How 'Agent Carter' became the best comic book show nobody's watching
Agent Carter is nearing the end of its second — and, I fear, final — season. After tonight's double feature, there's only one episode to go, and last year's already modest ratings have only gone down in season 2. (And may, along with the renewals of the similarly low-rated Galavant and American Crime, have played a role in last week's ouster of ABC boss Paul Lee.)
This is a business, and between the ratings, the exit of the man who greenlit the show, and the development of Marvel's Most Wanted as the thing to fill in at mid-season for Agents of SHIELD, the writing seems on the wall for Peggy, Jarvis and friends. Maaaaaaybe Marvel convinces their other TV partners over at Netflix to pick it up(*), though Daredevil and Jessica Jones are a lot more graphic and "mature" than what Agent Carter is aiming for.
(*) Weirdly, season 1 of the show isn't available to stream anywhere at the moment, which is annoying in terms of getting people to catch up (ditto for only the five most recent episodes of season 2 being available On Demand or online), and which could go either way in terms of making it a viable Netflix rescue. If Hulu or Amazon had exclusive rights, Netflix wouldn't be interested. But as Ted Sarandos discussed with me last month, they make their bets based on internal data, and they have no internal numbers on this show. (Though they do stream Agents of Shield.)
But I'm bracing myself for the idea that next week is the end, as frustrating as that may be. I could tell you that Agent Carter is miles better than Agents of SHIELD, or that it's my favorite of all the current network superhero shows, but that feels like damning it with faint praise. In its focus on character and theme, in its confidence, and in its execution, it's just an incredibly entertaining television show, genre, source material, or parent company be damned.
Sending Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Jarvis (James D'Arcy), and Agent Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) to LA for season 2 was a great idea, given how much the show already leaned on old-style Hollywood glamor, and given what fertile ground for storytelling the city in that late '40s/early '50s period was, both for films made at the time (The Big Sleep) or set in that time (L.A. Confidential). The contrast of the glow of Peggy's personality and the darkness of her work fits even better into the harsh LA sunlight than it did the urban canyons of New York, and Gjokaj's young Gene Kelly quality only stands out more when you have him wandering through movie studios or, tonight, in a full-on movie musical number — a fitting choice, given that Atwell first played Peggy in a Marvel movie that had its own bit of song and dance routine.
Also, as much fun as Bridget Regan was last season as Russian spy (and Black Widow spiritual ancestor) Dottie Underwood — Dottie's return to action has been one of this season's few missteps, with the show doing the bare minimum to justify why Peggy would let this incredibly dangerous woman out of prison — Wynn Everett's Whitney Frost has in many ways been an even more interesting foe for Peggy with the parallels in their respective struggles to pursue interests (heroism/spying for Peggy, science for Whitney) where women weren't taken seriously back in the day.
And the season's done remarkable work with the Peggy/Jarvis friendship, and with the introduction of Mrs. Ana Jarvis (Lotte Verbeek), who's not at all the repressed and proper English housewife we might have expected based on the occasional references to her last year. The platonic chemistry between Atwell and D'Arcy remains strong, but the more these two unlikely allies have worked together, the more complicated their bond has become. There's a great dramatic scene in tonight's second hour where each partner, at the end of their ropes over recent developments in the Frost case, takes out their frustration on the other, and what had once seemed fun and games reveals itself to be something much more fraught and powerful, and something that the show carefully built to.
So why hasn't it caught on? For one thing, period pieces are often a tough sell on TV. (For all that guys like me wax on about Mad Men, its AMC audience would have gotten it canceled by ABC before Betty Draper took her first shot at her neighbor's birds.) For another, there was a much longer gap between Captain America: The First Avenger and this show's first season than there was between The Avengers (the last of many Phil Coulson appearances in Marvel films) and Agents of SHIELD; whatever affection the larger audience might have had for Peggy probably needed to be stoked sooner. And in both seasons, Agent Carter has premiered during ABC's "gap" period, when heavy hitters like Grey's Anatomy and Scandal are on mid-season hiatuses, meaning it's much harder to promote new or returning gap shows.
Again, I understand the business end of things, but Agent Carter is too good, and too much fun, to go away if Marvel can find any way to keep it alive. While Agents of SHIELD keeps changing directions every six months and pausing occasionally to set up the next movie, Agent Carter has long known exactly who and what it's about, and how best to tell Peggy's story. It's a story I hope doesn't end a week from tonight.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org