Joss Whedon pilot generated Comic-Con buzz, but does it deliver excitement?
[In case you've Forgotten, and as I will continue to mention each and every one of these posts that I do: This is *not* a review. Pilots change. Sometimes a lot. Often for the better. Sometimes for the worse. But they change. Actual reviews will be coming in September and perhaps October (and maybe midseason in some cases). This is, however, a brief gut reaction to not-for-air pilots. I know some people will be all "These are reviews." If you've read me, you've read my reviews and you know this isn't what they look like.]
[Note: This entry spoils a bit of casting that a number of media reports spoiled today. It's not really a huge spoiler and the character appears within the first 10 minutes of the pilot and I'm betting ABC will feature the character in trailers now. But you've been warned. And the picture spoils it too. But ABC hasn't released enough pictures from this show. So... Sorry. Like I said. Not a surprise.]
Show:"Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." (ABC)
Airs:Tuesdays at 8 p.m.
The Pitch:You see... Marvel. And... S.H.I.E.L.D. And... Joss Whedon. This is not a hard sell.
Quick Response: ABC was ultimately brilliant in holding back this pilot for a Comic-Con premiere. The response in Ballroom 20 was, from some quarters, rapturous. Hold your horses. Chill. Relax. I know that was impossible for a lot of people in Ballroom 20 and who can blame them? It's Marvel action for TV! It's Joss Whedon! And it's good. It's not great. I'm not even sure I'd put a "very" in front of "good," but the total number of new drama pilots for this year that I'd even categorize as "good" doesn't exceed the fingers on one hand. So take "good" as a compliment, but don't expect the hype from Ballroom 20 to carry over. It won't change your life or ABC's life, but it's got potential. I'll start with the negatives. "S.H.I.E.L.D." is a pre-sold property, but obviously there are fears that nobody connects this pilot to "The Avengers" (a problem for most people outside of San Diego), so the pilot spends a lot of time mentioning context from within the Marvel Universe in ways broad enough to make both Mike at Comic-Con *and* Joe in Omaha feel hip. That's fine, though it's a bit of a tease. I love Agent Coulson. You love Agent Coulson. We all love Agent Coulson. But maybe you let us love Agent Coulson without reminding us that we're missing Thor and Iron Man and The Hulk. So it has to play the "reminder" game, but it also has to play the much more complicated game of, "Since we're not *really* gonna see most of the people we know, what is the world in which this show takes place?" To that end, the pilot has as many as three point-of-entry characters in combat badass Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), mysterious hacker Skye (Chloe Bennett) and J. August Richards' character, who I won't describe. That's too many characters coming from too many outside points-of-view for any of their perspectives to actually sink in, much less for the pilot to feel like it's a wholly satisfying 44-minute story. I was interested in Richards' performance, but I don't know what's happening going forward. I liked Bennet, who's pretty much a prototypical Whedon leading lady, quick with a quip and easy on the eyes. And Dalton seemed OK, but probably a bit too pretty and not dangerous enough. Dalton's character needs a clearer pilot arc, or he probably just needed to already be a member of the team. Instead, it seems like the middle two-thirds of the pilot is people explaining to other people what S.H.I.E.L.D. does, which is a necessary evil, but it's not necessarily good drama. And most people still won't get what S.H.I.E.L.D. does or why Agent Coulson is hanging out with these people when he could be hanging out with Tony Stark and Nick Fury. Yes, he's got a cool vintage sports car and they have a nifty airplane, but after the fully populated Helicarrier from "The Avengers," everything in this pilot is comparatively claustrophobic and sparse. Having Cobie Smulders in the pilot helps and it's not a tiny role. They need to get more of her and I'd love to get some sense of what contractual magic will allow her to make at least occasional appearances until she gets liberated from "HIMYM." The show needs her and vice versa. Ming-Na is initially mysterious and then effectively nails her one action scene. Charming British scientists Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) are as Whedon-y as you'd like them to be. Lots of the pilot, in fact, is satisfyingly Whedon-y. At times the jokes are smart and well-constructed and literate. And then at times it panders in a way that played flawlessly in Ballroom 20, but probably not everywhere. As a director, Whedon doesn't overreach. That means that none of the action scenes are ruined by the frustration of limited TV budgets, but you also never go, "Wow. I've never seen anything like this on the small screen before." It does look like a TV show. It doesn't look like a $200-million feature. Weird, right? I do think Whedon made this pilot so that the subsequent show would feel mostly reproducible, rather than the legion of blow-your-wad-on-the-pilot dramas we see every year. This is a template and a cast that future directors and writers should be able to work with.
Desire To Watch Again: I think the above super-paragraph feels a little negative, but of the fall drama pilots, this is still the one that has me most jazzed for a second episode. There are a number of mythology-based things introduced in the pilot, particularly involving Coulson's return, that I'm interested in and, thanks to Gregg, invested in. I want to watch Bennet and Ming-Na and Henstridge and De Caestecker play around in this world. I think an awful lot is going to depend on Brett Dalton. I really do trust in Joss when it comes to casting, but Dalton's not there yet. "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." is not all the way there yet. But it's fun and sometimes exciting and everybody's trying to make it likable.
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