The lone drawn-out part about ABC's new series Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is its incredibly clunky title. Despite being an hour-long, the show moves rather quickly, dropping its audience into Manhattan following the superheroes vs. aliens battle at the conclusion of the show's predecessor, The Avengers. What results is a fast-paced, fun-filled ride that, while not great, makes for a series with potential as large as The Hulk himself.
Created by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen (the same team mostly responsible for Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and Dollhouse), Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. serves as a concurrent link between the various Marvel superhero projects, the Avengers films and its own space in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, rather than being a straight sequel to Whedon's 2012 film. The S.H.I.E.L.D (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) team, led by the miraculously newly un-dead Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), is tasked with finding (and presumably helping) new superhuman individuals throughout the world. Don't expect Iron Man, Thor, Captain America or any other main Marvel folks, but rather the "unregistered gifted" personnel that Coulson's team tracks down every week.
The pilot focuses mainly on Coulson, a rogue hacker named Skye (Chloe Bennet) and an ordinary man (J. August Richards) who suddenly gains dangerous superpowers. We're introduced to the team's other members, too, but they're given significantly less screen time overall. Nevertheless, there's pilot and weapons expert Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), Brett Dalton as a black ops Agent who doesn't work so well with others, and partners Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) who gets to drop a Hermione Granger reference in what might become the episode's most quotable line.
What make Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. flow so well is the team's ability to work cohesively in a light, breezy manner, the presence of Marvel Universe alumni and an infusion of Joss Whedon's signature humor. While folks shouldn't anticipate Whedon overseeing the series' every aspect like he might have on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel or Firefly, there's enough of his influence on the pilot episode to make us think we're in good hands. Brett Dalton's fight scene, in particular, is extremely Whedon-esque, with the character tossing witty barbs as he battles multiple foes. It's a moment that reminds us just how fun action can be when it's mixed with a little bit of humor, something Buffy and Angel provided in spades. The clever asides and pop culture references continue throughout the premiere, finding a nice balance without becoming too ham-handed.
Whedon regular J. August Richards handles the role of misguided superhero with ease, and his monologue near the episode's conclusion gives the pilot a sense of purpose and place in an uncertain world inhabited by aliens, superhuman beings and mysterious organizations doing constant surveillance. Nashville alum Chloe Bennet plays the superhero fangirl and new recruit Skye with a cool, tech-heavy confidence that fits in well with the team's band of misfits, and her (non-romantic) chemistry with Coulson is solidified by episode's end.
The most important piece of the puzzle, however, is Clark Gregg's sure handed return as Agent Phil Coulson. Despite the resurrection after his apparent death in The Avengers, Coulson is the glue that holds this ensemble together. His leadership skills and witty smarminess is what bridges the gap between the cinematic universe and the TV world. Having Coulson back in the saddle and in charge of the S.H.I.E.L.D team is the best move Whedon could possibly have made. It makes the show feel right at home in the Marvel universe. (A brief appearance by Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill doesn't hurt either.)
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might not be the fall's best new drama – at least not based on this episode alone – but it's the one with the biggest potential upside. Not only does it have a wealth of characters, storylines and mysteries to draw from, but it also boasts a rock solid performance from Clark Gregg, a great Whedon-based team and the financial trifecta of Marvel, Disney and ABC behind it. The pilot tends to get bogged down in too much cool, flashy gadgetry, and cheesy effects, and has moments of chatty info-dump that can be overwhelming, but those are small quibbles for a show that feels like a 44-minute superhero movie. For that alone, we're in.
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