Well hell, that didn’t take long. At just its second episode, ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ has already transitioned from the most hyped new television series of the fall season to the most boring new television series of the fall season. Apologies to Joss Whedon, but I’ve never felt like checking out of one of his shows so early before.
To be fair, as I speculated last week, I’m not sure how much involvement Whedon is actually taking in this show after the initial work of getting it off the ground. Considering that he’s deep in production of the next ‘Avengers’ movie right now, I suspect that he was forced to hand the reins of this spin-off to others. If someone has evidence to contradict that, please speak up. From what I can tell, very little of Episode 2 (called ‘0-8-4’) bears Whedon’s stamp, beyond some forced quippy dialogue that feels more like a Whedon imitator than the real thing.
I knew we were in trouble from the opening scene, which depicts a mid-air explosion on the team’s super-high-tech headquarters plane with CGI visual effects that look state-of-the-art circa 1993. I realize that television budgets tend to drop after a series blows its wad on a flashy pilot episode, but this is just embarrassing. If the producers couldn’t afford feature-quality VFX, they should consider writing and staging the scenes differently so that the action doesn’t depend so much on having feature-quality VFX. This is a problem throughout the episode, not just during the big action sequences, but anytime a character stands against a terribly fakey green-screen backdrop, which happens a lot.
The storyline in this episode sends the new team on its first official mission as a complete unit. They jet down to Peru, where a mysterious technological thingamabob has been discovered by archaeologists inside an ancient Incan temple. (“0-8-4” is S.H.I.E.L.D. code for “Object of Unknown Origin.”) Techie wiz-kids Fitz and Simmons peg its age at 1,500-years-old (even older than the temple itself, they point out), but then later assert that it’s HYDRA equipment from World War II, and offer absolutely no explanation for this discrepancy. In case you don’t remember what HYDRA is, they also helpfully name-check Captain America and Red Skull to point viewers in the direction of the proper piece of convoluted Marvel mythology we’re supposed to think about. The doodad, it turns out, is a fuel cell from the Tesseract – that power source thingie featured in the ‘Captain America’ and ‘Avengers’ movies. It’s also filled with dangerous gamma radiation (the stuff that turned Bruce Banner into the Hulk) and seems to be a weapon somehow. I feel like I shouldn’t need to do homework just to follow the plot of this stupid show.
While in Peru, the team meets up with a local military unit led by foxy Camilla Reyes (Leonor Varela from the ‘Dallas’ reboot), who just so happens to be an ex-fling of Coulson’s. After being attacked by some rebels, both groups retreat to the S.H.I.E.L.D. plane and fly off in the direction of a S.H.I.E.L.D. containment facility that can take the episode’s MacGuffin off their hands. While en route, lo and behold, Reyes betrays Coulson, and her squad hijacks the plane in order to steal said MacGuffin for themselves.
After an interminable amount of squabbling, Coulson’s new S.H.I.E.L.D.ers finally learn how to work together as a cohesive team, each leveraging his or her own unique abilities to overcome the baddies. Agent Ward has the leadership skills, Agent May (Ming-Na Wen from ‘ER’) is a kung-fu badass, Fitz and Simmons do techie stuff, and former Rising Tide computer hacker Skye… I don’t know, Tweets and acts as social media liaison, or something. Nobody really has any idea why Coulson brought her along on this mission. She ultimately proves her worth by being the only one to read the plane’s safety pamphlet and figure out where the emergency inflatable raft is. Wow, what a fabulous super power! Why hasn’t Marvel made a whole movie about her yet? I can’t wait to buy the Skye action figure with spring-loaded pamphlet-reading ability!
Attempting to compensate for its lack of interesting writing, the episode is filled with wall-to-wall action, all of it blandly and limply staged beneath a tediously droning musical score. As I already said, the VFX are awful. The characters all still feel generic. The team-building storyline is terribly contrived and formulaic. The shocking twist where we find out that Skye is still texting with her Rising Tide besties is a big fat “Duh!” Basically, there’s nothing at all of interest in this whole episode. Even a quote-unquote surprise cameo by Samuel L. Jackson at the end (his commander Nick Fury shows up to yell at Coulson for wrecking his fancy plane) feels forced and gimmicky.
I hated this episode. It outright sucks on every level. As just the second episode of a brand new series, the show can’t afford to start off this badly if it wants to last more than half a season.