Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Season 1 - TV Review

'It's left to a handful of good episodes to 'save' a series that can frequently offer a level of entertainment but is hardly ever well crafted.'

I will maintain that a part of the reason why Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has not been entirely successful with critics and audiences is because of some unfortunate timing. Marvel launched their airy, light series at almost exactly the same point as Breaking Bad ended. Where that series was hailed by audiences as complex and dark and challenging, this, at times, can be accused of being even lighter than Buffy. There's nothing particularly wrong with that on a conceptual level, but as far as capturing the TV zeitgeist goes? This never really stood a chance.

Excuses duly made for the show's strong points, the problems with Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. do, unfortunately, run far deeper than the fact that it isn't Breaking Bad. For a long time during the start of this series, it seemed to struggle with exactly what it wanted to be. Early episodes like The Asset (S1E3) seem to try to factor the S.H.I.E.L.D. team, led by the now-returned Coulson (Clark Gregg), as the ground-level force against the corporate likes of Ian Quinn (David Conrad) who are a bit small-fry for The Avengers but still pose a superhero/supernatural threat. That second word sums up other episodes more than others, with Repairs (S1E9) and Seeds (S1E12) feeling like they have more than a little in common with an X-File or two. Seeds and Yes Men (S1E15) do what this should have always done and try to push Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. towards the more interesting, less-covered parts of the Marvel universe, with both prominently featuring existing characters Donnie Gill (Dylan Minnette) and Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) respectively. Too often though we're left to a fairly lame and unconnected monster-of-the week that hints that there's no plan here.

A little variation in tone and topic over a long series (the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. is 22 episodes might be one of its main problems) is inevitable but perhaps where Marvel's first TV offering really falls down is in the level of characterisation it consistently finds (or doesn't) with its leading troupe. The solid Gregg is a given, continuing to play Coulson as straight-faced whether he's driving a floating car or giving one of his team a tongue-lashing, something relied on too often to generate the drama. The rest are a real mixed bag. Though initially a little flimsy, Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) emerge as the highlights, with Henstridge in particular showing some real acting chops, particularly in the final episode where she arguably gets the most significant moments.

The flip side of the Fitz/Simmons coin falls to Ward (Brett Dalton), Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) and Skye (Chloe Bennet), who all suffer the cardinal sin of having no great reason to be there. Ward, as the leading man, is a vacant vessel, difficult to feel sympathy for or identify with. His development speaks to the fact that the writers know they got him wrong and the emergence of the no-worse-and-maybe-slightly-better Tripp (B.J. Britt) in later episodes proves welcome. If you have two strong and silent types in Ward and Coulson then you definitely can't afford a third but the writers threw in May anyway, who is perhaps the most wasted, least written character and for whom you wouldn't bat an eyelid if she was wiped out by a random passing Chitauri in any episode you'd care to plump for. Meanwhile, Skye has the most promise of this less-than-promising group but again, the writers seem to suffer from indecision. At the start, she's an anti-S.H.I.E.L.D. hacker, an interesting angle, soon dropped. Later something else crops up about her past but by the end of the season no-one seems bothered enough by it to actually answer any of the questions surrounding it. She's probably the best of the worst bunch but when the competition are May and Ward, that isn't saying much, and Bennet does struggle to not sound forced on occasion.

It's left to a handful of good episodes to 'save' a series that can frequently offer a level of entertainment but is hardly ever well crafted. T.R.A.C.K.S. (S1E13) is fun, whilst its immediate follow-up, T.A.H.I.T.I. (S1E14) (it's a magical place) introduces a familiar Hollywood face and ties in to the paranoia suggested in Captain America: The Winter Soldier possibly even better than that film managed to do. The stretch between End of the Beginning (S1E16), a title which seemingly admits S.H.I.E.L.D. took too long to get going, and The Only Light in the Darkness (S1E19) really gets into a central story and mystery that should have been present from the beginning, finally finding S.H.I.E.L.D. its reason d'etre, whilst simultaneously tying into the Marvel cinematic universe successfully.

If only they could have kept it up. Ragtag (S1E21) and, to a lesser extent Beginning of the End (S1E22) prove to be disappointing in the extreme. Ragtag in particular, which features Ward, some terrible editing and a horrible dog metaphor, must be in contention for one of the limpest TV episodes of some time, whilst the finale follows a now-established Marvel structure: save as many people as possible whilst pulling few surprises, although there is an effective and active cameo. If Season Two is to beat this and right the ship, it will take a minor revolution, a major rethink, and the culling of some serious dead weight.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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