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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Eye-Spy (Review)

Well, we’re still at the point where Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is improving, so that’s something. On the whole, Eye-Spy is a well-produced and stylish piece of television, even if it still feels too light and fluffy and generic for its own good. Like 0-8-4, it feels like the kind of story that the show had to tell at some point, providing an explanation for why Coulson is doing what he is doing and giving him a dark secret from his past. It all feels pretty routine.

Still, there are signs that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might be finding its feet. We still aren’t getting good television, with the show still feeling a little bit too much like a higher-budget and more stylish NCIS spin-off for its own good, but – like The AssetEye-Spy suggests that it might be possible to get good television at some point in the future.

Masque of the red... er, face...

Masque of the red… er, face…

To be fair, Eye-Spy works very well from a production standpoint. Veteran television director Roxann Dawson does great work with the material she’s given, and the show’s production design looks just fabulous. The introductory sequence doesn’t make too much sense from a plot point of view, but the sight of a bunch of masked suitcase-carrying men marching through Sergel’s Square in Stockholm makes for one of the show’s more memorable visuals to date. The decision to film on location helped a great deal.

Similarly, there’s something decidedly retro about Ward’s infiltration of the science factory in Belarus. In his well-cut suit and with his geekish glasses, Ward looks like he could have wondered off the set of Mad Men. (Or, alternatively, from the pages of a sixties spy comic.) The production design on the episode is lovely, from the way the factory sets are dressed through to the Belarus sound stages. The sequences are crisply shot and edited, and well put together. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is put together very well.

A beautiful mind...

A beautiful mind…

However, the problems with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have never been technical. While the show is never going to have the budget to convincingly emulate The Avengers or Iron Man 3, it has clearly been given a large amount of money and a considerable amount of talent to help it look really good. I won’t pull out the cliché “a movie every week” observation, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. looks and sounds very stylish and impressive. The problems with the show lie earlier in the creative process.

Truth be told, I’m a bit wary of the full season order that the show recently received. Without the threat of cancellation looming large, showrunners Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon have more freedom and breathing room to define the show’s identity without the network breathing down their necks. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that the show might choose to rest on its laurels, getting comfortable in a state not too radically different from the show we’re watching now.

Come what May...

Come what May…

The show has been consistently improving as it goes along, but in inches. 0-8-4 was a little better than The Pilot. The Asset was a little better than 0-8-4, with a surprisingly solid final act. While Eye-Spy can’t surpass that final act, the episode is just a little bit better, over all, than The Asset. These aren’t huge strides in quality. At this pace, I’m not sure that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be consistently good television by the time we reach the season finalé. But they are increases in quality nonetheless.

It seems like these reviews are falling into a pattern. I am impressed with the technical quality on show. I admit things are getting better, but I concede that it’s not happening fast enough. Then I make excuses. I point out that the first season is rough for any new show, that typically Whedon shows take a while to find their feet, the cast need to settle into their roles, that the writers need to start playing to the strengths of their ensemble.

Eye see you...

Eye see you…

This is all true, and the problems with Eye-Spy are the same problems that have plagued the earlier episodes. While the show is developing its ensemble, Ward and Fitz/Simmons still seem rather under-developed. While the climax of Eye-Spy gives Ward something to do, there’s preciously little development or interest. Indeed, Eye-Spy‘s rather cheap “seduce him” gag seems rather cheap and a little tasteless when Belarus’ history with LGBT rights is concerned.

The concept of Eye-Spy pushes one of the niggling problems with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to the fore, as a television show about a bunch of super-cuddly super-spies. In the wake of the revelations about the NSA’s surveillance of American and international citizens, you’d imagine the show would be cautious in trumpeting S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ability to observe just about any person on the planet. The show has been glib about the implications of this. Even Skye, the team’s resident anti-authoritarian hacker, has been quick to play along.

Stick a needle in her eye...

Stick a needle in her eye…

In The Asset, for example, Coulson concedes that S.H.I.E.L.D. knows everything about a man who sold tools to the villain of the episode, but it’s okay because Coulson is a nice guy. Similarly, Eye-Spy implies that S.H.I.E.L.D. really isn’t responsible for violating privacy, and more just a passive beneficiary of modern social media. “It’s amazing,” Coulson notes as Skye scours social media for images of the super-crime-of-the-week. “Every year this part of our job gets easier.”

The implication is that if people put anything on the web, it’s fair game for S.H.I.E.L.D. to exploit. “People are surveilling themselves,” Coulson argues, which sounds like a self-rationalisation, rather similar to Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt’s recorded attitude towards privacy. This is a rather clumsy of side-stepping the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ability to collate and collect data on private individuals extends far beyond Facebook or Twitter.

Coulson's pretty cool...

Coulson’s pretty cool…

Eye-Spy is a story about privacy. It’s a bout a woman who is being constantly watched at every moment of the day, aware of the fact that she is been studied by some ominous unseen force. That force initially offered her something fairly wonderful – a chance to get her eye back – but it quickly morphed into something deeply unpleasant. She lives in a gilded cage, aware that everything she looks at is subject to judgement from this mysterious omnipresent entity.

It’s pretty terrifying. “It would suck to live like this, wondering if someone’s watching,” Skye remarks. Skye, who was introduced as the show’s anti-authoritarian hacker, a member of an Anonymous-like group advocating for more transparency and accountability from government and international agencies. This is the same version of Skye who now helps S.H.I.E.L.D. collect evidence from people’s Flickr accounts and to gain access to parties under false pretenses.

Ward-ing off danger...

Ward-ing off danger…

There’s nothing wrong with S.H.I.E.L.D. collecting data or sneaking around. They are a spy organisation after all. This is their job. However, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems completely disinterested in the idea that people might have a problem with that. I am growing to like Skye quite a bit – in large part due to the fact that Chloe Bennet is the member of the cast (outside of Gregg Clark) with the strongest grip on the rhythm and flow of Whedon-esque dialogue.

However, Skye doesn’t feel real. She doesn’t seem like a character with a history or a perspective. There’s no way to connect what we know of her history and her back story to the function on the show. She has funny one-liners and banters well with the cast, but she could just as easily have been a rookie recruit just out of the academy or a data analyst just transferred to the field or any other generic archetype that might explain why she’s “the new girl.”

A square deal...

A square deal…

Based on what we’ve been told of her history, I don’t know why she’s working with S.H.I.E.L.D. now; based on what we’ve seen of her in the show, I don’t know why she was acting like a conspiracy theorist in the past. It’s been four episodes. She is the most developed member of the cast outside Coulson. This level of disconnect, this difficulty understanding how what she was doing before The Pilot connects with what she’s doing now, is not a good thing.

It makes everything else feel too light, like frilly window-dressing on a blank wall. The dialogue is witty and fast-moving, feeling reasonably organic, but it doesn’t say anything about the cast beyond the most basic archetypes. Ha, the bathroom conversation reveals that Fitz/Simmons and Skye have no experience and Ward is a hard ass with no people skills! The reveal that Ward is ticklish reminds us that Skye is a Dharma-esque free-spirit to his Greg-esque wet blanket!

She's been trained for this...

She’s been trained for this…

The problem isn’t that these exchanges aren’t funny. Most of them are reasonable witty, subverting what we’d expect in a show about a skilled international spy agency. The problem is that this energy feels like it would be better devoted to some honest-to-goodness character work. We can have witty banter and fleshed-out characters, it’s not mutually exclusive. (The show’s “quirky” humour does occasionally feel too cute and grating, but I’m a sucker for cheesy word-play. “A.C.’s just way cooler…” Yes, Skye, it normally is.)

It feels like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is falling back on these quirks to help disguise its fundamental problems. It feels like the show is finding a rhythm designed to work around the underlying problems, instead of fixing them – the whole point of a first season is that you can use the time to fix these problems. For example, Eye-Spy contrives to give us another bad-ass May-in-the-field sequence. That’s great, because Ming-Na Wen does good work, but it’s also a little strained.

Photo finish...

Photo finish…

Having May protest that she’s retired from field duty while finding an excuse every week to put her in the field feels a little too tired. Just put her back in the field full time, rather than trying to come up with an excuse for this week’s Melinda May action sequence. In Eye-Spy, she sneaks out without Coulson’s permission to have a showy fight sequence, but there’s absolutely no fall-out or consequences. It’s like the show wanted that fight scene, and didn’t care about what happened before or afterwards.

To be fair, Eye-Spy does try to offer us some character background for Coulson. I’m a big fan of Coulson, and I release he’s the lead of this show – but he’s also the member of the cast with the least need for development. Gregg Clark is charming enough that we can wait to hear his history, and what happened to Coulson after The Avengers is the big mystery of the show. We don’t need to hear about his romantic history, as in 0-8-4. And we don’t really need to know that he failed as a mentor before, as we learn here.

Room for improvement...

Room for improvement…

This back story could easily wait until later in the season, while the show spends time making Ward interesting or helping remove some of the sugar-coated edge from Fitz/Simmons. It’s a fairly cliché story beat, turning Coulson into something of an atoner – explaining that he failed with one of his previous charges, so he’s trying to get it right with Skye. It’s nice to get that sense of back story and that explanation for why Coulson’s team works the way that it does, but it’s all just a little bit generic.

Then again, this is precisely the kind of work that the show needs to be doing – it needs to be developing these characters and their world, making us care about the cast members. I just wish that it were doing it in a more interesting way, with one of the cast members who could do with the focus. I’m quite happy for Coulson’s past to be developed later in the game, as he’s already the strongest member of the ensemble by default, Clark’s charm not withstanding.

Fitz and starts...

Fitz and starts…

As an aside, I find it hilarious that May and Coulson seems so sure that the attacker couldn’t have mental powers. “There are no credible studies that support pre-cognitive ability, telepathy or extra sensory perception,” May insists. I know that Disney don’t own the rights to the X-Men, but that’s still rather arbitrary skepticism in a work with mind control and aliens and cosmic cubes and gods and so on.

There’s really little more to be said about Eye-Spy, other than the fact that the show looks great, but it’s still suffering fundamental problems.

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

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8 Responses

  1. This week’s Shield was an improvement to the point where it like watching some unaired all-time worst episode of Fringe.

    • Burn!

      I wouldn’t be that harsh, but yes – the improvements aren’t happening nearly fast enough. This really should be so much better than it is. (That said, I sadly get more of an NCIS vibe off the show.)

  2. Eye-Spy is a story about privacy. It’s a bout a woman who is being constantly watched at every moment of the day, aware of the fact that she is been studied by some ominous unseen force.

    I wonder if the contradiction between the pro-privacy story and the anti-privacy vibe of the show itself is intentional, or if it’s just blindness and disconnect on the part of the writing staff. I hope that it’s intentional, and that the show is slowly getting around to saying something profound and important. Skye makes me worry otherwise.

    • I hope it was intentional, although I’m not entire convinced that it was.

      That said, I suspect we’ll probably get a rogue SHIELD agents plot (or internal conspiracy) sooner rather than later (I suspect by the end of the first season, if not as the climax of the first season), but I worry the script will use that to reinforce “thank goodness the good guys are watching us to protect us” (which has been the subtext so far – “yes, SHIELD is watching you, but Phil is a nice guy!”) rather than “maybe we should be worried about signing over all of our liberties to a nebulous secret organisation with no real sense accountability.”

  3. I`m still trying to figure out why all those masked guys carrying cases are marching around like the Hellfire Club guys in the X-Men comics. So they are trying to hide the diamonds? Why parade around drawing attention to themselves? They couldn’t figure out how to transport them secretly? And the preview for next week’s episode has an Asian guy with fire powers….if it’s not Sunfire…shit is going to hit the fan!

    • I think Sunfire is owned (television and movie-wise) by Fox, so I doubt it’s him.

      I think the idea was that it would make them harder to rob – you don’t know who is carrying what. Although the fact they all walk together and all get the same subway train suggests just the opposite – why not put a bunch of untrained and unarmed (that we saw) guys in a confined space and make it apparent that they are probably carrying something valuable.

      Then again, it was a nice visual, so I don’t mind that too much. The teaser had some serious problems, but it was at least eye-catching.

  4. I’ve watched all four episodes and the words that they keep screaming at me are “Silver Age.” Lighthearted, light on the character development and deep thoughts, with absurdly black-and-white morality, silly in a way that’s nevertheless a lot of fun to read/watch. “Silver Age,” and more generally, “sixties” (the superhero version of “Mission: Impossible” rather than “24.”)

    • That’s a fair point, Chris.

      However, I don’t think the Silver Age really works as well as it used to – not without serious tinkering. I think that Kenneth Brannagh’s Thor is the most Silver Age movie we’ve had in the last decade, but it was also wry and self-aware in a way that Agents of SHIELD really isn’t. I don’t mind the Silver Age, and I like the idea that Phil himself is quite sentimental about comic book nostalgia – hence the classic Kirby car, the Captain America cards and the memorabilia, and the idea that he might be a Life Model Decoy and thus a piece of Silver Age nostalgia himself. The problem is that the show itself really feels like it needs to be smarter about how it handles itself. I don’t mind the innocence and enthusiasm of the Silver Age, but it needs to be tempered with some measure of self-awareness that I’m just not getting.

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