Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. "Pilot" Review

Today is good: a Joss Whedon series is back in primetime.

Unlike his last two series, Firefly and Dollhouse, no reports of the network ordering a re-shot pilot hit the Deadlines and TVLines of the internet. Joss Whedon directed one of the biggest movies of all-time (2012's The Avengers); now, he pretty much runs Marvel Studios. He polishes Captain America and Thor and oversees the biggest brand of Marvel right now--The Avengers. Critics and bloggers didn't doubt Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would get ordered to series. Critics and bloggers wondered when they'd get to watch the first episode. Joss was always the underdog. Buffy and ANGEL got amazing runs on the small, and now defunct, WB. FOX botched Firefly from the "Serenity" on. Dollhouse, a tremendously underrated gem of a series, got two seasons. FOX didn't stand in the way. People simply didn't watch the show. For years and years it seemed like Joss had to fight for every thing he wanted made.

Joss lost a lot of those fights. ANGEL didn't get a sixth season. Cancellation worries for the previous three seasons of the show motivated Joss to ask then-WB president, Jordan Levin, to make a decision on the series. Levin cancelled the series on Valentine's Day 2004. With six episodes left to shoot, Joss and Jeff Bell, along with Drew Goddard and Steven S. DeKnight, and Sarah Craft and Elizabeth Fain, and not to mention a terrific production crew, put together a memorable final run. Cabin in the Woods took 3 years to hit the theaters. The rumored Rupert Giles series never got off the ground; ditto the Buffy animated series. Warner Brothers abandoned Whedon's Wonder Woman project. Firefly got cancelled. So, then, Joss got Firefly made into a movie; Joss spun ANGEL, Firefly, and Dollhouse into comics; he made Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog as a protest after the 2008 writer's strike; and he got a well-deserved break when Marvel hired him to write and direct The Avengers.

Now, in 2013, Joss Whedon's on covers of magazines, known by people who wouldn't have known a thing about him three years ago. He's having the kind of success that allows him to make a Much Ado About Nothing adaptation during his vacation from Avengers post-production. Whedon's always been an obsessive worker. He ran Buffy, ANGEL, and Firefly at the same time. He's told the media he doesn't watch TV because he's busy making it (or an awesome movie). During pre-production and the writing of Avengers 2, he created and developed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with his brother, Jed Whedon, and sister-in-law, Maurissa Tanchereon, in addition to directing the "Pilot." The man is an inspiration.

Agents of S.H.I.E.LD. follows a decent amount of superhero shows. Superhero shows haven't found success in the last 5-6 years. I don't know why people flock to theaters for a superhero movie but ignore superheroes on the small screen. Whedon's shows, though brilliant and innovative and original, haven't found success. Buffy and ANGEL had modest numbers on TheWB and got a combined 12 seasons because TheWB's great numbers were another's network's 'okay, cancel the show.' Anyone reading probably knows the Firefly story. I already mentioned Dollhouse's ratings failure. I trust that people will follow the Marvel brand. No, superhero shows haven't had success in the past; however, those shows didn't have Joss' name and this creative team. I'm absolutely optimistic about the show's success just from the brand and the Whedon element.

The "Pilot" is also terrific. The new dramas this fall don't stand out. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does. The writing is excellent. The story moves through exposition and action seamlessly. There's a helpful explanation of S.H.I.E.L.D. early on so that the story can move to character. Character absolutely matters the most on this show. The first episode lightly touches on the mystery of Coulson's resurrection, and it's set after the final battle in The Avengers, The show's less about saving the world than it is about living in a world that's been changed and adapting to it. It's a world where the heroes have toy lines and adults crave to be what they saw on television--these amazing people with the strength to save the world from aliens. J. August Richards' Mike is a near-perfect character for first story. Mike's a down-on-his-luck, recently divorced dad, raising his son alone. He's unemployed. The system's beaten him down. He attaches a 'centipede' product to his arm that gives him the power of superheroes--strength, agility, speed, durability.

The product has a fatal downside--combustion. Its users will overload and explode. Mike changes as the story progresses. He's more violent and confrontational. He becomes desperate. Pretty soon S.H.I.E.L.D. can either kill him or watch him explode and kill a whole lot more people. Mike seeks the help of anti-S.H.I.E.L.D. activist, Skye, but she's already working with the agency she doesn't trust. Coulson wants to find the Mikes of the world and help. Death is not the ideal solution. The bad guys in comics that meet an end on the last page aren't the bad guys in Marvel's TV show. Mike's speech before he's 'taken down' touches on a number of issues about the 21st century, the job market, the truth that government has failed its people, and the struggle to maintain one's humanity and goodness through hard times. Mike's about to explode, he's beaten his old boss badly, and he's in tears because he thought what was inside would negate the negative effects of the drug. He thinks of himself as a hero, and Coulson agrees. Mike's not killed, he's contained. He'll be rehabilitated and reunited with his family.

J. August Richards is incredibly moving as he delivers what's essentially the show's mission statement. The reason why so many die-hard Whedon fans exist and have championed his works for over a decade is there in Mike's speech. The idea that people are worth saving and worth fighting for is incredibly powerful and moving and inspiring. Joss helped me be a better person as a teenager. Watching Angel fight his demons for five seasons helped me fight whatever demons I had, then and now. His writing's timeless. I'd like for people to be entertained by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I really want people to feel touched and transformed and changed by it. I want for people to feel less alone for having watched it. I want them to feel what I felt watching Mike's speech.

I'm not intimately familiar with the world of Marvel, but I'm quite familiar with a Joss Whedon show. The dialogue is terrific. The makeshift family is formed by the end of the episode. Drs. Fitz and Simmons might rival Dollhouse's absurdly smart Topher (but probably not; Topher's amazing). Chloe Bennett's Skye is witty and smart. Bennett and Clark Gregg work well together. One of the best scenes of the "Pilot" revolves around truth serum. Coulson injects Brett Dalton's Agent Grant Ward with it so Skye can ask what she wants to know. The scene's wonderful because of the performances and the reversal of what usually happens in an interrogation scene on TV. It's a perfect example of what Joss and his writers do so well. The fight scenes may yet best Arrow for Best Fights on a network drama. Grant's fight early in the episode recalled the fights from ANGEL and Buffy. Later, Ming-Na Wen's Melinda May has a River Tam type fight with a bad guy carrying a gun (who is part of the mysterious organization powering ordinary folk such as Mike and the guy who exploded in the first scene of the episode).

I loved the "Pilot." I don't care that I haven't seen a bulk of the new shows yet--Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the best new show of the fall season. It's funny, emotional, action-packed, clever, witty, and mysterious. Coulson's resurrection is a mystery S.H.I.E.L.D. Coulson thinks Fury faked his death. Ron Glass' cryptic line reveals something much different happened to Coulson. I'm definitely sticking around to find out what happened.

Other Thoughts:

-J. August Richards played Charles Gunn for four seasons (plus the final 3 in season one) in ANGEL. Ron Glass played Shepherd Book on Firefly. I would like to see both actors back in future episodes.

-I'll argue Joss already created two successful shows about superheroes: Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and ANGEL. Xander calls Buffy his hero in "The Freshman," after all.

-Joss and Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tanchereon wrote the "Pilot." Joss Whedon directed it.

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Originally, I titled the blog Jacob's Foot after the giant foot that Jacob inhabited in LOST. That ended. It became TV With The Foot in 2010. I wrote about a lot of TV.