The overstuffed nature of the title "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." says a lot about "The Avengers" TV spin-off (it debuts tonight at 8 on ABC) as a whole. It's a show serving multiple masters in ABC, Disney and Marvel — and, in turn, the throng of Marvel superhero films to which the show will be very loosely tied. It has a whole lot of producers, though the most famous and talented of them, Joss Whedon, is too busy making the "Avengers" sequel to be as hands-on as he was in his days with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and "Firefly." The pilot episode introduces three different point of entry characters for the audience, on top of mysteriously bringing Clark Gregg's Phil Coulson back from his apparent "Avengers" death. There are many potentially fascinating shows lurking inside the "S.H.I.E.L.D." pilot, but the primary agenda seems to be to make a superpower-flavored "NCIS" — which, conveniently, will be airing right against "SHIELD."
And how is it? It's... okay — quippy in that pleasingly distinctive Joss Whedon way, with a few intriguing ideas about life in a superhero world, but with a cheap look and mostly bland supporting characters. In particular, a lot is asked of both Brett Dalton (as a solo action hero type struggling to play well with others in Coulson's new globe-trotting team) and Chloe Bennet (as a rogue hacker understandably suspicious of a powerful, shadowy, vast spy organization like SHIELD) as two of the show's most important characters (they and guest star J. August Richards are the three POV figures I referred to above) and not a lot is given in return.
With the exception of "Firefly," Whedon shows don't tend to have great pilots (and, typically, FOX wound up holding the "Firefly" pilot to air as the very last episode), so the fact that the first hour of "SHIELD" isn't an instant masterpiece isn't alarming in and of itself. "Buffy" became an all-time great after a while. "Angel" figured out what its focus should be. Whedon learned how to draw superb performances out of actors (David Boreanaz, most notably) who had seemed hopelessly wooden when they were first cast.
But this isn't Joss Whedon, cult icon. This is Joss Whedon, billion-dollar franchise guardian. And with great power comes great bureaucracy.
The sense I've gotten in reading Joss' interviews about the show, in my own conversation with co-creators and hands-on producers Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, and in hearing from other producers and executives associated with the show, the network, the studio, etc., is that everyone involved is getting along but has a slightly different idea of what the show is, or should be.
On a low-rated show like "Buffy," on an obscure broadcast network like the WB, Joss Whedon had the time and freedom to find the show's voice, and his own. There is so much riding on "SHIELD" as the next stage of Marvel's plan for global entertainment domination that even if Joss — who, again, directed and rewrote the company's crown jewel feature film — was full-time, I doubt he would be left alone to unlock the show's potential.
Richards, as a man adjusting to his new superpowers, has a nice monologue near the end where he gives voice to what it must be like to live in the Marvel Universe after aliens invaded Manhattan in "The Avengers." With Bennet's character, Skye, the show gets to be unexpectedly timely in discussing the idea of too much personal surveillance by the government. Coulson's unexplained resurrection provides an intriguing bigger mystery to play out even as the team is investigating the Superhero of the Week.
All told, it's a much more promising start to things than the first episode of "Dollhouse," a show where Whedon, Whedon and Tancharoen struggled to write standalone procedural stories. But when it became clear that that show wasn't working, the creative team ripped it up and started over from scratch, turning it from a weird sci-fi escort series into a haunting meditation on identity and personal freedom. It wasn't enough to get the show sustainable ratings, but it made "Dollhouse" a memorable and rewarding experience for the viewers who stuck with it. If it becomes clear a few episodes in that the designed-by-committee "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." is fundamentally flawed, will Whedon have the same latitude to turn it into something wildly different, but better? Or will it stay in the same pleasant but unremarkable form it arrives in tonight?
Phil Coulson looks at a great big behemoth of an organization like SHIELD as a tremendous force for good, while Skye distrusts everything about its bigness. Which attitude will be proven right for the ongoing production of "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." itself?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org