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‘Agents’ of change: Can Joss Whedon Occupy TV?

September 27, 2013
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SHIELD-castSo the ratings are in, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a hit. A big one. In fact, says Deadline, its first episode garnered the highest numbers for a premiering drama series since November 3, 2009.

And what, you may ask, debuted on November 3, 2009?

A little show called V.

Uh-oh.

Yeah, there’s a big question of longevity that’s waiting to be answered here. How much of this week’s S.H.I.E.L.D. share came from viewers who were simply enticed by the prospect of a spinoff from the third-highest grossing movie of all time, and how many of them liked what they saw enough to carry on with it on its own terms?

The reviews from mainstream outlets seem to have been fairly strong, though the all-important fanboy/girl reaction has been closer to a “meh.” And I can see what has them semi-plussed. Watching the pilot felt like seeing 20 minutes of a great Joss Whedon project strung together with 40 minutes of mediocre black-ops melodrama of the sort the nets have been pushing since The X-Files was canceled — usually to less-than-stellar results. Honestly, if not for the crucial Avengers tie-in, I doubt the show would last half a season.

“Maybe it’ll get better,” hopes the optimistic side of your brain; “Maybe it’ll get worse,” your inner Eeyore mopes. At this point, it seems to depend on how much time Whedon can devote to rewriting scripts that, per the scuttlebutt, have been frankly putrid.

Yeah, I remember that ... day.

Yeah, I remember that … day.

“We have the opportunity to do something special,” Whedon told EW. “If it’s not special, hopefully it will go away.” Which is a sentiment that’s noble enough in its humility. But there’s more at stake here than stories or careers: If the pilot is any indication, the S.H.I.E.L.D. creative team has set itself the mission of allegorizing the struggle of the disempowered private citizen against a 21st-century global oligarchy. That’s a tale that’s hard to tell in a tentpole theatrical feature, which has to reach enough people – and is thus a visible enough target – to make its funders want to scrutinize every script page for potentially “divisive” content. You can get away with more on the small screen, meaning that Whedon could really do some good before Bill O’Reilly figured it out.

Reviews of the pilot made notice of its Snowden-esque underpinnings, which pitted a plucky hacker against the titular shadow operation. Many of those reviews also pointed out, correctly, that Chloe Bennett’s performance as said hacker possessed enough Disney Channel overeagerness to undermine any real didactic potential. There’s also something pretty retrograde about the surprise we were meant to register over the idea that a politically engaged computer geek could be a woman – and get this, a physically attractive one to boot! For now, whatever NSA-era debate the show might want to stimulate is being hampered by tonal glitz and light-comedy banter that half the cast doesn’t know how to sell.

What has me more interested is the theme of underclass anxiety that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. looks to be working. Like the great Watchmen (or, more immediately, Iron Man 3) before it, the series aims to explore the pervasive insecurity an ordinary population must feel once its superheroes have come out of the closet. If the world now harbors an Iron Man, a Captain America, a Thor, what does that mean for the average Eddie Lunchpail, who already felt in thrall to forces beyond his control or ken?

We are all Network Black Single Dad.

We are all Network Black Single Dad.

In the pilot, that conceit was located in the character of Mike Peterson, a single dad whose own clandestinely acquired superpowers still didn’t allow him to play among the gods – or even hold his own against The Man. While the characterization wasn’t entirely novel, it was engagingly presented: At this point in time, the sight of a black man donning a hoodie to keep his superior nature a secret has a resonance we can barely express in words (especially as it arrived less than 48 hours before Shellie Zimmerman had her inevitable public epiphany that her husband might not have acted in self-defense after all).

For now, the series seems to be depending on the idea that, on an institutional level at least, a metahuman-enabling outfit like S.H.I.E.L.D.  might be the enemy of a guy like Mike, but that the people within it could nonetheless prove his most valiant protectors. That’s a tough needle to thread, and it’ll be interesting to see if the show can pull it off. If not, Whedon might need to introduce a more blatantly fascistic doppelganger for S.H.I.E.L.D.– a THRUSH to its U.N.C.L.E, a KAOS to its CONTROL. I think S.E.Q.U.E.S.T.E.R. might just about cover it.

Days without a response from the publication that plagiarized from me and won’t come clean: 102.

Follow me on Twitter: @Schneider_Stv

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  • Deb R

    AWESOME!!! absolutely loved it…hope they continue…The Avengers was an incredible movie…had no idea Joss Whedon wrote the screenplay..can’t wait til the sequel comes out!