How is it possible that Agents of SHIELD can look so expensive and so cheap… often in the same shot? This bizarre schizophrenic reality has me glued to the show, marveling at how a location shoot with a dozen stunt men and pyrotechnics must have cost a bit of money and yet it ends up looking like something shot for pennies. Maybe it’s the bright, flat lighting. Maybe it’s the quality of extras. Whatever it is, something comes across as chintzy in every single scene of the show.
Maybe that’ll end up being charming. Right now, mixed with a cast that has not found their footing, it’s distracting. The second episode of Agents of SHIELD shows how this program can be a TV series, but it also shows how this program could just as easily be a tedious embarrassment. Which means it’s an improvement from the pilot, at least.
This time the SHIELD gang is headed to Peru to examine an 084 - SHIELD lingo for an object of unknown origin. Lingo is a big part of the episode, with it representing the communication barriers between the new members of this team. While that’s a great idea the lingo used to illustrate this - a soldier baffles others with talk of his SO, a pilot is said to be ‘riding the stick’ and someone talks about ‘tweets’ - are so obvious that it’s clear the writers of the show are targeting your grandma.
The 084 ends up being a piece of Hydra technology, built after WWII by escaped Germans. It runs on Tesseract energy, making this episode yet another sequel to one of the movies. Last week we tied in with Iron Man 3’s Extremis, and this week it’s Captain America’s MacGuffin that gives the episode a center. If Agents of SHIELD is going to work it needs to find its own threats and villains, and not just piggyback off what came before. Or if it does piggyback, it needs to do it in an interesting way, having Hydra or AIM agents show up and be real villains.
The first half of the episode creaks, but once the team gets back on their airplane HQ - called The Bus, and cheaper than a Helicarrier - things got moving. The Peruvian military they took along want to steal the 084 for themselves, and Agent Coulson is betrayed by an old flame. Can the motley crew of SHIELD agents work together to solve the crisis and hijacking?
Their solution is half cool - punching a hole in the side of the plane while at altitude - and half lame - they use an inflatable life raft to patch the hole… and then lean on the raft - but that feels like Agents of SHIELD summed up right now. You can see what might work on this show, and sometimes it actually does work, like the bits where the team comes together, and almost everything Ming Na does as the badass operative Melinda May. But at the same time there’s a sheen of cheesy badness, aimed at the middle of the road network TV crowd, that trips everything up.
Right now the biggest problems with the show are the weird pricey/cheap aesthetic and the cast. But the cast can be fixed, and not by firing anyone. Rather, this seems like the kind of a show where, if it lasts four years, we’ll look back and be shocked at how different the characters were in the first few episodes. This is a show that needs to tailor the characters to the actors, because many of these actors are flailing in the roles assigned to them. Brett Dalton is especially miscast as the glowering super agent; he comes across more like a prissy male model than anything else. Playing with that - making his super agent a vain goofball - would certainly help. I don’t know what to do about Chloe Bennett’s Skye, the superhacker who cares about social justice, except to maybe figure out why they need her on a team that already has two superscientists. Checking her iPhone (“I can’t find anything on any of the datastreams!”) doesn’t cut it. Movies and TV never know what to do with hackers, and Skye is no different. Maybe they can have an episode that explains how she takes such good care of her hair while living in a van.
In the middle of it all, and making it all worth it, is Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson. His tone is exactly right, with a pinch of camp and a dollop of seriousness, and nobody else on the show can keep up with him. It’s quite likely that without Gregg at the center Agents of SHIELD episodes would just start piling up on my DVR, unwatched.
Many shows have rough starts. This show, it turns out, is no different. Will it find its feet? I think this episode shows that it can. At the very least I suspect Agents of SHIELD is going to get a good chance to find its way, if it ever does.