Joss Whedon has not always done well on network television. Sure, Buffy the Vampire Slayer got seven seasons and the accolades and Emmys it so richly deserved, but Firefly lasted a mere 14 episodes (thank god for the movie follow-up, Serenity) and Dollhouse eaked out a second season due mostly to FOX's desire to stay out of twice-burned fans' crosshairs. Each of those shows has its own storied mythology of Joss versus the Networks: pilots pulled and reshot, episode order shuffled to render the season's arc unintelligble, FOX's apparent insistence that Dollhouse be mostly about how many sexy outfits they could cram Eliza Dushku into in the course of 42 minutes. I am, I will admit, a dedicated Josshead, perpetually hoping that he'll accrue enough clout to finally do a show his way start to finish. While Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which premiered last night, isn't precisely that, it's off to a far better start than could have been feared.
Agents picks up where The Avengers left off, in a world very much like our own except that the popular knows for a fact that superheroes (and one errant Norse god) exist, and that aliens are real and often unfriendly. Obviously there is a government agency, our friends at S.H.I.E.L.D., whose job it is to control said superheroes; there is also an Occupy Wall Street-style group called Rising Tide which stands in opposition to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s black-ops secrecy. Or, well, it appears in the pilot that Rising Tide consists entirely of a pretty young girl named Skye (Chloe Bennet), a genius hacker whose committment to her anarchist principles withers as soon as she relizes that Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is a totally good guy and that they have a lot of really cool tech on their side.
Skye is, for me, the most disappointing part of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. She's meant to be tough and spunky, and while her hacks hold up (Coulson and co. can't get into her computer until she tells them how) she's clearly in way over her head with the big boys from Washington, and the show plays her like a young dumb girl more often than not. Her soon-to-be-love interest Grant (Brett Dalton) is equally archetypal, somewhere between wooden and uptight, a man too troubled and iconoclastic to play nice with others.
Luckily the pilot has leavening in the form of its more minor characters-- I found Fitz and Simmon's lightning-speed co-dependent arguments cum conversations particularly endearing. The action moves fast and sets up an interesting season's arc: some unknown entity is trying to turn humans into superheroes by pumping them full of every known superhero-serum (gamma radiation, among others), which works until the subjects' bodies can't take it anymore and they explode. This is Project Centipede, and it preys on the average man's desire to be better and more, to stand out in a tough economy and save people when they need saving, or so the closing monologues would have us believe. It's a little bit ham-fisted, there, but for a first foray it's really not bad at all.