A great pilot should, obviously, want me to come back for more. I’ve always been fond of the pilot episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, for its odd blend of action (the revisiting of Wolf 359) and philosophy (a discussion of linear time with aliens that exist outside of it) that made it seem like it would be more than just a Next Generation cast off. More recently, the pilot for Sleepy Hollow grabbed me just because of Tom Mison’s dry, witty performance as Ichabod Crane. It doesn’t take much for me to give a show a chance, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gave me very little. There’s a lot of potential — a Whedon-produced TV series set in Marvel’s comic universe with Clark Gregg returning as Agent Coulson is hard to imagine going wrong, but the pilot was just ok. It wasn’t great.
Story-wise, there’s not a lot going on here; the ‘Rising Tide’ terrorist threat was seemingly wrapped up within minutes of being mentioned, leaving little more than an Extremis plot thread hanging off the coat of Iron Man 3. The world has changed forever, we’re told, but we’re not shown, and the only serious antagonist — tripped out on what were essentially just performance-enhancing drugs — could have come from any genre show. At the end of the episode Coulson hints at marvels still to come, without having shown us any marvels to begin with.
As far as the characters go, the writers are going to have their work cut out for them to make this show anything more than The Agent Coulson Hour. To be fair, Clark Gregg’s had a solid five years of working with this character and he wears Coulson’s shoes very comfortably now, but nobody else on the cast leaves an impression beyond bland or annoying. “Speaking like you imagine a character in a Joss Whedon TV show would speak” isn’t a compelling character trait when you don’t have any others, and that’s all I got from supposed master-hacker and S.H.I.E.L.D. nemesis Skye, a study in quippy blandness. Agent Ward doesn’t fare much better, a lone wolf, hard-man character undermined more than once in ways that would have had me handing my notice in by the end of the day. That truth drug scene? That was not cool, Coulson.
As for Fitz and Simmons, Jesus Christ, I am very much done with the wacky, hyperactive and over-confident scientist trope. If you found Topher to be annoying in Dollhouse, well, here he is again. Twice. This pair needs to either get toned down, or made more interesting, otherwise they’re going to be what drives me off the show altogether. Just give me one character that speaks like a regular human being!
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. feels like a pilot for a show that knows it’s going to be watched, initially at least, regardless of quality, and…it’s right. I’m going to watch it because it’s a Joss Whedon series and these generally work out ok, despite usually having weak pilot episodes — I even grew to enjoy Dollhouse, with some qualifications, once the characters all started getting tortured in various ways. But, they need to do better. With some trimming, the pilot would have made a nice DVD extra; I’ll need something more compelling to keep me going for the long haul, and it’s going to need to be more than the mystery of how Agent Coulson is back from the dead.