Well, The Asset is certainly stronger than The Pilot and 0-8-4, not that those two episodes represent an especially high bar for the show to cross. The Asset is hardly the best episode of television in the history of the medium. It still suffers from many of the same problems as the first two episodes, involving the cast and formula and the constant name-dropping. However, it does tease the possibility of improvement. The Asset isn’t an episode of a brilliant piece of television, but it is an episode that shows the potential to develop into something far more exciting and compelling.
The Asset isn’t a radical departure. It follows the same rough formula as the previous two episodes. Something happens involving super powers, and our team is sent to investigate it while they struggle to become a team and banter amongst themselves like… people who are really good at banter, I suppose. Reflecting on The Pilot and 0-8-4, my biggest problem with them seems to have been that the show was shaping up to be N.C.I.S., but set in the Marvel Universe – a fairly undemanding run-around with broadly-drawn character engaged in a standard procedural from week-to-week.
I can understand why the network would want that. N.C.I.S. is, after all, a rating’s juggernaut. And, to be frank, while it’s not to my own tastes, I can understand why people like it. The modern age of television garners attention and discussion for its long-form storytelling, moral ambiguity and compelling character, but not everybody wants to watch that. There’s nothing wrong in wanting an enjoyable forty-five minute adventure featuring clearly-defined good and bad guys that never challenges the viewer or throws up anything too surprising.
Still, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with N.C.I.S. in context, it seems like the wrong show for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to be emulating. After all, people tuning into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are most likely looking for something in the style of that massive billion-dollar movie franchise that spawned it. When the writer and director of The Avengers is attached to it, they probably expect something in keeping with his voice. Joss Whedon isn’t the showrunner here, but handing the show over to Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen does create an expectation – and that expectation is not “procedural featuring that guy we liked in Iron Man and a bunch of generic archetypes.”
The Asset starts out adhering to a familiar formula. There’s another precious resource that has ended up in the hands of the wrong person. Coulson and his team race into action. This week, California doubles for Malta – which is a nice choice that does lend the series something of a globe-trotting flavour. It’s more convincing than “South America” was last week. We’re still in procedural territory, though, even if it briefly seems like we’ve been thrown back in time to television in the eighties.
With his fancy suits, lavish compound, tropical hide-away and unrepentant capitalism, Quinn really seems like a villain who washed up attached to an old Magnum P.I., Miami Vice or Hawaii 5-0 script. He’s not so much a character as crudely-drawn stereotype, a wealthy guy with the money that allows him to acquire whatever he wants, legally or otherwise. He’s such a broad caricature of right-wing excess and entitlement that he complains about the stupid government restricting his God-given right to plutonium. As you do.
Quinn is a very shallow character, which is a bit of a shame. He’s the first character on the show to actually make a reasonable case against S.H.I.E.L.D. as an organisation, daring to question what gives them the right to impose their own will on the world. Quinn supports those advocacy groups opposed to S.H.I.E.L.D., claiming to want “more freedom of information” and accusing S.H.I.E.L.D. of being “guilty of halting the development of new technology for anyone except themselves.” Given the way they rolled in and confiscated all the equipment in Thor, it is a valid criticism.
Of course, like Skye in The Pilot, the show quickly dismisses Quinn’s arguments by making it clear that he’s a psychopath. Hall very astutely points out that Quinn is just as guilt of exploiting the work of others for his own ends. It’s slightly hypocritical to demand that S.H.I.E.L.D. shares everything it has while building an empire on the work of others. His attacks of S.H.I.E.L.D. are opportunistic, an attempt to deflect attention away from his own far more sinister plans.
There’s something very routine about all this, and it seems like the show is falling into a routine, until the final third. Quinn is dismissed pretty quickly once it becomes clear that Hall is the focus of the episode’s climax – something that isn’t a surprise given the character’s comic book credentials, and the fact that he is played by the wonderful Ian Hart. People tuning into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. probably want some superhero action and tropes, and it feels like The Asset is trying to engage with that.
Hall is a supervillain waiting to happen. (Literally, given the character becomes the C-list Avengers baddie Graviton.) The Asset is a supervillain origin episode – as the closing scene teases. More than that, though, there’s a certain spectacle to that climactic confrontation between Hall and Coulson. Turning a room sideways is hardly the most stunning special effect imaginable, but it conveys an effective sense of “otherness”, allowing The Asset to feel like something that belongs in the same universe as Iron Man 3 or Captain America: The First Avenger.
In fact, the climax even plays the old “create your own supervillain” trope entirely straight. Given Coulson has been hanging out with superheroes for five years, you’d imagine he’d suspect that throwing a bad guy into some unstable chemical reaction is probably going to create some sort of monster. Still, it’s an absolutely effective moment, because it’s the point where Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. feels like a superhero television show, and not another police procedural.
And while the whole Hall-set-the-whole-thing-up twist seems a tad convenient, The Asset at least allows the character to retain some measure of credibility. His criticisms of S.H.I.E.L.D. as an organisation are spot-on, to the point where even Coulson concedes he has a point. “Your search for an unlimited energy source brought an alien invasion,” Hall points out, which is a more valid attack than any argument made by Skye or Quinn or Reyes.
That last act has a lot of potential, and it feels like the final ten minutes of The Asset offer a viable template for what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. really should be – bizarre, tense, absurd, witty, hilarious and tense. It should look and feel like nothing else on television, and the confrontation between Coulson and Hall in that sideways room is just strange enough to work. (Having Coulson shoot out the glass window from beneath them is awesome.)
Even outside of those last ten minutes, in the fairly generic rest of the episode, there are signs of improvement and – again – potential. There are signs that everybody is settling into their routine. For one thing, I did find myself not hating most of the ensemble this week, which is a good thing – maybe I’ll come to care for them at some point. Little touches like Fitz bringing a bowl of popcorn to watch Skye work, for example, or even Simmons’ observation that “shouting his name will not improve productivity!” are helping make the cast seem a little more like individuals and less like basic archetypes.
There are still flaws. While the snappy dialogue is fun, the writing is a little blunt. “There will come a moment when you have to commit to this or bail,” Ward tells Skye in the scene introducing the duo. So, go on, guess what Skye’s character arc is this week. The point is repeated ad nauseam, as if Whedon & Tancharoen are worried the audience might not be able to keep up. “She’s holding back, sir,” Ward tells Coulson less than five minutes after that earlier scene. “She says she wants to be an operative, but she won’t commit.”
There’s the same weird sense in The Pilot and 0-8-4 that the show is trying to portray the massive international covert organisation as giant cuddly teddy bears. This works when the dialogue is wry and self-aware, but it is painful when the script sinks to trite cliché. When Ward tries to figure out a strategy to get through to Skye, Coulson advises, “Try no strategy. Stop thinking like an operative and starting thinking like a person.” Coulson makes it sound like S.H.I.E.L.D. has the same marketing team as my bank.
(Indeed, even the villainous Quinn describes S.H.I.E.L.D. as a group who “offer a home to those with no one else to turn to.” He means that it’s cynical and exploitative, but it actually sounds like Coulson just likes to collect strays. Even Quinn’s generic bad guy rhetoric is bland and counter-productive, emphasising how quirky and fun S.H.I.E.L.D. are in a way designed to play down the fact that they’re a massive omnipresent intelligence agency. That said, I did love Coulson’s admission that he works for a massive know-all bureaucracy that knows everything about everybody, but that’s okay… because he’s a nice guy.)
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. works well when it’s being playful. “Touch it and you’re toast,” Fitz explains of a laser grid at one point. “Dead toast,” Coulson deadpans in a way that makes me love Gregg Clark. On the other hand, there are times when it feels painfully blunt. When Ward relates the story about how his brother beat him up over slices of cake, turning him into the tough no-nonsense guy we know today, it sounds like a spoof of the typical “hard ass” alpha male nonsense – “I grew up on the mean streets” sort of stuff. On the other hand, the show plays it so straight that it hurts. “I had to learn to protect us,” Ward tells Skye after recounting the most boring origin story ever.
Ward is arguably the show’s biggest problem at this point. Gregg Clark has enough raw charisma that Coulson is always a joy to watch – the character’s appeal anchored in how well adjusted he is. Skye is very generic and very broadly drawn, but Chloe Bennet works very well with the Whedon-esque dialogue. Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge have solid enough timing to make reasonable comic relief, even if they do need more development. Ming-Na Wen has more presence than any member of the cast except for Clark, and is carrying her generic “reluctant warrior” character.
Brett Dalton’s Ward is the only piece of the puzzle that still needs to fit. He just feels too broadly drawn and generic. He tends to be the character who brings out the clichés in the script. He’s the character who needs Coulson to tell him to treat people like people, and with the tragic back story involving cake and brothers and stuff. Here, he actually utters the line, “getting the gun is one thing; pulling the trigger is another.” The meaningful glance is implied. Dalton could have all the charm in the world and he’d struggle to make Ward seem unique or compelling or interesting. And Dalton doesn’t have all the charm in the world.
The Asset still suffers from plotting problems. I’m not sure why “firing it into the sun” doesn’t respect Hall’s wishes that the Gravitonium be put out of the reach of anybody who might use it. It is obviously just a set-up so that Hall can return at a later date – returning to life inside a metal vault is probably a lot easier than returning to life on your way through the solar system towards the sun. Similarly, why keep moving Hall in the first place? Why not keep him on a hellicarrier?
We get a few more hints about what happened to Coulson, which are reasonably subtle. He lacks his old “muscle memory”, implying that this body isn’t his own. Describing himself as “rusty” seems like pretty clever foreshadowing (and nice wordplay) if he turns out to be a Life Model Decoy. Indeed, I’d like that to happen just so the line is clearly a cheesy pun.
Still, The Asset represents a pretty significant improvement over what came before, and offers some decent potential. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not yet a good show, but it might be getting there.
You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:
Filed under: Television Tagged: | avengers, Coulson, Fitz, Graviton, Jed Whedon, joss whedon, List of Coronation Street characters (2011), marvel comics, marvel universe, Phil Coulson, Quinn, S.H.I.E.L.D, Simmons, Skye