by Brian Hadsell
To hear everybody tell it a year ago, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a terrible show. Clark Gregg – a balding, middle-aged bit-player from Marvel’s Phase 1 – was too old to headline his own action-packed weekly series. The premise of following around S.H.I.E.L.D. – a spy organization that did little more than post-credit cameos with Nick Fury – was something that nobody would really care about. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was built from blockbusters and A-listers, not Tuesday nights and weekly syndication.
I never really understood the reasoning of this argument. Nobody complained when fifty-two-year-old Bryan Cranston began cooking Meth and single-handedly eliminating the competition in Breaking Bad. Nobody seems to be complaining now that the Flash is getting his own spinoff from Arrow. For whatever reason, people simply overlooked that the show easily one of the best things to watch on television.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. begins in the wake of the Battle of New York. The world has become a far more interesting place than it used to be. Instead of going to bed thinking that the weirdest thing in the world was a Batman wanna-be in a robotic suit, people know for a fact that their world is populated with gods, monsters and super-powered legends from the past. Agent Phil Coulson, who survived his supposed death in The Avengers, has assembled a mobile response team to investigate and contain technology that the world simply isn’t ready to deal with yet. Routine missions and by-the-books protocol are quickly set aside, however, as a mysterious villain known only as The Clairvoyant begins unraveling everything that Coulson has lived – and died – to defend.
The reason why Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is one of 2013’s breakout series is that it knows exactly what it is: Marvel-brand Fringe. Like Fringe, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s premise allows to plumb the depths of science fiction, free to explore technologies that society is simply safer without: gamma radiation, extra-dimensional wormholes, anti-gravity bombs, cybernetic upgrades, Asgardian sorcery and Project Centipede’s super soldiers. With TV-veteran Joss Whedon’s continued oversight, the show adopted the light-hearted, action-comedy blend and dramatic underpinnings that made The Avengers a billion dollar box-office success, as well as a dynamic cast of distinctly-rendered characters that made Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly household names.
While it has been argued that the series cheapens the MCU by retconning Agent Coulson’s sacrifice into a mere team-building exercise, its playful, back-and-forth development between each week’s episode and the latest Phase 2 film to hit theaters greatly broadens the scope of the franchise. Premiering shortly after the release of Iron Man 3, it immediately dealt with the next phase of Extremis’ development: being combined with Gamma Radiation and what little was recovered of Erskine’s SSR formula in order to create a new breed of super soldiers. Following Thor’s victory over Malaketh’s Dark Elves, Coulson’s team helps sort through the Greenwich wreckage for trace bits of alien tech, deals with a Fight Club-inspired group of neo-Pagan anarchists who have recovered an ancient Asgardian weapon and assists Lady Sif recover an Asgardian fugitive who escaped in the aftermath of the assault on Asgard.
The series gives a broader and more complete timeline of Hydra’s insurgence, only a part of which was the battle above the Triskelion during The Winter Soldier. Agent Jasper Sitwell is introduced here before his big-screen debut, develops over several appearances and then suddenly departs for duties aboard the Lemurian Star – upon which we first see him in The Winter Soldier. Agent Coulson’s attempts to contact Fury are met with constant dead ends and redirections, which we understand are because Fury has faked his death and has gone underground. As Coulson’s team attempts to retake “The Hub” from Hydra sleeper agents, they begin to understand the scope of the uprising: the slaughter of faculty and students at the S.H.I.E.L.D. academies, the assassination of all high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. agents (only one of which was Fury) and the raid on “The Fridge” for weapons, artifacts and prisoners acquired over the course of the series. We watch the United States government label S.H.I.E.L.D. a terrorist organization and understand that Maria Hill defected to Stark Industries not for the steady paycheck, but for its legal team’s protection against government action.
Clark Gregg is perfect in his role of the soul-searching Agent Coulson: a true believer of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mission who is increasingly troubled by its clandestine inner workings. Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge bring out the emotional cores of Agents Fitz and Simmons, characters who could have otherwise been presented as interchangeable cogs in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s scientific machinations. Despite her character’s inherent impassivity, Ming-Na Wen’s Agent Melinda May is seething with the subtle rage of a good person who can never seem to find forgiveness from the one person who truly counts: herself. Chloe Bennet’s search for what happened to her family as Skye is both more desperate and more earnest than many more-veteran actors have been able to pull off on the big screen (such as Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man). Brett Dalton shifts easily between Agent Ward of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Ward of Hydra: caught between his loyalty to the greater good and to the man that saved him from the worst in himself.
It’s hard to even find any real faults in the show, since everything that I could mention was sorted out in the first quarter of its first season. While Skye does begin as a counter-point to S.H.I.E.L.D. – a character so obviously beyond the scope of the agency that her primary function seems to be to remind the audience that “normal” people exist – she soon finds her place both within the team and as a character. Although initially bland and out-of-place amongst the myriad of colorful cast members, Agent Ward’s complexity quickly becomes apparent when the story allows him to open up to the rest of the team. Despite sitting sideline in the early episodes to allow Agents Ward and May to command the action scenes, Agents Fitz and Simmons swiftly begin commanding scenes both in and out of the field in their own right.
If it wasn’t for Game of Thrones, I would go so far as to say that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is far-and-away the best show on television. It’s as intriguing as Fringe, as smart as Firefly and as fun as anything that Marvel has put on the big screen. Its first season was the perfect confluence of action, drama and Whedon’s golden touch. Overall, I would give it a solid 9 out of 10, with plenty of room to grow in its coming seasons.