Airing on Tuesday nights, the much-anticipated Joss Whedon/Marvel comics joint venture has had two episodes now, and - as awesome as that duo sounds - I am sad to say that so far I am unimpressed. Based loosely on the world created to great effect through the Iron Man franchise, Thor, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk (sort of) and The Avengers, on paper, this show should be every bit as cool as its cinematic counterparts. But alas, so far they are falling way short.
The premise is that an unlikely but elite team of experts is assembled by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) of S.H.I.E.L.D., who everyone without Level 7 clearance thinks is dead (if this is the case, why is he so free about just wandering around during strange happenings where anyone with a cell phone could make his being alive a matter of public record rather than eyes only?). The muscle on the team is Agent Grant Ward - a no-nonsense, get-the-job-done, I-work-alone type of guy who is just a little too pretty, and a little too soft for the gruffness that they seemed to want the character to have. The two genius-yet-bumbling scientists - Fitz and Simmons - are played by Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge with a little too much cutesie blabbering, and not enough substance. The gutsy wild card is Skye (Chloe Bennet) - a hacker who the team pulled out of an anti-government group called The Rising Tide. After one encounter (in which she was the criminal), they have given her carte blanche on this super secret government team. The team is rounded out by Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), the requisite highly skilled, disillusioned badass who came out of retirement at Coulson's request. At this point she's a little one dimensional, but also probably the only one of the team other than Coulson who seems old enough and good enough at her job to really be doing what she's doing.
The show is suffering from a few conflicting sets of expectations. First, there is the legacy of the films from which it was born. Obviously when you go from summer blockbuster to weekly TV show, there is going to be some culture shock. Budgets are different, the story is not as compact and refined. But I suspect that the bigger problem is coming from the studios. Because of its box office predecessors, there is likely a desire to make this show reach a wide audience. And wide audiences are great... except that if you make something that is supposed to be for everyone, it ends up not being interesting enough to hold anyone's attention. And this is where the second set of conflicting expectations comes in: this is a Joss Whedon show, and Joss Whedon fans will tune in looking for what they've come to expect from Joss - witty Whedonverse dialogue, kickass chicks, distinctive characters, genuine suspense, deliberate giving and withholding of information in service of a long term plan... but so far what we have is milquetoast. Based on the dialogue, Agent Ward should be older and colder (think Adam Baldwin from Firefly), but that wouldn't be as appealing to tweens, so we have a pretty boy instead. Skye is smart, but has none of the badassery of the rest of the Whedon chicks. Even she is questioning her usefulness on the team, as so far her most tangible contribution has been an inspirational cliche and SPOILER ALERT - Episode 2 - her ability to defy physics with only the help of an airplane safety card and a rubber raft. Fitz and Simmons are clearly Topher from Dollhouse and Kayley from Firefly reincarnated in (so far) less endearing form. Clark Gregg is delightful, because I'm not sure that he knows how not to be, but a show can't survive on a few sideways references to The Avengers, some cameos, and the fact that Clark Gregg might be one of the most lovable dudes in America.
Right now it's novel - and because we liked the movies so much, and because it's Joss Whedon (it's really fun to see some of the faces from shows past pop up), a lot of people are probably giving Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a try. But when it comes down to it, this is a Marvel movie that isn't a movie, and a Joss Whedon show that isn't a Joss Whedon show, so the foundations of the things people love about the basic building blocks of the show are not part of it. If they don't find a way to get us invested in these characters, to raise the stakes (SPOILER ALERT - Episode 2 - How is it possible that a gaping hole in the side of an airplane coupled with active fighting with Peruvian militia could be this entirely unexciting? And I'm sorry... a raft? Really?), to create a real sense of mystery (SPOILER ALERT - Episodes 1 & 2 - a text message and a vague comment about what Coulson can "never know" are just not cutting it so far on the long-term suspense front)... Level 7 isn't going to be around for long. Previous Whedon shows all took time getting their sea legs - the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is sometimes pretty hard to watch, and Dollhouse and Firefly took too long to get going, so that by the time they were really interesting, they were already cancelled. Here's hoping Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finds its footing... fast.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Tuesday nights on ABC...and whenever the hell you want on Hulu.