It wasn't long into the pilot episode of Agents of SHIELD last night that I realized something unflattering about myself: loving Joss Whedon was so much more fun and pride-inducing when it was a subculture and not the culture. If you loved Buffy The Vampire Slayer AS IT WAS AIRING you were, in point of fact, a very awesome person. Everyone loves Buffy now so loving it is expected and the only reasonable thing to do. Yelling "first", which is stupid trolling when it happens virtually on the internet, is actually deeply pleasurable when rooted in real life. So writing about SHIELD now feels a bit lame since I know everyone will be doing the same. "It doesn't need your opinion!" you try to reason with yourself to prevent the babbling, knowing that talking about something that literally everyone is talking about is roughly the same ROI as talking about something that literally no one is talking about. In both scenarios no one notices in the din/silence. (But then you end up having one (opinion!) anyway because you always do. And it's Joss Whedon and you can't help yourself.)
Seven notes on the pilot after the jump...
The characters look too generic
It's common knowledge that casting for television shows is less adventurous than casting for movies since different appeals are required and the decisions are committee-based rather than artistically driven (movies have test screenings after they're made... tv gets test group focused before pilots even air and shows are very often recast in major ways if test audiences take issue with any characters or actors). But even though you need more relatable and less alien beauty than you'd want from, say, a movie star*, you should still try and differentiate the characters somehow within your show. It can be as simple as hairstyle and color. Why are all four of the show's major women brunettes with shoulder length hair?
Since the men are in black suits and most of the characters are also dressed in very dark similar clothing (shadowy government espionage organization, remember) from scene to scene it feels a little oppressively dark, sleek and shiny in the way, say, Nancy Meyers movies feel oppressively blonde, tasteful and beige.
*If you're confused as to my meaning think Connie Britton and Julianne Moore. Compare and contrast! They make excellent mirrors in this regard as they have reddish hair and are in roughly the same age range (Connie is 7 years younger) and are both just gorgeous... but their beauty is perfectly scaled to the medium they've excelled in.
Pilots are rarely indicative of what good shows can do
The greatest thing about TV as a medium is its ability to evolve and grow over time. Without exception Whedon's show history (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse) reveals series that took time to find their voice or suggested an evolving sensibility even if the evolution was stopped short by cancellation. Agents of SHIELD is totally smart about this setting up all sorts of possible detours to take and one obvious through line.
Hit & Miss Marvel Referencing
Loved the casual name-dropping in jokes like Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) having the "best espionage score since Romanov" but sometimes it leans REALLY shamelessly or hard into the "You love Marvel Movies, don't you? Buy this t-shirt!" synergy, including that opening shot of Avengers dolls on sale and with the (temporary) villains who are a bit like lame versions of the internally combusting baddies in Iron Man 3
Mediocre moment that might lead to great moments
He really doesn't know does he."
He can never know."
Good moment that thinks it's a great one.
Agent Coulson's Resurrection, the thing just discussed above, which is suspect. You've been waiting for it. And you get it with all the snarky charm you're expecting. But it's maybe too expected. And very Whedon as Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg who I loved before you before this role "FIRST!") emerges from an inky black corner of the room into the spotlight where Agent Ward is yammering about his Level 6 clearance.
Welcome to Level 7.
Sorry that corner was dark and I couldn't help myself. I think a bulb is out."
Genuinely great moment.
The best moment in the pilot -- which I swear I keep typing as "the trailer" as if this episode is all Coming Attractions! which hmmm, maybe it is -- was super sly and funny. Agent Coulson is threatening Skye with a truth serum only to then shove the needle into Agent Ward instead, a turnabout recruitment ploy that is a funny twist and genuine surprise. But the joke doesn't end there, it turns out to be a volley for the comic spike of Skye's interrogation of Ward which serves to make all three characters more endearing which is super important in a pilot.
If that weren't reward enough, the scene also makes you complicit in the plot because even though it's ridiculous you are rooting for it in a "this is totally going to work!" way, willing it into being savvy and reasonable ... simply because it's great fun.
The ratings for this Avengers spin-off were predictably gargantuan, dwarfing Whedon's previous shows, but the joy while watching was arguably the inverse. Whedon's voice is still there, sure, but with portion control as if he's rationing the goods now. Perhaps he's eager to save something for himself until he's out from under the contract of the behemoth corporation that now owns his vocal chords. B