‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ 1.02 Recap: “First Day of School”

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.


  1. This episode was BOR-ING!! The pilot showed a lot of promise for the series, and then this happened. There were no contributions to whatever mythos is trying to be built here. Get on with the story, or die a merciful death already and get Colson back into the movie universe where he rocks.

  2. Christian Rankin

    I agree about the VFX. That was the first thing I noticed along with the sound quality. The visual effects were laughable. The sound was horrible. I noticed when the team was outside in the jungle it sounded like they were talking to each other in a box. There was no background noise. Horrible horrible second episode.

    • Josh Zyber

      Yeah, what the hell was wrong with the audio? I thought that may have been a local affiliate problem. It sounded awful. I had to boost the volume about 10 dB above normal to make out anything, and it still sounded like crap.

  3. “Thingamabob”? The first time I ever heard that word was when Ariel uttered it in ‘The Little Mermaid’. Have you just watched this movie again, Josh, or is the kind of lingo you use in your daily vocabulary? 🙂

    • Josh Zyber

      Although I did recently receive the Little Mermaid Blu-ray, I haven’t watched it yet. Words like “thingamabob” or “whatsis” or “whosisface” were instilled in my vocabulatory by my grandmother. 🙂

  4. While it could have been a lot better, making complaints about “doing homework” before watching the show is completely unfounded, this is a series thats supposed to be in the same world and tied fully to The Avengers, everything that was said relates to things have happened in the Marvel time line of movies, if you are watching this show and havent watched the movies, its your fault for not knowing and/or paying attention. If this was a separate entity entirely I could understand your argument but being in the same universe where everything that has happened has happened, I dont think thats a valid argument at all against the show.

    I personally loved the references and of course the appearance of Fury, if they can pull off other cameos and/or get some lower level Marvel characters in this show, I think it will be just fine. The main characters arent great by any means, but I’ve watched much worse the whole way through.

    As for the writing and directing, yes you are correct there, different director and different writers, except for Joss’s brother Jed Whedon, he’s still involved in writing the show, which is probably where you got the imitation feeling from as he certainly isnt Joss and that is the one thing that I like the least, this episode felt nothing like the pilot, its tone was off, dialogue was off, it all felt like it was trying to hard to be LIKE the pilot episode and thats a testament to how good Joss Whedon is IMO, but it isnt good for the show overall, but even still the numbers may have dropped some from the first episode but its still one of ABCs bigger hits right now.

    • Josh Zyber

      If Marvel requires that every viewer must have watched and committed to memory every convoluted piece of terminology and mythology across every one of its movies in order to follow the plot of this show, they will easily alienate pretty much all but the most hardcore of comic book fanboys. Considering how poorly comic books sell these days, their audience will dwindle down to nothing very quickly.

      While I saw the Captain America movie, I thought it sucked and have (willfully) forgotten most of the plotting in it. I have no intention of seeing Captain America 2 when it comes out, so if the show winds up requring intimate knowledge of that one too, it will lose me.

      I thought Thor was OK, but don’t particularly remember many of the specifics of that one either. I’ll probably catch Thor 2 when it comes to Blu-ray, but won’t rush out to see it in the theater. (The trailers don’t inspire much confidence in it.)

      The Avengers movie was so successful because it managed to play to a broad audience, even those who weren’t Marvel obsessives. The pilot episode of this show was also decent in that regard. It made fan-service nods to the movies, but it didn’t depend on them to carry the story and never sent me running off to Wikipedia to look up the details of what a Tesseract fuel cell is and how it works. If crap like that happens in every episode going forward, I’m not going to bother watching much longer.

      This episode sucked. I hope it’s not representative of what we should expect from the rest of the series.

      • This show requires as much deep background knowledge of comics as Star Trek TNG required a deep knowledge of Physics.

        The words were used as things that would get comic book nerds excited but are interchangeable in almost any other regards.

        Hydra = Nazi = Bad Guys

        Tesseract = insert any random Star Trek tech buzzword = mcGuffin

        This show is not up to Joss Whedon’s usual standards. Probably because the production staff is not any of the amazing people that worked on his other series. His son is working on this but other than the very funny song he did for Felicia Day’s “The Guild” I don’t know what else he has worked on.

        It’s hard not to compare this to his other shows and on those he had such great casts. Coulsen is really the only standout here and Ming Na is so unused as to almost not be a person. Wouldn’t surprise me if she was a robot. She is sorta playing Jayne or John Casey but with out the personality that Adam Baldwin brought to either of those roles.

        Hopefully Whedon will deliver one of the kinds of episodes he is known for soon but I am afraid that being restrained to the marvel Universe is not amenable to whedons Ideas.

        On a positive note I actually found this to be better than the first episode and had no problems with the CGI or sound. You guys may be overly spoiled buy $200 mill budget CGI and need to remember that even getting this level on TV used to be dream. And the time constraints make that stuff a lot harder unless you want BSG circa 1978 rotating and repeat FX shots.

        • Josh Zyber

          FYI, Jed Whedon is Joss’s brother, not his son. He also co-wrote the Dr. Horrible musical and worked on Dollhouse.

          Joss Whedon does have a son, but according to Wikipedia he’s currently 11-years-old.

  5. Josh, when they originally estimated the piece of tech’s age, I believe they were saying that the estimated age was based on how deep it was embedded in the rock, stating that with its depth, the temple would have been built around it. However, Fitz (I think thats the male-nerds name) states that the design almost seems German. Then the explanation pops up that it was commissioned to be built by the Peruvian government when ex-Hyrda/Nazi agents swarmed to South America. Then, I’m assuming after some sort of testing mishap, the tech was lost and not recovered until this episode. That might be the strangest part of this, cause obviously that temple looks like its fairly well visited (what with the roads) and I’m guessing SHIELD, Tony Stark or any government with modern technology should be able to lock on to the energy signature/ gamma radiation coming from it.

    • William Henley

      Interesting – I took a slightly different take on it.

      You see, in Captain America, my understanding was that Hydra was out looking for this “tess-a-rat” (not even going to pretend that I know how to spell it) fabled energy source. Hydra then used this and designs over similarly found objects in its weapons. When the reference was made in the show, it said that it appered to be 1500 years old, used Tessarat technology, and when the other team members looked stumped, they mentioned Hydra and the Nazis. I never got that the device itself was actually Hydra technology, although maybe I missed that.

      However, now that you mention it, I had forgotten the part that the Peruvian government had commissioned it.

      Maybe it was that the fuel cell was 1500 years old. THAT would make sense.

      • Scott H

        It was made of adamantium fibers. The quality of the explosion effects reminded me of the crash scene from Air Force One

  6. William Henley

    I didn’t pick up on the bad special effects – then again, I have a 42 inch screen. The sound effects didn’t get me much either – I was watching on Hulu, and it sounded fine.

    Didn’t have an issue with the age / German / Peruvian thing (as explained above).

    What I did think was strange was

    1) They just randomly let police from another country onto this top-secret plane, then transport them across international lines?

    2) After the team starts working together, they figure out in 30 seconds how to activate the device

    3) A raft plugs the hole

    4) They launch this thing into the sun, purposely using a slower trajectory so that it will take longer to get there? Sounds like this device will be making a comeback in a future episode (ie before the end of the season).

    Yeah, it wasn’t as good as the first episode, but it was still enjoyable. I think I am in for a few more episodes.

  7. thulsadoom

    I’m not going to complain about the effects… It’s a TV show, not a movie. The problem is, it’s a spin-off from huge budget films, so the special effects are just getting a bit unfairly panned. For TV they’re great.

    Having said that, I otherwise agree with a lot of the comments. This is pretty lacklustre and forgettable so far. Not one interesting character or actor that you care about. Even Coulson, who kinda stole the show in the film, has become forgettable.

    Josh, as for saying it bares few hints of Whedon’s touch, I’d say quite the opposite. Unfortunately more ‘Firefly’ Whedon than ‘Dollhouse’ Whedon. Yes, I know so many people love Firefly, but I thought it was truly dire (occasionally at absolute best just marginally enjoyable). Dollhouse on the other hand, started a little mediocre but became quite excellent. Though I think in large part because it got canned so early. It meant the show actually had to move at a good pace, rather than dragging everything out.

    Whedon’s a mixed bag. Sometimes good, sometimes downright bad. Agents of SHIELD is just Whedon on autopilot.

    • Josh Zyber

      I don’t think the criticism of the VFX is unfair at all. If the show is going to rely so heavily on featuring VFX, they need to be better than this or they take viewers right out of the story. There’s so much CGI in this episode, and it’s so central to the action, and it’s so very, very crappy that it really kills suspension of disbelief.

      If the show can’t afford big-budget VFX, it shouldn’t pretend to be a big-budget VFX movie.