Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Promise of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Saw Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. last night and I came away with feelings so mixed I had to write about them. Spoilers for the pilot follow.

The dialog had a few fun moments with characteristic Whedon-wit ("I'm sorry, that corner was really dark and I couldn't help myself." "Somebody really wanted our initials to spell out 'shield.'") but we are still leagues away from the empyrean heights of Firefly. The resolution was a literal Chekov's Stun Gun and it was telegraphed so blatantly that I thought it up and discounted it because it seemed too pat and obvious.

Another thing that bugs me is that I can feel the influence of Disney's general ethos. This is a lighter show than anything team Joss has done for TV before. The characters are less volatile than Firefly. We have none of the macabre satirical humor that defined Buffy and Angel. The sci-fi is much lower concept than Dollhouse.

Then again, Whedon pilots are usually pretty bad. Remember Angel's pilot? Hell, remember most of Buffy season 1? Neither do most people. Dollhouse is perhaps the worst offender. It had the best sci-fi premise on network in ages, but they spent the first six episodes unsuccessfully attempting to dumb things down to second grade level, offending Whedon fans and average audiences alike.

It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that I would stop watching this show for any reason.  It is penned by a group of writers I greatly admire and aspire to learn from, to a point that probably flirts with sycophancy. But I can still give you two fairly good reasons to stick it out through the first couple episodes.

Save for a few isolated characters Whedon has always portrayed the government (and authority writ large) as the ultimate bad guy. Behavioral modification programs. Bureaucratic nightmares. Extra-judicial detainment and unregulated experimentation. He and his team have given us some of the most terrifying law bodies this side of Orwell.

But this time Joss, Jed, and Maurissa are couching a government team as the good guys and they seem to be doing it earnestly. I'm not a half-wit. I know that there will be twists and betrayals within the organization (they are already foreshadowing falsehood about Coulsin's resurrection story). But most of the people working for the status quo are actually trying to be honest, old-fashioned good guys. Sky's little journey from Anonymous-esque Counter Culture Hacker girl to S.H.I.E.L.D. collaborator perfectly symbolizes this transition. It's a huge tonal shift, and it is going to take a couple episodes to nail down.

My second defense is that this show is set in the Marvel cinematic universe. By themselves, the Marvel superhero films are fairly mediocre. Together though, they represent a trans-media vision of unprecedented scope. Seeing all the little ligatures and references is nerd cocaine. Inside jokery is part of it, but it's more than that. Being familiar with everything creates a semi-exclusive layer of knowledge that extends a sense of community to all who consume it. That is the very core of fandom. And the show isn't dragging its heels capitalizing on that promise. It is already calling back stuff from Captain America, Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3.

There are less intellectually compelling reasons to keep watching too. Stuff seems to blow up on a regular basis. Kung-fu fights abound. Also most of the cast is stupidly, ludicrously attractive. Whedon favorites Ron Glass and J August Richards return to TV. And Coulson, who is a refreshingly average middle-aged dude with a penchant for nerdy collectibles, has proven himself to be extremely endearing. I suspect that he is actually a LMD, or a bio-augmented clone, or some ish, but taken at face value, he is the closest most of us will become to being a hero.

I will probably talk about this show again in the future, especially if it is a spectacular failure or if it blossoms into something rich and compelling.

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