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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D – F.Z.Z.T. (Review)

F.Z.Z.T. is a reminder that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a genre show still in its first season. That might not sound like a good thing, and F.Z.Z.T. isn’t the strongest of the mediocre crop of episodes so far, but it does indicate that there is still potential. The Girl in the Flower Dress teased the possibility that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might have settled into its own incredibly unambitious niche, and any evidence to the contrary should be welcomed.

F.Z.Z.T. is boring and generic, but at least it’s boring and generic in a way that is different from most of the boring and generic episodes so far. So that’s something.

A Gemma of an idea...?

A Gemma of an idea…?

The “infection” episode has been a staple of science-fiction television shows for quite some time. The Star Trek franchise is particularly fond of them. The first season of the original series gave us The Naked Time, while the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation to air after the pilot was The Naked Now. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine only waited a couple of episodes longer before it produced Babel. Other genre shows like Stargate SG-1 (The Broca Divide) and Babylon 5 (Infection) have also used the template.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of episode template. It’s a stock plot, so it’s easy enough to adapt to the world of a particular show – it can be tailored to fit just about any set-up. It’s especially well-suited to ensemble shows operating out of a relatively confined base – in this case Coulson’s crew operating out of their gigantic bus. It’s also a nice way to generate emotional torque among an ensemble that has yet to be developed. It lends itself to agonising decisions, heart-to-hearts, high stakes and even meaningful sacrifices, which are nice ways of generating high-stakes drama among a cast that the audience has yet to come to love.

Heavens above me!

Heavens above me…!

And F.Z.Z.T. hits most of those clichés straight on. There’s an infection! One of the team is infected! They work desperately to find a cure as everybody else takes stock! There’s an action sequence! There’s attempts at character development for Fitz and Simmons, the most overlooked and underdeveloped members of the ensemble. There’s nothing particularly inspired about the execution here, save for the wonderfully “comic book” decision to have it spread by electricity rather than biological material.

Of course, the plot itself is just superficial. There’s a lot of potential in the trappings of F.Z.Z.T. The notion of a mysterious illness plaguing the first respondents to the events of The Avengers is an intriguing set-up. Given the way that the climax of The Avengers so ruthlessly mined the imagery of 9/11, this would be a powerful vehicle to explore those who rushed to help. However, F.Z.Z.T. treats these characters as nothing more than footnotes, procedural drama breadcrumbs leading to the plot where Simmons winds up infected.

Not Coul(son) at all...

Not Coul(son) at all…

Again, it seems like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is trying desperately to avoiding having anything to say about anything, and instead just wants to offer reasonable special effects and mediocre action sequences. Watching F.Z.Z.T., it’s hard not to wonder about the show’s rigid “no superhero” rule. The series has been quite greedy in name-dropping the Marvel films, and in repeatedly and annoyingly reminding viewers that it’s set in the same universe as The Avengers. Notably, F.Z.Z.T. features a climactic sequence that was much more impressive when we saw it in Iron Man 3.

It feels like the only reason the show is afraid to delve into the rich and layered Marvel universe has less to do with potentially alienating viewers or getting caught up in convoluted continuity, and more to do with fairly bland corporate concerns. Instead of being a vehicle to explore the countless characters and quirks of its source material, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems happy to tread on awkward shoehorned references to much-loved films and knock-off versions of iconic set-pieces.

Oh, rats...

Oh, rats…

Note that I’m not complaining about the show’s departure or adherence to comic book continuity. Fidelity should never be confused with quality. Rather, it just seems like a waste of the unique setting and status quo of the series to turn it into a pale imitation of NCIS. While the producers have been quite clear that they don’t want the show to be about superheroes, it seems like a massive waste of storytelling potential, not to mention a massive misdirection towards the audience who tuned in to see a show spun off from The Avengers, only to be greeted with “special guest star Cobie Smulders” as the strongest tie beyond Coulson himself.

Still, at least we get Blake here, which indicates that the show is gaining a little more self-awareness. The show’s early episodes have seemed a bit tone deaf, in light of recent revelations about privacy in America. You can’t do a spy show in the wake of the NSA leaks that champions a bunch of special agents capable of prying into anybody’s secrets. Blake is a stock character. He’s a vaguely villainous bureaucrat who poses an ominous threat to our leads. He’s the kind of guy you imagine running the wire taps, and he’s very clearly highly placed in S.H.I.E.L.D.

We have top men working on it...

We have top men working on it…

Blake isn’t revolutionary. He’d have to struggle to be two-dimensional, even with the wonderful Titus Welliver in the role. Just in case the audience isn’t sure what to make of him, his introductory sequence has him demanding that Coulson to throw Simmons overboard. “If you have infected cargo, you need to dump it,” he instructs Coulson, marking him as a bureaucrat who hides his sinister instructions behind comfortable euphemisms. (Indeed, he’s apparently the overseer of “the Sandbox”, the place where S.H.I.E.L.D. takes artefacts they don’t shoot into the sun, reinforcing the idea that Blake is a shady hoarder of secrets.)

For the first time, the show links S.H.I.E.L.D. explicitly with invasions of privacy. Not the cute plot-necessary invasions of privacy that Skye is quite happy to commit despite being an anti-authoritarian hacker; not the quickly dismissed charming invasions of privacy that Coulson breezes over with a smile and/or a witticism. Blake and S.H.I.E.L.D. are quite clearly implicated in invasive monitoring of their own allies and friends.

Battle scars...

Battle scars…

“You know our chat wasn’t exactly private,” Blake warns Coulson. “They never are,” Coulson responds. It’s a very shallow way of addressing this surveillance culture, but it’s somewhat more earnest than anything the show has done to date. Of course, it does so in the most clumsy and heavy-handed of fashions. Invasive surveillance is bad when S.H.I.E.L.D. does it to character we like, like Coulson; however, invasive surveillance is perfectly justifiable when it’s being used to monitor bad guys or people we don’t know or people who are different from us.

Given that The Girl in the Flower Dress was a story about how people in suits should be able to do whatever they damn well please, and that only idiots question the conduct of such people, this represents a massive step forward. It’s not anywhere near insightful or clever. It doesn’t explain why Blake and others spying on an agent acting out of character after interacting with aliens is a bad thing, but stopping a broke magician from using his gift is a good thing. Still, I’ll take what I can get, and it’s nice that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is at least blindly groping towards big ideas, even if I’m not sure it’s going to do anything with them.

We have a floater...

We have a floater…

Much of F.Z.Z.T. is paint-by-numbers. The alien threat is quite cool – a static electricity virus! – but it’s somewhat disappointed when the problem is resolved by means of science-fiction double talk and montage set to heart-rending music. Doesn’t it seem likely that a Chitauri’s biochemistry would be distinct enough from that of a human that even replicating the immunity would do absolutely nothing for Simmons?

Still, the episode does find time to do some character work with Simmons. So there’s that. It’s nice to see the show rounding out its ensemble, even if the form that ensemble is taking is a little… uncomfortable. I don’t need love triangles, especially not poorly-written love triangles. I really don’t need another dozen-or-so episodes of will-they-won’t-they with Fitz/Simmons/Ward/Skye. I want to watch a show about cool science-fiction secret agents, not hormonal teenagers.

Warding off the bad guys...

Warding off the bad guys…

I don’t mind, for example, the implication that Melinda and Coulson have a bit of a casual thing going on (“take off your shirt”, building off the promise a workout in the last episode), because they are written like people who have actually interacted with other people before. Plus there’s no angst, and the act like grown-ups. Any scenes involving Simmons’ potential romances with Ward or Fitz were so painfully written that I felt like I threw up a bit.

This is basically where the show seems to be pitching itself. I won’t be surprised to find, in the lead up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a potentially corrupt organisation. The scenes with Blake seem to point that way, with S.H.I.E.L.D. seeming cynical at the very least. However, I suspect that Coulson’s team will stand apart from that. They won’t be corrupt, they’ll just be unprofessional and incompetent. Which is quite frustrating – why can’t they be professional adults who aren’t corrupt? Why does the counterpoint to Blake’s cynicism have to be incompetence?

I've thought about it too...

I’ve thought about it too…

Again, the biggest fallout from Skye’s betrayal of the team in The Girl With the Flower Dress seems to be that Ward isn’t talking to her. I’d consider that a benefit. Sure, she gets a nice bracelet, but none of her access has been removed, and there’s no indication that anybody other than Ward has any problem with the fact that her punishment consisted of some stylish jewellery. “You’ve been a bit tough on her,” Coulson offers, which feels a bit over-the-top. Given she’s not on trial or in prison, she’s getting off lightly, and the fact that the show is mining “another character is mean to her” as the fallout makes it look like Coulson is running a high school.

We get yet more Coulson foreshadowing. I was convinced that he was a Life Model Decoy, but lines like “feeling a little rusty” and a “little heavy on the iron” feel too much like red herrings. At this point, it would almost be a better twist if Melinda is right and Coulson is actually perfectly normal, but is just suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. It would certainly be a bit more nuanced than “look at all the robot gags we’ve been making!”

First impressions...

First impressions…

F.Z.Z.T. is not a good hour of television. But at least it has a little more ambition and content than the other episodes so far. It’s not a dramatic improvement, and it’s nothing near what the show needs at this point in its run.

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

2 Responses

  1. I think this episode was actually the best one so far. It kinda gives you hope that maybe this show may actually go somewhere….maybe. It was more intense and the special effects were amazing for a regular tv show. I’m pretty sure the big wigs think if they start showing superheroes in this show that the regular cast will immediately become boring and the only way to keep this damaged ship afloat is to not show any?

    • I don’t know. My theory is that they are alternatively worried about the budget and the possibility of sabotaging the films by using characters on TV. If they can do Luke Cage on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., why pay to see Ant-Man? Or, they figure, why waste a potentially box office busting superhero on a television show? If a Luke Cage movie could make millions and millions, why use him here?

      It’s incredibly cynical and short-sighted. At least the upcoming Netflix series will actually use characters who aren’t generic television stock characters.

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