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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – 0-8-4 (Review)

The first few episodes of any show can be rough. It’s generally about learning to walk before you can run, drawing boundaries before you can cross them. The opening few episodes of a new television show often feel like a party full of people we’ve never met before – the first few hours are timid, awkward, probing. Hopefully, you get more comfortable and casual with the guests, you open up a bit – and before you know it, you’re having a great time. If things don’t seem to improve, you check out early.

Like The Pilot, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second episode never feels like it’s straining too hard. Indeed, there’s a sense that we’re watching a show go through the motions. After all, Joss Whedon and his production posse are very familiar with constructing first seasons. There’s a sense that the team – led by Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen – have been given the keys to the most expensive car in the garage by Disney and ABC, and so the show feels more like a casual cruise than a pedal-to-the-metal joy ride.

0-8-4 does very little wrong. In fact, it does a lot of smart stuff, essential stuff, homework stuff. Still, it lacks any real sense of fun or joy – there’s no real suggestion that the show is giddily playing with the toys locked away in this particular toy chest. Appropriately enough, given the title, it feels a bit by the numbers.

When it comes to ranking the cast, Coulson is number one with a bullet...

When it comes to ranking the cast, Coulson is number one with a bullet…

Once again, there are several interesting conflicts going on within the show itself. The most obvious and intriguing is the relationship between the television show and the movies. The final scene featuring a guest spot with Samuel L. Jackson is great fun, as Fury throws something just shy of a temper tantrum over the equipment he gave the team “six days ago.” It’s certainly a vast improvement over the “special guest star Cobie Smulders” from The Pilot, and it’s a nice acknowledgement that the show does exist in the same universe.

(At the same time, there’s an awkward sense that the series is trying to borrow legitimacy from Jackson’s delightful comedic cameo. His rant over the “really nice bar” is brilliant, but there’s also a sense of obligation about his name checks and references to the show’s regulars – insisting that Fitzsimmons don’t install a fishtank and warning Coulson about the danger of taking Skye on board. It seems like the show is straining to justify the characters by having Fury show up and make it clear that he’s keeping his eye on them.)

Fury-ous anger...

Fury-ous anger…

However, the rest of the episode’s name-drops and references fall a little flat. It’s hard to get the mix perfectly right. Reference the movies too much and you undermine the show’s own integrity. Reference them too little, and you feel detached from the central appeal. Like The Pilot, 0-8-4 seems to assume that name-dropping represents the ideal level of continuity. The Pilot dropped in “Extremis” without any context as an internal nod towards Iron Man 3, without bothering to explain what it was or how that narrative ties into this narrative.

0-8-4 continues this approach, referencing each of the big four Avengers in ways that are hardly subtle. Dismissing objections about keeping Skye on as a “consultant”, Coulson insists, “Technically, Stark is a consultant.” Explaining what a “0-8-4” is, Skye asks, “What was the last one?” Coulson replies, “A hammer,” Explaining the strange technology of the week, the context we’re given is, “Hydra. World War II. Captain America. It’s full of Gamma Radiation.”

Gun play...

Gun play…

This feels a little tangential. That dialogue could be cut without loosing anything, and it’s so blatant it stops short of having Coulson tell the cast “you just missed Iron Man” as a CGI red suit flies off into the distance. It feels more like clutter than a tangible link to this massive shared movie universe, and it seems like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t exactly sure how it wants to relate to that. Does it want to carve out its own corner of this world, or does it want to pull up its sleeves and slot snuggly betwixt these films?

That said, I liked the reference to HYDRA retreating to South America in the wake of the Second World War. Given how painfully Captain America: The First Avenger strained to remain marketable in Germany, by trying to distinguish the Red Skull from the Nazi party, it was nice to see the episode play up the link. Indeed, I wouldn’t have minded more of that sort of stuff – delving into the pulpy shared universe by exploring what it might be like if secret Nazi science terrorists had holed themselves up in South America, biding their time. That is some straight-up Jack Kirby material there.

Plane sailing...

Plane sailing…

Instead, the episode goes for an altogether blander form of pulp, featuring ancient ruins and mysterious artifacts in South America. Again, this feels pretty safe and bland. It’s not a bad premise, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is more interested in strengthening its ensemble. Again, it’s a smart play. It’s hard to fault Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for being so prudent, and trying to introduce us to the cast before letting stuff get completely off the wall. Still, the fact that 0-8-4 needs to assure the viewer that something is going to happen by opening in media res makes it feel like the show is aware of the pacing problems this creates.

To be fair, character-centric storytelling isn’t a bad thing. The only real problem is that the characters – at present – aren’t really strong enough or interesting enough to make an hour of team-building seem especially exciting. He’s a lone wolf who doesn’t play well with others. She is an anti-authority hacker. They are two geeks with no experience outside a laboratory. She is a veteran agent hiding from her own past. Together, they fight gods and aliens and terrorists and so on.

Playing it Coul, son...

Playing it Coul, son…

It doesn’t help that, with two exceptions, the cast doesn’t really seem to be clicking. The characters are all little more than archetypes, but most of the regulars seem a little out of their depth – the ensemble highlights of 0-8-4 consist primarily of comedy reaction shots, which is not a good thing. That said, Ming-Na Wen is pretty great as Melinda May. Again, the veteran hero with the potentially shady past is hardly the most original of archetypes, but Wen can hold the screen and has the physical skills and the comedic timing to pull it off.

Clark Gregg’s Coulson is, unequivocally, the best thing about the show at this early stage in its history. As much as resurrecting Coulson (in whatever form he may take) undermines the dramatic impact of his death in The Avengers, the show wouldn’t work without him. Gregg has a great sense of comedic timing, and a knack for underplaying the role that makes him seem like a uniquely unconventional leading man.

The temple of ominousness...

The temple of ominousness…

Coulson doesn’t seem like a lead shouldering an impossible burden. There’s no chip on his shoulder. The closest we come to a character quirk is his affectionate nostalgia for pop history. He’s about as bland and normal as they come. And that is the beautify of it. In a television era overburdened with broken or damaged lead characters, Coulson seems like a guy who just gets the job done. He embraces the sheer joy of being a character in a superhero story, which makes him seem a lot more nuanced and sophisticated than any tragic back story could.

Indeed, Coulson’s affection for history might prove a fascinating way for the series to explore its own ties to extended continuity. The design and aesthetic of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – like the movies that spawned it – leans heavily on Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s work on The Ultimates. The team are secret agents, relatively grounded in something approaching the real world. As such, it’s interesting that Coulson’s flying car is the most direct link back to the earliest of the Jack Kirby S.H.I.E.L.D. stories, a decidedly Silver Age touch in a modern show.

They're a little tied up right now...

They’re a little tied up right now…

When Coulson is betrayed by his ex-lover, he isn’t offended by her current motivations or actions – he’s upset at the loss of history, the destruction of a shared history between them. “We were allies,” he states. “We had history. When did you decide to throw all that away?” Given how comic book movies and films have to balance goofy nostalgia with more modern sensibilities, Coulson’s outlook feels like a very clear statement from the show’s creators.

“You’re such a sentimentalist,” the villain accuses, but Coulson draws his strength from that nostalgia and sentimentality. Indeed, that’s part of the reason I suspect that the big revelation of the season will be that Coulson is a “Life Model Decoy.” What more poetic fate could await such a nostalgic character than to discover that he himself is a gigantic piece of Silver Age nostalgia. Coulson collects memorabilia, so it would seem fitting that he might become a piece of it.

The hacker deals with some artifacts...

The hacker deals with some artifacts…

0-8-4 hints at two conflicts within the show. The first is the relationship between its own identity and its place in a larger tapestry. The other conflict is between the anti-authority aesthetic that Joss Whedon and his production team are so fond of, and the fact that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a show about a massive sprawling government organisation that keeps shady secrets from the people while claiming to operate on their behalf.

Part of this conflict is just bad timing. It’s hard to root for a massive government spy organisation in the wake of revelations about the NSA. As cuddly as Coulson might be, he’s a part of that sort of massive apparatus. It’s still not entirely clear about what will happen to Skye if she decides she doesn’t want to be part of this secret team. Will Coulson let her return to normal life with all the secrets she knows?

In the Nick of time...

In the Nick of time…

To be fair to 0-8-4, it at least acknowledges these conflicts. When Skye asks what her function on the team is, Coulson asks her to run interference. “So everything that I’m against?” she asks. “Yep,” Coulson replies. 0-8-4 does a better job presenting this as a two-sided debate than the pilot did – where Skye as clearly just a paranoid idiot. However, her valid counterpoints feel too abstract and half-hearted. Information shapes the world, but Skye’s argument about how it helped the locals to rise up feels rather disconnected from the more urgent need to protect the planet.

You can also see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. trying to smooth any potential rough edges with the central organisation. In Iron Man (and in decals here), it was made clear that the “H” stands for “Homeland.” It’s clearly intended to suggest the organisation is American. The team is primarily American, with the exception of the two British science geeks, which hardly adds too much diversity. The notion of an American organisation running around and policing the world of super-powers has all manner of fascinating political implications.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

However, 0-8-4 swerves hard to avoid them. Coulson describes his group as “international”, and the suggestion is that S.H.I.E.L.D. exists above any and all national boundaries. “An 0-8-4 supersedes all national claims,” he explains. In fact, the team isn’t trying to confiscate the device to study it or claim it. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ultimate objective with the weapon is to put it beyond the use of any power – including itself.

“Slingshot is protocol,” Coulson explains. “A weapon like the 0-8-4 is too dangerous for any person or country to have.” It feels like a massive cop-out. There are lots of valid reasons – particularly in a world full of aliens and demi-gods and super-soldiers – why having a powerful weapon like that is a good idea. It’s hard to believe that any organisation would happily fling it into the sun. (Maybe there’s a nice late season twist coming up where Coulson hasn’t destroyed it – that would be fun.)

Tabling his objections...

Tabling his objections…

Indeed, one of the more interesting parts of The Avengers was the implication that S.H.I.E.L.D. is playing well above its ability. It’s hard to believe that the organisation that experimented with the tesseract would fire a gigantic ray gun into space. More than that, though, even with the invasion of New York, it’s hard to believe an institution like that would be willing to simply give up potential discoveries like this.

These storytelling decisions exist to make Coulson’s team completely unambiguous good guys, but they also rob 0-8-4 of any dramatic tension. Nick Fury was a fascinating character in The Avengers because he represented pragmatic ambiguity in a world of superheroes. When Iron Man and Captain America accuse him of playing with forces he didn’t understand, it felt like a logical and powerful character moment, an argument with no clear “right” or “wrong” answer.

Ex appeal...

Ex appeal…

The attack on the team here is just a generic villain attack. The bad guys want to use a deadly weapon before the good guys throw it into the sun. It lacks any nuance or depth. In contrast, the attack might have been a bit more interesting if Reyes were allowed to have a point – if she were legitimately concerned about S.H.I.E.L.D. playing world police without any real moral authority or accountability. That’s a beautiful conflict right there, and it would make Reyes more than a disposable one-note villain.

Instead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. offers us the most straightforward line connecting one plot point to the next, with no room for anything resembling ambiguity or complexity. It seems awfully generic, and it feels like the show is still struggling to deal with the fact that it is – at its most basic level – about a bunch of characters who take it on themselves to police the world. One of the joys of a weekly television show – as opposed to a series of movies – is the space to develop a world and characters across months or weeks.

Still waiting for it to take off...

Still waiting for it to take off…

Concepts can become more complex. Set-up and pay-off can be played out more skilfully and carefully. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. should be more intricate than the movies that spawned it. Those movies dip into this world maybe twice a year. This series will spend a great deal more time in this world. So it should be trying to make it more interesting. When Skye asks about what being a part of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. means, Coulson replies, that it is “a front row seat to the craziest show on Earth.” I really wish it were. We’re not there yet, though.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:

4 Responses

  1. This series has a lot of problems. Mainly its characters, hate the two scientists and care very little for the others. Coulson is fun but he’;s best when playing off other well created characters. Like at the end with Fury, which is the best part of the series so far 😦

    I watch new series for the first 3 episodes and i’ll decide to keep watching after next weeks so it better be a marked improvement because I am not impressed.

    I struggle to see anything I really like and this type of show should be right up my alley 😦

    Fights scenes are lackluster and dull. This episode has been done a thousand times by a thousand tv series 😦

    The Worst thing about this tv series is that its painfully obvious that its a tv series. I want to be fooled into the marvel universe not watch boring actors on a set 😦

    • I think I’ve figured out what bothers me about it. It’s trying to be NCIS set in the Marvel Universe. This is probably a smart move – look at the NCIS ratings! – but it’s also cynical. Of course, I’m just being selfish and entitled, but I don’t want NCIS set in the Marvel Universe. I want Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Hannibal, Breaking Bad or even Boardwalk Empire set in the Marvel universe. I don’t want dumb shallow procedural starring bland paper-thin characters. I want fun pulpy adventures that are exciting without being stupid. I want to care about the characters. I want them to feel like more than just dumb police procedural archetypes that are easily recognisable to casual viewers.

      Then again, this show isn’t (and, indeed, no show is) made just for me. So all I can do is hope it gets better. And the show has the pedigree that it really should be aiming for a lot more. I don’t mind if the show makes mistakes, but the problem with these two episodes is an unwillingness to try for fear of making mistakes. But we’re early in the year. I may have misjudged it. I’ll probably stick the season out, but I won’t be around next year if there’s no sign of improvement.

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