Few shows this fall — or in anything resembling recent memory, really — have premiered with the kind of ballyhoo that’s accompanied Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. A television spin-off of the über-profitable cycle of Marvel film adaptations that culminated in last year’s The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. plays like a direct sequel to that movie, with Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson resurrected for starring role and a “special guest” appearance by Cobie Smulders’ Agent Hill. Most importantly, last night’s debut episode was directed by The Avengers’ Joss Whedon, who co-wrote (and co-executive produces) the show with brother Jedd and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen, with whom he previously collaborated on Dollhouse and Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog. Alas, in spite of those credentials and a few other friendly faces (hiya, Ron Glass!), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not the Next Great Joss Whedon Show — at least, so far.
It’s certainly not for lack of trying. The trademark witty repartee is present and accounted for; my favorite line is probably Ward’s “It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out SHIELD,” though Coulson’s dramatic entrance, shortly thereafter, is vintage Whedon smartass deflation (“Sorry, that corner was really dark and I couldn’t help myself. I think there’s a bulb out”). The team dynamic of Buffy, Angel, and Firefly (and, y’know, The Avengers) is fully intact, as is the Whedon crew’s thankful insistence on female characters who aren’t just there as eye candy — though, if they provide that, hey, nice bonus. The production design, special effects, and action sequences are sleek and effective, particularly a good, little rough-and-tumble kitchen fight scene in the first act.
So why did I have such a hard time focusing on it? Because it seems like, for all of its effort, the first hour of Agents couldn’t quite overcome the predicament that cripples so many pilots (even of what become good shows): the delicate balance between exposition and entertainment. There is so much work to be done right out of the box here: connecting the show to the movies (all those references to “the heroes of New York), resurrecting Coulson and explaining how and why he’s still alive, introducing a whole crew of new characters, establishing distinctive personalities for all of them, and laying out the conflicts that will preoccupy the series. That’s a helluva load for 60 minutes (minus commercials).
When you think about it, it’s a harder job than Whedon had in The Avengers. For all of the hand-wringing over the apparent mismatch of the idiosyncratic writer tackling a billion-dollar franchise, the film’s placement at the culmination of a cycle in which each character was already established (both in their own films and in the larger culture) allowed him to dispense with these sorts of pleasantries and get right to doing what he does well: narrative through action and (most importantly) character-based dialogue. On one hand, he was writing for Tony Stark, Captain America, Thor, and Hulk; on the other, he was writing for an egocentric millionaire, a gee-whiz goody-goody, a stoic Norse god, and a tortured genius, and since those characters had been so well established before he put pen to paper, he was able to immediately place them in what (when you get down to it) amounted to an ensemble comedy.
No such ease here, which plays no small part in why much of the quintessentially Whedon dialogue (“The cute girl from the hospital is dying to thank you, and probably dying to thank you”) comes off as trying too hard — because we don’t know these people yet, and don’t care enough about them one way or another to dig how quirky they are. As a result, the combination of generic Whedon avatars, prominent Marvel branding, and nonstop promotion (the closing teaser actually included the nonsensical promise, “You won’t want to miss the very end… of every episode”), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. feels too much, at this early phase, like carefully assembled Product.
Maybe this will change, once the characters are established and they figure out the show’s own distinct tone and style. It’s worth noting that Firefly alone among his previous series was strong right out of the box, and in fact much of the first seasons of Buffy and Dollhouse are outright terrible. But we must also remember that Joss’ involvement in this series is much more limited; it’s Jed and Maurissa’s baby now (though Joss has reportedly been doing emergency rewrites). It’s not a bad show — reasonably diverting and modestly entertaining junk-food television, a smarter and funnier Heroes (or, as someone sharper than me on Twitter called it, CSI: Superheroes). But considering the pedigree, this Whedon fan was hoping for more.