I’ve said before that I don’t watch much television anymore. Maybe the internet has degraded my attention span past the point I can sit still long enough, I’m not sure.
So I sometimes have to forcibly remind myself that there are shows I ought to keep track of. This, as it turns out, gets considerably easier if the show in question has the name ‘Joss Whedon’ tacked to it somewhere.
Like a lot of people my age, my adolescence was defined in part by the example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; like a lot of people generally, I mourn the fate of Firefly, and Dollhouse…okay I completely missed the boat on Dollhouse.
I felt as though Joss was flying below the radar for the last several years. Then I found out that he wrote and directed the great Marvel crossover event the Avengers (thanks so much everyone for telling me it was his so very promptly!!!). I finally got round to watching it, and I found it…awesome. The classic Joss Whedon blend of rapid-fire wordplay comedy, character bonding and contests against the pettiness of evil.
Whedon’s talent for making good characters was exemplified there as elsewhere. One of the fan-favourite secondary characters in Avengers was Phil Coulson, an agent of the government-superhero-regulation-bureau S.H.I.E.L.D.
Apparently his demise at the hands of Loki wasn’t as final as it appeared, because Joss has spun off a new show set in the same universe focusing not on the superheroes, but on their stage crew, so to speak, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Inexplicably raised from death, Agent Coulson starts pulling together a team to specialize in finding people exhibiting superpowers of one kind or another and whisking them away before they either wreak havoc or somebody less scrupulous gets to them first.
The pilot sees Coulson pulling together a hotshot secret agent, a traumatized ace pilot, two eccentric British tech geeks and a anarchic hacker to track down a laid-off blue-collar working man who has been the subject of a superpowers experiment which will cost him terribly if they don’t get to him in time.
Joss Whedon has made a career out of taking clichéd premises and tying them into balloon animals. With Buffy it was the helpless blonde girl who gets attacked by the monster – and now kicks its arse into next week. With Firefly it was cowboys…IN SPACE. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is secret agents in the style of Mission: Impossible or the A Team, with a hint of the X-Files…but what its special twist, other than ‘superheroes’ will be is not entirely clear to me. Not yet anyway.
One thing that does make it unique is our leading man, Agent Coulson, is, unlike leader figures like Malcolm Reynolds, not the straight man. He’s the big cheese of this operation, but he’s also a massive nerd. So right off the bat he endears himself to me.
Having said that, I’m a little worried. Agents in suits flying around in a giant plane regulating superpowers seems a little…I don’t know, bland? It lacks the novelty of Firefly’s premise, or Buffy’s.
The eccentricities of the team members also seem a little bit by-the-numbers. The two tech geeks gleefully tinkering, the hotshot agent who doesn’t want to be there at first, the Asian secret agent who does crazy martial arts and never smiles (and also flies the plane, see above). I feel like we’re starting from first principles here. Mind you, I find them rather charming, but where they can be taken remains a vague question.
The themes of the show, however, show great promise. The ‘villain’ of the piece, the unemployed worker was suckered into being experimented on by playing on his helplessness, his disaffection and his compromised sense of how to ‘be a man.’ He appoints himself a hero and embraces a black-and-white comic book worldview to cope with this, to give himself a mission. The way playing the hero plays merry hob with his definition of right and wrong and he goes on a power trip is inspired. It can be read as an examination of the concept of revenge fantasy, the disaffection of today’s 99% and masculinity. Coulson’s earnest and emphatic desire to save his subject and the psychology of both sides gives the show a real heart strongly reminiscent of Flashpoint.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, then, has a good heart and a lot of potential. Joss Whedon’s offbeat sense of humour and silly wordplay (I especially treasure the line ‘God, are you dismissed’) remain strong as ever. He’s brought back Clark Gregg as Coulson and a few actors he’s worked with before, not least J. August Richards as our would-be superhero, formerly James Gunn of Angel, and best of all Ron Glass, formerly Shepherd Book of Firefly.
Probably the only thing that Whedon has taken some legitimate heat for is he has a bit of a blind spot for racial diversity in his casting; he’s had two African American actors, one in Angel and one in Firefly (the two listed above), but despite the use of spoken Mandarin and Chinese symbolism in Firefly there wasn’t a single Asian actor to be seen above extras and few of any other persuasion. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is a marginal improvement there, albeit we have one secondary African American, one in a single appearance and one regular Asian actress who is worryingly stereotypical to start with. Hopefully we can expand on this a little bit as the series progresses.
All in all, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is charming, classic Whedon, and the continuation of a movie-verse that has been quite the smash. Possibilities abound for superhero appearances and examination of our concept of heroism which started with the pilot. Arcs on the exact nature of Coulson’s recovery, the backstories of our characters and the motives behind the superhero experiments that kicked this off await.
The Tide is Rising.