT about super heroes, it's about the people who have to deal with them, but I'm really, really hoping Marvel throws us a few bones now and then and puts in some recognizable characters every now and then. Just standing around in the background would be fine even. Easter Eggs! That's what I'm saying, I guess. And is it weird that at the closing credits I went "Grrr, arrgh!" I got a very strange look from my wife.

  20. I liked it. It did feel pretty generic and lacked depth, but it was entertaining. The, uh, situation-of-the-week (how are we calling it?) was average, the dialogue spot on, but, man, that speech by the end almost ruined it for me. Joss, you are supposed to mock stuff like that! Ok, the team all happy that the mission was successful made me glee and buy that they are already a real team.

    On the characters, Skye had a Faith-like behavior, but in a fabricated way, as in trying-to-hard-to-be-a-cool. She was the guidance for the audience into the story, though, and I did like her overall.

    Coulson as the main character didn’t work for me. It’s just… what’s his story? We don’t know how he is alive, or if it’s really him at all, so it’s hard to root for the guy. Plus, he is so happy and confidant all the time. Give him something to cry about, Joss (I might regret asking that).

    I like Maria Hill (probably because I’m a fan of the finally-it’s-the-final-season How I Met Your Mother), but I have to agree she was not on kick-ass mode here. The “he [Coulson] can never know” bit was the one thing of the story that truly hooked my interest, though. Please, Cobie, come back quickly to this show so we can know what it is that Coulson can never know.

    Ming-Na brought a lot of weight to her character. Well done, lady. The other characters were fine, but I don’t have a lot to say.

    I’m not a comic book reader, and I’m here because it’s a Joss Whedon show. Like Billie said, his shows improve with time so I’m sticking around to see how this one grows.

    Jim, I laughed with you "Grrr, arrgh" story. It's always good to see Mutant Enemy with a new production.

  21. Sooze, for me the ideal viewing order for the Avengers movies is:

    Iron Man

    Iron Man 2

    The Incredible Hulk


    Captain American

    The Avengers

    Iron Man 3

    Hope that helped :)

  22. Also not 100% convinced but did enjoy it! Will definitely keep on as I trust Joss Whedon. ;o)

    Colson is definitely the most interesting of the bunch to me! Loved his character since his first Iron Man introduction! :D May next. Not sure about Skye, I think they're trying to hard to make us 'ship her and Ward already...

    Great review Mark!

    Oh, and I was really excited to see Shepherd Book! How did they keep that one under wraps?! :p

  23. Cris - they didn't. I think they tried to, but they failed. Glad you missed the spoiler!

  24. I really felt like I should have loved this more than I did, but the issue felt character-related - we don't really have a viewpoint character as an intro into the world. Usually this would be Skye, but we know nothing about her beyond the hacker thing. I have more of a problem with Ward though, I think... It took me a while to pinpoint it, but they start off selling him as a spy (which requires people skills and being adaptable), rather than the straitlaced, inflexible security/military expert the character then turns out to be. They don't match up - and come to that, the fact that Coulson then tranks the already reluctant Ward with the truth serum to win over Skye felt really off to me? What's with selling out someone on your own team like that - it was amusing, but I have no idea who we're supposed to be sympathising with as we've only seen Ward and Skye's pre-team scenes out of the whole gang so far, and neither of them are being presented as viewpoint characters as such.

    I loved Fitz and Simmons though (and way to underuse May!) but this has a way to go before it really gels for me.

  25. Mark, I wasn't going to be obnoxious enough to point this out, but since there's an exciting mystery prize...you misspelled "fromage frais":).

    Great review, though! I was bored witless by the Avengers movie (sorry Joss) but I liked this better, especially Coulson and the Ming-Na character. Fitz and Simmons were pretty dull, and I feel I should like Skye more than I actually do. The whole thing didn't seem Whedony enough to me, but then it *is* a Marvel thing. Let's see how it goes.

  26. You mean that frai isn't the singular version? Ugh, language is too hard. Why can't we just go back to grunting everything? Ah, good times.

  27. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the reason Whedon pilots are comparatively weak is that we don't know the characters. The reason that I keep going back to Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and even sometimes Dollhouse isn't for the plot twists or explosions. It's all about the characters. Whedon's characters are complex and it's impossible to introduce an ensemble appropriately in 40 minutes.

    Whedon's characters need a chance to breathe, to develop. That's when the show gets really good. Firefly is the exception to this. Why? No idea. "Serenity" is by far Joss's best pilot. Is it the longer running time? Or the acting? I miss Firefly. I miss Mal. //end word vomit

  28. I finally got around to watching the pilot. I think I was stalling because I feared this show would be a dud. Never interested in the comic. Enjoyed Coulson in the previous films, but he just seemed like a supporting character to me, certainly not a lead.

    Now that I've watched it, I'm marginally relieved. It wasn't brilliant in the way that Firefly's pilot was (or, say, Lost). But solid. Several strong hints that this could be a decent Whedon show (and a decent Whedon show is likely to be better than most anything else, so...).

    Turns out I like Coulson as a lead after all. Main gripe: I really don't care for the actress playing Skye. She reminds me of Eliza Dushku, who I think commits all of the typical acting sins of the grown up child actor. You can always see the "acting" happening.

    Also not really digging Ward. He just seemed like a type, not a person. Hopefully that will change as the show deepens.

    Bottom line though: I trust Whedon, and Sunbunny's comment above is right on; his shows work because he gives us characters we love.


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