First impressions: "Agents of SHIELD"

I refuse to call it “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD,” because that’s just plain silly.  Have a little faith in your brand, corporate honchos.  After “Avengers” made a gazillion dollars at the box office, I think everyone knows who owns this property.  We don’t want some kind of brand-recognition arms race to give us “D.C.’s Superman Versus Batman” in a couple of years, now do we?

As for the show itself: not bad, but not quite up to the hype, not yet.  I didn’t really expect it to be, because Joss Whedon shows almost always have weak premiere episodes.  I don’t know why that is.  He just has trouble introducing his characters and setting.  That usually stops being much of a problem a few episodes in.

Maybe part of the weak Whedon premiere syndrome is because he’s noted for loading the characters up with sarcastically funny dialogue, even giving his villains the occasional comedy moment (if not making them into full-blown quip machines in their own right, like Spike on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”)  I think that’s problematic in the first few episodes of a series, because we don’t know who these people are yet.  It seems a bit forced to have them dishing out wacky jokes left and right, as opposed to letting us learn about a stiff guy like SHIELD boss Phil Coulson before letting us see his sense of humor.  Coulson was technically introduced in the Marvel films, but we’re meeting him again in the series (after he died in “Avengers,” which several characters note is pretty weird, even by SHIELD standards.)  It might have been better to keep him a bit more restrained at first, maybe ladle out the punch lines more carefully until the audience is comfortable with the characters.

None of the characters or actors, other than Coulson, seemed quite up to the standards set by the ensembles in other Whedon shows, including the under-appreciated “Dollhouse.”  That might be because Joss Whedon himself has fairly minimal involvement with the TV show.  There have been so many lightning-in-a-bottle casting choices on his other projects that the SHIELD crew seems like a letdown so far.  The best character in the premiere was the troubled super-hero played by “Angel” veteran J. August Richards, but he was just a guest star.  They really ought to bring him back.  His anguished speech about the way normal people feel in a world full of super-beings was terrific.

The premise of the show is sturdy enough: the adventures of a government spy agency trying to keep a lid on the post-“Avengers” super-hero-infested world.  There are some interesting comments about privacy and agency overreach, given the NSA scandal.  It seemed like SHIELD co-opted a Wikileaks-style hacker into their ranks far too easily – that might have been easier to swallow if it had been a two-hour premiere episode with room to let the characters breathe.  On the other hand, it’s easy to sympathize with normal, albeit highly-trained, human beings trying to handle counter-terrorism in a world of super-soldiers, Norse gods, and the biggest loose cannon ever to roll around on the deck of government, Tony Stark.  (I wonder what Pepper thinks of the “sweaty cosplay girls” swarming around Stark Industries HQ.)  The Marvel heroes get name-checked a few times during the TV show, which does a decent job of establishing “Agents of SHIELD” in the film universe without breaking the budget.  After all, it would only make sense that Captain America and his crew can’t be everywhere.  It was a bit surprising to see the TV show serve as a fairly direct epilogue to “Iron Man 3.”

It’s a fun show, and it will probably get better as it finds its footing, but I have to say that for crazy over-the-top fantasy fun, Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” has it beat so far.  The writers of “Sleepy Hollow” seem to make every script judgment by shaking a Magic 8-Ball that provides answers like “Why the hell not?” and “GO FOR IT!”  Ichabod Crane was a soldier in George Washington’s demon-fighting special forces team?  Why the hell not?  The Headless Horseman – revealed to be literally one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – loads up with machine guns and stalks the streets of Sleepy Hollow like a supernatural Terminator?  GO FOR IT!  

The SHIELD team should ask if they can borrow that 8-Ball for a while.