There are TV shows, and then there are Joss Whedon TV shows. If you're not sure of the difference, if you're not one of Whedon's acolytes, the difference is this: Joss Whedon TV shows aren't just about the shiny, or the witty dialogue—although both of those things obviously factor heavily into every Whedon production—they're about people. Oh sure, you could argue that every TV show is about people and you wouldn't be wrong, but Whedon shows tend to focus on the psyche, and what makes us human, what makes us strong, what makes us want to be better. Whedon shows explore humanity in abnormal circumstances and scenarios, and they're never really about what they appear to be about on the surface.
Whedon's four previous series—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy's spin-off Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse—all focused on good people fighting the good fight against whatever evil they came up against, whether it was a demon in the night or a corrupt organization that had the ability to wipe personal identities and free will and reprogram humans as it saw fit. They were all stories about people from all different worlds who fought evil.
Buffy wasn't a pop-culture phenomenon because its main character was a tiny blonde girl who chased after the monster in a dark alley; it became a landmark series because it turned every notion we had about horror and the supernatural on its head, and it did so with heart and comedy. But more importantly, it was about how "family" means more than just a group of people who are related by blood. In fact, while most of Whedon's work doesn't actually involve many blood relatives, the concept of family typically factors heavily, and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.—which I will be shortening to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and probably just S.H.I.E.L.D. by the middle of October, and maybe eventually I'll get really crazy and go with SHIELD—is no different. So let's take a second to review what we've just learned about the members of this new S.H.I.E.L.D. family, shall we?
Brett Dalton stars as Agent Ward, who I will be referring to as Agent Handsome for the rest of the series. Ward is your typical hard-ass who's all about the job and probably eats his frozen dinners by himself. He also likely believes emotions are a weakness, hates puppies, and doesn't play well with others. In the premiere, Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) explained to Agent Handsome that in her files, Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) had described Handsome's "people skills" via an illustration of a little poop with knives sticking out of it. Hill explained later that it was actually a porcupine, but whatever, poop + knives is way better.
Then there's Skye, though that's totally not her real name. She's played by Chloe Bennet (who, btw, was one of our nine actors who deserve to break out this season), and she's a hacker. We don't know much else about her yet, but it's probably safe to assume she didn't have the best childhood, and was probably forced to raise herself. She's great at improvising, always has really great hair in the middle of a crisis, and she's smarter than all of us combined. She was able to break into S.H.I.E.L.D.'s database, and she knows how to erase people's entire identity from government databases. If she could make my driver's license picture go away forever, that would be super cool.
Making up the science-y part of the team—a staple of all Whedon shows (think Willow in Buffy, Fred in Angel, Kaylee and Simon in Firefly, and Topher in Dollhouse) are FitzSimmons, a.k.a. Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker), who's in charge of engineering, and Jemma "I'm not Hermione!" Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), who's a biochemistry whiz. They like to talk over each other a lot, and they seem to get along as well as they fight. Ming-Na's Melinda May—the veteran team member who's only function is "to drive the bus"—is a puzzle, because we still don't know why she's been out of the field for so many years. MYSTERY.
And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, is Agent Phil Coulson, who you'll remember bit the dust in The Avengers. He is the leader of this clan, but how he came to be where he is is shrouded in secrecy. Not even Coulson knows what really happened to him. He claimed he stopped breathing for eight seconds after being "shanked by the Asgardian Mussolini," and then spent several weeks in Tahiti recuperating. Also, the Avengers don't know he's alive (which is the easy way out of explaining why Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth won't be stopping by the TV series).
It was clear very early on that Coulson doesn't know the truth about his own resurrection (was it a resurrection?), as was made clear by an ominous exchange between Shepherd Book (okay fine, Ron Glass's character on this show is Dr. Streiten) and Agent Hill:
Streiten: "He really doesn't know does he?"
Hill: "He can never know."
This story undoubtedly goes much deeper than a simple eight-second death, and I suspect it will be a major arc that plays out over the course of the first season, or perhaps even longer. And for the record, I'm not mad that the question of how Coulson is alive wasn't answered right away, because that would have been awfully cheap. And Whedon is not cheap.
Speaking of not cheap, as you probably already know, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a spin-off of the highly successful, kajillion-dollar 2012 summer blockbuster The Avengers—though you don't have to have seen it to understand S.H.I.E.L.D. (However, you should see it regardless, because it was A.W.E.S.O.M.E.) The series is not about the superheroes who populate the Marvel Universe, but about the little guys who "protect people from the news they aren't ready to hear" (and look out for the helpless/hopeless?).
That being said, the pilot focused heavily on an "unregistered gifted" played by Whedon alum J. August Richards (Gunn on Angel). He plays a down-on-his-luck man who put his trust in a doctor (played by The O.C.'s Shannon Lucio) who promised she could improve his life. Unfortunately, and you'll know this if you saw Ironman 3 (or read the comics), what she did instead was pump him full of Extremis, a highly unstable new drug/serum that was supposed to create super soldiers. Did I mention it was unstable? Because it is, and people who've been injected with Extremis usually eventually explode because human bodies cannot handle it. So Gunn (okay, the character's name is actually Mike Peterson but I will call him Gunn because I want to and I can) was basically a ticking bomb. Sounds awesome! Where do I sign up?
The Extremis pumping through Gunn's blood made him extremely volatile. And after kidnapping Skye to "protect her from the scary men in dark suits" (she's said the same thing to him earlier in the pilot, right before she yanked his ID out of his pocket—sneaky!), and also so she could work her hacker magic to erase his identity so he and his son could start over, he completely lost his cool when he realized that Skye had alerted S.H.I.E.L.D. to their location. And for a second it looked like he was about to take out Union Station. Obviously, the new S.H.I.E.L.D. team that Coulson had assembled was able to save Gunn's life, because you not only can't kill off J. August Richards in the pilot, but because that's what this team does. They take relatively small (compared to the Battle of New York), odd, unexplicable (to the mass public) situations and diffuse them.
Much like every other Whedon production, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be a procedural with season-long arcs that tell a bigger story. Eventually, once the series establishes itself, I wouldn't be surprised if it pushed the procedural to the back burner, and brought the character development to the forefront. That's where Whedon shows really excel. And the pilot had everything you could ask for from a Whedon production: heart, witty dialogue, and enough action to keep even the most ADD viewers interested. But perhaps most importantly, it had the patented Whedon Deeper Meaning of Life Speech, which I've transcribed here because it perfectly sums up the underlying message of the series. As Gunn became potentially more volatile in response to S.H.I.E.L.D. trying to contain him—lest he he explode, taking out two city blocks—he said:
Gunn: "I'm not like that other guy. It matters who I am inside. If I'm a good person. If I'm strong... You said if we worked hard, if we did right, we'd have a place. You said it was enough to be a man, but there's better than man—there's gods. And the rest of us? What are we? They're giants. We're what they step on."
Coulson: "I've seen giants up close, and that privilege cost me nearly everything. But the good ones, the real deal, they're not heroes because of what they have that we don't—it's what they do with it. You're right, it matters who you are."
The Agents of S.H.I.E.LD. pilot was exactly what we expected to be. You needn't be a Whedon fan to enjoy this series, because it's shaping up to a fun action series that will probably tug on our heartstrings as much as it will pull out all sorts of cool gadgets and gizmos and take down lots of bad guys. There will be plenty of humor, but there will be plenty of real danger, too. The speech at the end of this first episode was typical Whedon, but it worked because it solidified what the show is about: people, and who those people are on the inside. It doesn't matter that they're not genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropists, or the Chosen One. Because being human, and being the best that you can be, is what's important. Believing in yourself, that's what makes everyone a hero (in their own way).
– While I am a Whedon worshipper, I'm not a huge comic book fan (unless we're talking Whedon comics). If this ever become an issue, I'd ask that 1) you guys forgive me for my terrible-ness, and 2) help me out with comics references in the comments.
– Shannon Lucio's evil doctor is still on the loose, probably pumping Extremis into someone else as we speak. It'll be interesting to see how her character continues to cause problems for our ragtag band of misfits.
– Who or what is Rising Tide, really?
– The series is a full-on Whedon production, as Joss's brother Jed and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen serve as writers and executive producers. Trust me when I say this is a good thing. They're also partly responsible for Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Dollhouse, Spartacus: War of the Damned, snd Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.
– The pilot featured appearances by J. August Richards and Ron Glass, who starred on Angel and Firefly, respectively. What other Whedon alums are you hoping to see pop up in the future? Summer Glau is probably a given, but I'm holding out hope for James Marsters and Fran Kranz. Oh, and Tom Lenk, because imagine what he could do with this material.
– I do hope Cobie Smulders is able to return as Agent Maria Hill after she wraps up Season 9 of How I Met Your Mother. Because it's clear she is a key to Coulson's unlikely return, and also because she's a badass.
– Skye lives in a van by choice. And it's not even down by the river. Either go all in or find a real home, Skye. Don't half-ass this "good-looking hobo" shit. If you need advice, call Derek Hale. He's got the bum thing down.
– Agent Handsome: "I don't think Thor is technically a God." Agent Hill: "You haven't seen his arms."
– Coulson's entrance: *steps out of the darkness* "Welcome to Level 7... Sorry, that corner was really dark and I couldn't help myself. I think there's a bulb out."
– Agent Handsome: "She might as well be one of those sweaty cosplay girls crowding around Stark Tower." Skye: "WHAT? I would... it was one time."
Well? Now that you've seen it, what'd you think?!!
AIRED ON 12/8/2015
Season 3 : Episode 10