Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Nothing Personal”

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The show’s villains: Ward and Deathlok.

Nothing Personal should be the episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in which the pace and tension is fired up; preparing the audience and the characters for the season finale. After several strong, suspense-filled episodes, Nothing Personal should be the episode in which everything is brought to crisis. Instead, it manages to be one of the blandest and least relevant episodes of the series so far. There has been a bizarre pattern emerging from the most recent episodes of the show. The excellent Turn, Turn, Turn, had the distinct characteristics of a season finale: massive revelations, the emergence of the show’s shadowy villain and a cliff-hanger ending that changed the whole dynamic of Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) S.H.I.E.L.D. team. As a result, the following episodes have had the quality of an extended epilogue. This is certainly true of Nothing Personal, which adds almost nothing significant to the progression of the series until the very last scene.

Following on from the events of the previous episode, Coulson, Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) return to their hidden base with Agent Triplett (B.J. Britt). Upon discovering that their plane is missing and Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) has absconded with Skye (Chloe Bennett), the truth slowly dawns upon them; Ward is a double agent for the sinister HYDRA terrorist organisation. Before they can plan Skye’s rescue, their base is invaded by US Military personnel, led by the obnoxious Colonel Talbot (Adrian Pasdar). S.H.I.E.L.D. top brass Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) also arrives on the scene in an attempt to convince Coulson to stand down and adhere to the military’s demands, or so it seems. The secondary plot of this episode concerns Skye’s attempts to misdirect Ward and prevent him from obtaining useful S.H.I.E.L.D. information. At first, she plays along with his insistence that he can be trusted. However, when Skye’s attempted police rescue backfires, Ward discovers that Skye is perfectly aware of his HYDRA loyalty. Soon Skye is caught between the machinations of the deceitful Ward and the dangerously violent Deathlok (J. August Richards), the tragic cyborg villain that Skye and the other agents failed to save.

This episode could have been used to examine Agent Ward and his relationship to his former teammates. Upon discovering that Ward is traitorous, Fitz’s responds with an infantile tantrum and a refusal to believe that his “friend” would betray them. This moment falls utterly flat, due both to De Caestecker’s lacklustre acting, and the fact that never in the series does Ward act like a “friend” to Fitz. Right from the first episode, the agents have been written as a dysfunctional family (a staple of Joss Whedon-produced television). This dynamic has never really materialised because it was never given the opportunity to evolve. The characters were a family from episode 01, end of story. At no point did the audience see them transform from a “unit” into something more meaningful. Ward’s betrayal hurts Fitz, but it really has no reason to. Even when the two characters were paired up as a duo in previous episodes, no sense of camaraderie was indicated.

Similarly uneventful are the scenes in which Ward tries to justify his actions to Skye. What should be a punch-in-the-gut evisceration of the Skye/Ward romance that has been indicated since the pilot feels more like another example of “continuity housekeeping”. Rather than focussing on the emotional trauma that Skye should be experiencing upon discovering Ward’s betrayal, the writers choose to focus on explaining Ward’s actions and his relationship to HYDRA. For example, in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger (which takes place in the same fictional universe as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), HYDRA is an organisation formed by the Nazis during World War Two. One question that has yet to be answered until this episode is whether or not the modern HYDRA retains the national socialist ethos of its founders (Ward confirms that it does not; modern HYDRA agents are not neo-Nazis). Whilst this is a question that continuity-savvy viewers may have wanted answered, it feels like unnecessary exposition that consumes time that could have been better utilised exploring the character of Ward.

By the end of the episode, every character has returned to the same place (emotionally if not geographically) that they were at the end of the previous instalment. Never has there been an episode of this show in which so very little is accomplished. There are few positive aspects of note: the special effects are very strong (Deathlok’s superhuman strength is used well), Brett Dalton delivers one of his more competent performances as the now-treacherous Ward, and the cliff-hanger in the last scene is very intriguing (as well as being quite funny thanks to Clark Gregg’s comedic timing). However, other than these occasional good points, Nothing Personal is one of the weakest and most unnecessary Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes thus far.

Image from comicbook.com

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:- “The Only Light in the Darkness”

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Amy Acker’s Audrey: a strong performance in an otherwise empty episode.

Procedural genre television shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. typically follow conventions established by the trailblazers of the genre (such as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Supernatural/science fiction TV shows utilise many character archetypes, motifs and themes again and again because they have proven successful in the past, or perhaps because their usage represents one less thing for the show’s creators to concern themselves with. This can be observed by examining the characters of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Chloe Bennett’s Skye could just as easily have been a recurring character on Smallville or any other teen-based sci-fi show of the last decade, whilst Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) has, until recent episodes, represented a perfect embodiment of the troubled and emotionally distant “dark stranger” archetype made famous by David Boreanaz’s Angel. This “pattern recognition” is also evident in the structure of many Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes. The episode T.R.A.C.K.S. presents the same event from the point of view of each principal character in order to playfully unfold the narrative to the audience. Almost every show of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ilk has utilised this trope at some point (Buffy’s “The Replacement” was such an episode). The latest episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., “The Only Light in the Darkness”, is the (seemingly required) “romance episode”; the instalment in which of the characters admit and explore their various sexual attractions to one another. The best science fiction television will examine many aspects of the human condition, including romance and sex, by approaching it through an unconventional filter (Fringe’s “A Short Story About Love” would be an excellent example of this). As is expected by now, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s attempt at a romance-themed instalment fails on multiple levels.

Beginning immediately after the close of the previous episode, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his S.H.I.E.L.D. team remain in hiding from the authorities and from the villainous HYDRA organisation. When Coulson discovers that a super-powered sociopath (Patrick Brennan) has escaped imprisonment, he insists that he and his allies leave their safe seclusion in order to stop him. Coulson’s desire to break cover to apprehend the criminal are motivated by the maniac’s intended victim; a beautiful cellist from Coulson’s past named Audrey (Angel’s Amy Acker). As Audrey believes him to be dead, Coulson must stop the demented criminal without revealing himself to her. Meanwhile, Agent Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) is having trouble reconciling the obvious mutual attraction between his unrequited love, Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), and Agent Triplet (B.J. Britt). Back at their secret headquarters, Skye and Ward are developing a deep romantic attraction, despite Skye’s increasing fear that Ward may not be all that he seems.

Ever since she was mentioned in passing in The Avengers (the Marvel Comics movie of which Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a spinoff), fans of the Agent Coulson character have been speculating about “The Cellist”. It is certainly no surprise that the character should appear, and that she should be played by a Joss Whedon TV show alumni like Amy Acker (Whedon’s brother has produced and written most Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes thus far). Acker certainly gives a strong performance during her limited airtime. Despite the fact that she and Clark Gregg barely share a single scene together, the doomed relationship between Coulson and Audrey is by far the most compelling romance in the episode; a testament to the abilities of both actors. One only wishes that the writers could have conceived a less cumbersome reason to bring the pair together again than a cackling supervillain. This isn’t helped by Patrick Brennan’s terrible acting and hammy line delivery. In a show rife with melodramatic supervillains, the antagonist of this episode stands out as being so awful as to become comedic. Far more compelling as a villain is Brett Dalton’s Ward; the character commits a truly grizzly act in this episode’s subplot. The fact that he is able to seem unfazed and even sexually excited about his relationship with Skye only moments after killing someone is far more chilling than the moustache-twirling antics of the villain in the Audrey plot. Kudos should also be given to Chloe Bennett; normally one of the weakest performers on the show. A sort sequence in which she suffers a panic attack upon discovering Ward’s villainous nature is actually uncomfortable to watch because of how well the actress sells her character’s distress and isolation.

There is certainly much to appreciate about “The Only Light in the Darkness”. However, none of these strong elements come together as any kind of cohesive whole. The overall pace and tone of the episode is characteristically uneven, many of the actor’s performances are lacklustre at best and terrible at worst (Iain De Caestecker remains hopelessly out of his depth alongside far better actors) and absolutely nothing about this episode feels important to progressing the larger narrative of the season: a major fault considering that there are only three episodes remaining before the season finale. It is as if the writing staff felt that the show had to take a break to humanize the S.H.I.E.L.D. team by having them all fall in love. This is an utterly unnecessary instalment of a show that is desperately trying to justify its existence.

Image obtained from tvequals.com

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:- “Providence”

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This beautiful poster was created to promote the episode. A bizarre amount of effort for such a trivial instalment.

After the fairly impressive episode Turn, Turn, Turn, Providence, the most recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., feels somewhat empty. So many Earth-shaking revelations, intriguing plot-twists and complex character developments were packed into the last episode that the show now feels like it is spinning its wheels; waiting patiently for the season finale. Instead of building on the pace and tension expertly established in the previous episode, Providence spends the majority of its runtime bogged down by exposition and foreshadowing. After the attempted HYDRA takeover of S.H.I.E.L.D. (taking place in both the previous episode and the recent film Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his team are left to pick up the pieces of their devastated organisation. When the US Military announce their intent to take the remaining S.H.I.E.L.D. agents into custody, Coulson and the others flee and go “off the grid” with the help of Skye (Chloe Bennett). Unbeknownst to the S.H.I.E.L.D. team is the fact that one of their own, Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) is a HYDRA operative working for the villainous John Garrett (Bill Paxton). Whilst Coulson’s team journey to a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. outpost, Ward and Garrett rescue Raina (Ruth Negga), the mysterious “Girl in the Flower Dress” from several previous episodes. As Raina is informed of the true nature of her until-now shadowy employer, Coulson and the others arrive at the S.H.I.E.L.D. outpost… finding nothing but snowy wilderness.

One of the good aspects of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is how each episode has, until now, felt like its own entity. Every episode is certainly connected to the last by plotline, but each instalment has been written and presented as an independent adventure. A viewer could begin watching the show at any point and not feel too confused or lost by continuity. This approach has positive and negative attributes; it has not allowed for much character progression for the main cast yet it has enabled the show’s different writers and directors to take a more unique approach to crafting their episodes. Providence, however, is little more than a sequel to last week’s episode, and a set-up for future episodes. Bill Paxton’s Garret confronts the character of Raina and explains his past machinations and intentions, as well as what he intends to do now. An almost identical scene follows between Raina and Ward, in which Ward extensively elaborates on why and how he infiltrated and betrayed the S.H.I.E.L.D. team. These sequences cannot help but feel like a kind of “exposition housekeeping”; clearing up inconsistencies or unanswered questions from the last episode. Much later, Ward and Garrett raid a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility and steal a collection of alien weapons, no doubt setting up action sequences for upcoming episodes. The main narrative of the show barely moves forward at all because the focus is entirely on clearing up the past and setting up the future.

The episode also varies wildly in the quality of its few action sequences. There is a tense and well-shot helicopter attack (a gamble played by Ward to convince some S.H.I.E.L.D. security guards that he can be trusted) that appears to feature a real aircraft, starkly opposing the ludicrous computer-generated S.H.I.E.L.D. plane. A later scene in the episode features Coulson’s team traipsing across the Canadian wilderness; it is laughably unrealistic since the environment looks perfectly clement and the characters don’t even appear to be cold. During this scene, Coulson loses his composure. He begins to angrily assert that there must be a reason that they’ve been sent into this dangerous landscape. Were the sequence to take place in genuinely inhospitable-looking surroundings, it may have been extremely tense and effective. However, thanks in no small part to how pleasant the snow-covered hillside appears, and how healthy and warm the characters appear, Coulson’s rant seems bizarrely over the top and out of place. Basically, the production values do not match the dialogue or the performances in any way. Clark Gregg is a charismatic and skilled actor, but his performance in this scene seems hilariously overdramatic, because his reaction doesn’t fit the aesthetics of the surrounding environment.

The episode is not without its positives, comedian and long-time comicbook aficionado Patton Oswalt makes an amusing if pointless cameo as a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent who’s been sequestered in a remote facility, and has become somewhat eccentric as a result. Adrian Pasdar, a veteran of the similarly-troubled superhero television show Heroes, appears in a brief but memorable cameo as Colonel Glenn Talbot (a Marvel Comics character created in the 1960s). Bill Paxton continues to be a delight to watch as the insufferable Garrett. Now that he has been revealed to be an antagonist, Garrett has started wearing a black turtle-neck as if to emphasise his role by dressing like a Bond villain. This is an amusing touch and very much in line with the character’s jokey personality. Very little can be critiqued or analysed in this episode because so little happens in it. It is an exposition receptacle and nothing more. With luck, it will allow future episodes to regain the frenetic pace of Turn, Turn, Turn and build into a strong finale.

Image from Marvel.com

TV: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:- “End of the Beginning”

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J. August Richards as the tragic villain, Deathlok.

After a long and mostly disappointing season, The End of the Beginning is the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that sets the stage for the finale. With only a few episodes remaining after this, the stakes are being raised significantly- as is the sense of mystery. The End of the Beginning is thankfully one of the show’s stronger episodes so far; it features some well-shot (if brief) action sequences and some genuinely compelling plot revelations. The episode begins with the S.H.I.E.L.D. teammates led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) separating and searching multiple locations for the Clairvoyant: the mysterious antagonist who’s been pulling strings behind the scenes for most of the season. The team’s splitting up allows the show to re-introduce Agent Hand (Saffron Burrows) as well as make a passing reference to the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier; the 2014 movie that is supposed to be taking place in the same continuity as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. It is not long before one of the teams is attacked by Mike Petersen (J. August Richards), their former teammate now calling himself “Deathlok” (a reference to a Marvel Comics supervillain of the same name). It is only when the Clairvoyant is seemingly found that the situation begins to unravel. Before long, Coulson and his teammates are left with no one to trust.

Since the S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation was first introduced to the world outside of comicbooks in 2008’s Iron Man, they have been a compelling background presence in many Marvel superhero movies. Appearing in Iron Man 2, Thor and The Avengers, the organisation has always been portrayed as extremely powerful and morally questionable. Like a science fiction-drenched equivalent of the CIA or MI6, S.H.I.E.L.D. has typically been portrayed as doing whatever was necessary to protect ordinary people from extraordinary threats. In The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. attempts to nuke New York City because they believe that it may save the rest of the world. The announcement of a spinoff TV show starring agents of this organisation not long after The Avengers held great promise; a chance to show the darker, morally greyer side of the world of superhuman heroes – a very intriguing premise for a television programme. Instead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a show comprised of the bland adventures of “witty”, “quirky”, two-dimensional characters. The audience did not even get the opportunity to watch these misfits slowly become a tight unit of comrades, and then into something of a family (in the manner of similar shows like Fringe or Warehouse 13) because the characters were written as a dysfunctional family from the pilot onwards. Outside of Ward (Brett Dalton) beginning to engage in casual sex with May (Ming-Na Wen), none of the characters developed in significant ways. Even Skye (Chloe Bennett), the “audience surrogate” character is given precious little to do after she served her initial purpose of bringing the team together.

The End of the Beginning is really the first time in the show’s short and sad history that it begins to feel like the show that it should have been from the beginning. The characters hunt down a dangerous superhuman, there are shocking revelations and red herrings and twists, the agents are paranoid and unsure who is friend or foe. Not only is this great television, it is exactly what espionage-centric TV is supposed to be like. Apparently, it took almost the entire run of the TV show for the writers and creators to realize what kind of project Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was always supposed to be. Whilst the show has improved in quality gradually over time, this is the first episode that really feels like what was promised when the show was green-lit. What really saves this episode is the cameos from recognisable talent. Bill Paxton returns as the always-amusing Agent Garrett, as does BJ Britt’s Agent Triplet (whose possible romance with Elizabeth Henstridge’s Simmons appears to be developing into a major plot point). J August Richards remains a compelling tragic antagonist as Deathlok, who now looks like a fully-fledged comicbook supervillain. Special praise should be given to Brad Dourif, who manages a chilling and very effective performance whilst barely saying or doing anything but sit in a chair. It is a testament to Dourif’s expressive face that he manages to be terrifying whilst only using his eyes.

Not that the episode is perfect. Its pace and tone are as uneven as usual, the cinematography remains bland and lifeless and the one exciting action sequence in the episode, the attack by Deathlok, is over before it begins. This is, however, a massive step up in quality for this maligned show. Unfortunately, for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a massive step up in quality simply means that it is now as good as every other genre procedural show on TV. In other words, not good enough.

Image from io9.com

TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “T.A.H.I.T.I”

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - T.A.H.I.T.I.

The great Bill Paxton as Garrett

T.A.H.I.T.I. is the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to follow on directly from the last, becoming something akin to the second episode of a “two-parter”. At the end of the previous episode, Skye (Chloe Bennet) was left mortally injured by the villainous Ian Quinn (David Conrad). As a result, this episode hits the ground running with a metaphorical ticking clock; the members of Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) team must find a way of treating Skye’s terrible injuries before she dies. Since the show is set within the same universe as the Marvel superhero movies, travelling the world to find a cure for death is not a particularly bizarre plot. Indeed, Coulson believes that he knows of a way of keeping Skye alive… because he himself was brought back from the dead. Whilst Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. remains a disappointing show (considering its potential as a classic of sci-fi procedural TV drama), this episode is certainly a massive improvement over the last few. Finally, the creators of the show have been able to instil a degree of drama and tension into the proceedings. The steaks are far larger than just Skye’s life. As he searches into his own recent past, Coulson is portrayed as a haunted and vulnerable figure. If T.A.H.I.T.I. had been the quality of an average episode of this show, its reputation as a disappointing mess would be unfounded.

Perhaps the greatest favour that this episode does to the series is that it essentially “retcons” the disappointing revelation from The Magical Place (a previous episode). Coulson’s mysterious return from the dead had been the subject of much speculation since the show premiered in September 2013. Fans of the Marvel movies debated across the internet, arguing interesting ways in which Coulson may have been resurrected. The Magical Place revealed that Coulson was brought back through what amounted to “really fancy surgery”. It seems likely that the show’s writers incorrectly believed that their viewers would just assume that Coulson had never died, and that the revelation that he was brought back to life by mechanical surgery would be a shocking surprise. Instead, fans readily accepted the notion that the character had been killed and they wanted a satisfying explanation as to how he returned from the grave. Almost every popular fan theory was more interesting than what the creators chose. It seems that the powers behind Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. now agree, since they’ve reworked the events of Coulson’s death and rebirth to be far more mysterious and interesting than they originally appeared. T.A.H.I.T.I. reveals that Coulson’s resurrection was in part due to a very mysterious chemical hidden in a S.H.I.E.L.D. bunker, the source of which serves as the episode’s final reveal (it seems very probable that the chemical’s source is an attempt to tie the show into Marvel’s upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film).

Aside from fixing previously broken plot-lines, the episode is also good in its own right. The characters’ emotional investment in Skye feels much more genuine now that they have had time to get to know each other. In earlier episodes, the team seemed to become far too close and familial far too quickly; going from strangers to a close-knit team at a ridiculous speed. However, now that these characters have had a dozen or so adventures together, it is easier to buy their emotional investment in Skye’s wellbeing. Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) even mentions that she and Skye have only known each other for a short time, but that she cannot imagine her life without Skye in it. A viewer watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time could be forgiven for thinking that this is the result of a long character progression, rather than an attempt to conceal the lazy writing of previous episodes. Another positive is the inclusion of Bill Paxton as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent John Garrett; a gruff yet comedic soldier whose “tough guy” attitude contrasts well with the more stoic and debonair Coulson. The Garrett character does not seem to serve much purpose (yet) but Bill Paxton is always entertaining to watch, especially when he’s playing a soldier running around in dark subterranean laboratories (a pity that he gets no excuse to say his iconic “game over, man” line from Aliens).

However, it seems that no episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can be without its major faults. T.A.H.I.T.I. features some truly bizarre moments that only serve to confuse a viewers’ understanding of the tone and of the characters. When he is taken aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. plane for interrogation, Quinn is brutally treated. Whilst he is a villainous character who has just shot someone, the torture he endures at the hands of the supposedly heroic characters feels unbelievably out of place. When he is finally escorted from the interrogation room at the end of the episode, he appears terrified. Garrett rather bizarrely tells him that his torture-induced confessions will be used against him in court (a court that apparently accepts confessions acquired under torture?). Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always displayed an unusually Conservative political viewpoint; unusual because the target audience for the show and the film universe in which the film is set tends to steer more towards a politically Liberal mindset. Previous episodes have cast “Hacktivists” as misguided idealists or two-faced criminals. The monolithically powerful S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation, a paramilitary organisation not beholden to any international laws whatsoever, is presented as humanity’s kindly caretaker. It is not unfair to say that a Right Wing-leaning viewer is probably more likely to agree with these concepts. There is certainly nothing wrong with adopting these political viewpoints; one might even condone the show for presenting an uncommon worldview in science fiction television. But many would likely see the celebrating of torture as a form of righteous vengeance as overstepping a boundary. Torture remains a very political subject in the US, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s peculiar endorsement of it seems irresponsible.

Despite this rather mystifying political angle, T.A.H.I.T.I. remains one of the best episodes of the show so far that works hard to undo much of the damage wrought by poorly-made past episodes. It is perhaps too late to save this show’s credibility… but we shall see.

Image from sciencefiction.com

TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – T.R.A.C.K.S.

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Stan Lee, creator of the S.H.I.E.L.D. comic books that inspired the TV show, cameos in this episode.

The idea behind T.R.A.C.K.S., the most recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. certainly has potential for interesting television. After an initial chaotic event separates the main characters, the episode follows each of them individually (showing the different storylines of the characters one after the other). This leads the viewer to try to guess what has become of the other agents through hints and clues provided in each segment. Not only is this an unconventional and risky method of telling a story in any medium, it is exactly the sort of out-of-the-box thinking that this show desperately needs to finally grab the attention of its audience. Unfortunately and predictably for this extremely troubled show, the creators have somehow managed to fall short yet again. T.R.A.C.K.S. fails to be compelling television, even with the interesting non-linear plot. The problem, as usual, boils down to the characters themselves; both how they are written and how they are performed. At the beginning of the episode, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his teammates are on a train travelling through the Italian countryside. Posing as tourists, they are hoping to apprehend recurring villain Ian Quinn (David Conrad) and a mysterious object that will soon be in his possession. Almost immediately, the episode becomes grating; the characters are back to communicating in infuriating witty one-liners and snappy jokes. This is especially annoying, since recent episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have featured much better-written character dialogue. Particularly annoying is the interaction between Skye (Chloe Bennet) and Fitz (Iain De Caestecker); a poorly-written sequence that somehow manages to be offensive to British and American viewers alike. Similarly aggravating is a short scene in which Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) is supposed to be under cover as a grieving young woman. There is nothing more embarrassing to watch then a bad actress trying to deliberately play a bad actress.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this episode is that it wastes a cameo by Stan Lee, the 90 year old creator of the Marvel comic books that inspired Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. among many other comic book properties. Whilst Lee is certainly not much of an actor, his appearance in this episode is poorly conceived and feels very much like it was hastily written into the episode (interestingly, Lee recently openly criticised Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for being uninteresting). After an unnecessarily lengthy opening scene, all hell breaks loose on the train and the agents are separated from each other. Coulson and Ward (Brett Dalton) leap from the train which seems to vanish before their eyes; the ultimate revelation as to how this is possible is incredibly disappointing and boring. Simmons is rendered unconscious (sort of) and left on the train. Fitz and Skye ride the train to its destination and then follow their enemies on foot through the Italian countryside (somehow managing to keep up with several cars despite not knowing the local environment). May (Ming-Na Wen) falls from the train and quickly becomes involved in one of the few exciting and tense action sequences of the episode. The fact that these adventures are told out of sequence and one at a time, rather than intercutting them with one another, gives the episode a unique feel but it is squandered by the poor dialogue and performances. Admittedly, things do improve towards the end of the episode when the severely injured Skye is trapped inside Quinn’s mansion. Not only does Chloe Bennet deliver a surprisingly strong performance during this mostly dialogue-free sequence, but the scene is filmed and edited in a disorienting and uncomfortable manner. It is as if a production crew with actual skill temporarily took over and crafted a tense sequence. This well-made scene is one of two surprisingly graphic portrayals of violence within the episode. During May’s storyline segment, she is strung up by her opponents and stabbed. Whilst there is very little blood or gore, the fact that a main character is being tortured is rather shocking and completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the episode. The two violent scenes are certainly well directed and tastefully filmed, but they feel entirely out of place in a show like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which as always leant more towards general audiences.

Possibly intriguing for the future is the return of J. August Richards as Mike Petersen, the superhuman from the pilot episode, who the S.H.I.E.L.D. team believed to be dead. Now boasting a robotic leg that is almost certainly a leftover prop from one of the Iron Man movies, it is heavily implied that Mike will soon take centre stage as the show’s primary antagonist (his new robotic persona is loosely based on a villainous character from Marvel Comics) but this prospect is not enough to save the episode from being boring. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to blunder, to miss opportunities and to fail miserably. After some genuinely good episodes in recent weeks, it’s a real disappointment to see it return to its usual low quality. At this stage, watching it has become a fascinating examination of how not to write, direct and act in a television show.

TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “Seeds”

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The good part of the episode: the Mexico City chase scene.

The most recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Seeds, is a mixed affair. The episode is divided into two subplots; one of which is fairly interesting and well-written. The second subplot is indicative of everything that is wrong with the show since it began airing: a dull and predictable mystery that is mired with bland characters engaging in cringe-worthy “witty banter”. Overall, this is a dull episode that is so ineptly written and directed that a plot-point that should completely change the direction of the entire series is negated to the background. Most annoyingly of all, Seeds continues in the show’s tradition of reinventing the fictional S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation (made famous by the Iron Man films and The Avengers) from a morally questionable paramilitary group into a “big happy family” free of complexity or subterfuge. Instead of taking the interesting option and creating a show featuring a small team of heroic and dedicated agents butting heads against their dubious superiors, the producers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. prefer to present a Manichean, morally black-and-white television show in which the line between heroes and villains couldn’t be clearer; a monstrous missed opportunity to tell compelling procedural drama within a fantastic fictional world.

The more interesting of the two subplots concerns Agents Coulson (Clark Gregg) and May (Ming-La Wen) tracking a former S.H.I.E.L.D. operative through the streets of Mexico City. These sequences feature engaging dialogue, important personal development for the characters, a well-choreographed fight scene and even the return of “Lola”; Coulson’s flying car. The dialogue between Coulson and May is sharp and interesting as they debate recent events in the show’s history (such as Coulson’s “return from the dead”). Both actors are clearly having fun with their characters, exhibiting a level of camaraderie that is totally believable. After a short but fun chase sequence, Coulson and May discover important information relating to the childhood of Skye (Chloe Bennet). Skye’s involvement with S.H.I.E.L.D. since her first appearance has been motivated by the desire to find out about her birth parents; it has been one of the two mysteries that has driven the show since the pilot (the second being the recently resolved mystery of Coulson’s resurrection). The fact that her origins are now revealed should be a huge turning point for her character and for the show. Admittedly, the scene during which Coulson explains the truth to Skye is very well shot and edited; instead of watching Coulson retell the story of her origins, the audience is simply shown Skye’s increasingly distraught face set to music. It is an intensely powerful moment in a show that has had so few of these. It is shocking that this incredibly important revelation is predominantly overlooked in favour of the episode’s second plot-line; Fitz and Simmons going back to school.

Everything about the second subplot reeks of the ineptitude that so defines Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. It is poorly written, poorly acted and poorly executed in every way. Fitz (Ian De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) are requested to return to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s training academy in order to solve a series of bizarre attacks on students involving sudden outbreaks of ice. Soon, they become convinced that someone is attempting to kill off the academy’s students for their own sinister ends (the villain of the episode is finally revealed to be a drastically re-imagined version of a Marvel Comics character called “Blizzard”). Everything about the sequences at S.H.I.E.L.D. academy is inept. The academy is supposed to be a top secret facility that trains superhumanly intelligent adolescents; it looks like a high school or university campus. The once sinister and shadowy S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation now has its own high school, complete with a secret nightclub run by the students. There’s a “nerdy” loner student (with a secret lab in his dorm room ceiling) and a “cool” popular student who aces every test. The dissonance between S.H.I.E.L.D. as it has appeared previously (the sinister military force) and S.H.I.E.L.D. as it appears now (super-scientist Hogwarts) is staggering. Even for a spy show set in a world with superheroes, it just all feels so silly. To use 1990’s television as a comparison, it would be like the cast of The X-Files visiting the cast of Dawson’s Creek.

Perhaps it is unfair to criticise the performances of the cast, considering the material that they are working with, but many of the teenage and 20-something student characters are portrayed by terrible actors. Chloe Bennet is never very impressive as Skye, but compared to some of the student characters in this episode, she deserves an Oscar. The only positive thing that can be said of this episode is that it finds a clever way to tie its events to the recent “Polar Vortex” that has gripped North America (it is insinuated that the true cause of December 2013’s bad weather was the ice machine from this episode). After a marked improvement in the overall quality of the last few episodes, it is most disappointing to see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. return to its usual mediocre state. Perhaps now that the lingering plot mysteries have all been resolved (aside from the identity of the show’s villain, the Clairvoyant), things can finally progress towards a more exciting finale. Right now, however, this doesn’t seem very likely.

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TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “The Magical Place”

MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. - "The Magical Place" -- Coulson uncovers vital information about the mystery of his death, but, with Centipede out for blood, this knowledge may come at the cost of one of the team on MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D., TUESDAY, JANUARY 7 (8:00-9:01 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Ron Tom) CHLOE BENNET

Skye (Chloe Bennet) dresses as May (Ming-Na Wen) in this confused and meandering episode.

The episode The Magical Place marks the return to TV for the troubled Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Since the show’s pilot episode, it has struggled to connect with audiences (as evidenced by its lower-than-expected ratings in the US and UK); transforming it from a sure-fire premise for a great genre TV show into a bad joke. It is unlikely that at this stage, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can recover its squandered potential. Perhaps the most tragic irony of all is that the last few episodes of the show have actually been marked improvements. Many of the problematic aspects of the early episodes (poor dialogue writing, confused politics and sub-par special effects) were rather suddenly rectified. These positive changes may be an example of “too little, too late”. The Magical Place probably represents the final chance the show has to gain new viewers. Marketing for the episode has touted the fact that audiences will finally discover the secret of Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) miraculous resurrection; the event that kick-started the first story arc of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Unfortunately, when the ultimate truth, the mystery that has been alluded to and teased throughout the entire season is finally revealed, the most likely response from viewers is… “That’s it?”

The episode begins with Coulson being held prisoner by the Centipede organisation, the sinister dark counterpart to S.H.I.E.L.D.. Under orders from their off-screen leader, military strategist Edison Po (Cullen Douglas) and Centipede recruiter Raina (Ruth Negga) attempt to break Coulson’s mind in order to discover how it was that he was able to come back from the dead. Meanwhile, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team are scrambling to find Coulson with the assistance of their superior, Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows, reprising her role from an earlier episode). When Skye (Chloe Bennet) is deemed to be a security risk, she is forbidden from assisting in the hunt for Coulson and so ventures out on her own in the hopes of rescuing him. Both Skye and the S.H.I.E.L.D. team ultimately converge on a 50s-era nuclear testing site (complete with mock buildings and mannequins) where they must survive attacks by Centipede-modified superhumans in order to rescue Coulson.

For every great idea that this episode introduces, it squanders several others. Interesting implications are made about the relationship between Skye and May (Ming-Na Wen); their interactions with each other remain problematic and prickly, yet when separated from each other, both women demonstrate their admiration for each other. This fascinating mother/daughter dynamic could have been the basis for an episode in and of itself. Instead it is mostly utilised as an excuse for Chloe Bennet to dress up as a “sexy badass” agent. In the episode’s first half, it appears that the writers are intending to present a darker side of Fitz (Ian De Caestecker); the usually squeamish Fitz freely talks about harming innocent people if it means getting Coulson back. However, this plot point is not really resolved or even properly addressed. It feels as if the writers of the episode became bored with the concept and dropped it. A smuggler of alien technology (technology left over from the events of The Avengers) is briefly introduced, only to disappear from the plot as soon as he’s provided the team with the info they required. This character (played by Aiden Turner) could have been a great recurring villain; a slimy opportunist who is profiting from the bizarre events of the show’s cinematic counterparts. However, it seems unlikely that this character will reappear. One could easily believe that the show’s creators had several partially-completed script ideas and that they chose to mesh them all together in order to pass the time until the dramatic reveal at the end.

Said dramatic reveal is the greatest missed opportunity of all; Coulson’s resurrection. For months, episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have dropped subtle hints that the official version of Coulson’s return from the dead, that he was successfully resuscitated and that he then recuperated in Tahiti, was a lie. The episode’s title, The Magical Place, refers to the recurring line Coulson has said in each episode when his time in Tahiti is addressed— “It’s a magical place!”

It was clear to any viewer paying attention that “Tahiti” was some kind of implanted false memory, created to prevent Coulson from remembering how he really returned from the dead. Genre television shows thrive on mystery (the extreme popularity of Lost was in no small part due to its emphasis on mystery; the fact that many of the show’s mysteries were not revealed in the series finale was considered a betrayal by many of the show’s fans) and one would expect the “Tahiti” revelation to be suitably shocking and rewarding; something that would alter the character dynamic in the show and would justify continuing to watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Instead, the big reveal feels entirely irrelevant. Since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was announced, the internet has abounded with fascinating theories about Coulson’s return from the grave. Fans have speculated everything from alien magic (something that exists in the S.H.I.E.L.D. universe) to Coulson being some kind of artificial intelligence (a robotic antagonist will be appearing in 2015’s Avengers 2). The explanation that the writers have selected is the most boring and the least sense-making; a revelation that won’t change Coulson as a character or his relationship to the other characters. The Magical Place is certainly not the worst episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but it may be the most disappointing.

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TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.- “The Well”

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The mysterious artefact that sets the episode in motion…

 The Well is the most competently written and well made episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so far. Until this episode, the show has grappled with an inconsistent tone and lazy writing. Whilst The Well is far from perfect television, it does demonstrate a strong sense of identity and boasts an intriguing plot. Like recent episodes of the show, the episode is tied directly to the events of the film Thor: The Dark World that (as of this writing) is still playing in theatres. This connection to the larger Marvel franchise adds a certain level of gravity to the events unfolding, yet is vague enough to not confuse viewers who are not as familiar with the Marvel movie franchises. This link to the larger fictional universe, coupled with the greatly improved writing, permits this episode to really feel like a legitimate companion piece to Marvel’s recent cinematic efforts.

Set right after the events of the second Thor film, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his S.H.I.E.L.D. team are in Britain; investigating the alien attack that recently took place there. Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) explains to her teammates (and to the audience by extension) that the gods of ancient mythology were in fact alien beings from other universes and that “magic” is in fact extremely sophisticated science that humans do not understand. This crucial concept is at the heart of the Marvel film universe (of which Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a spin-off). Immediately as the episode begins, the viewer is reminded of the connection between this show and its cinematic cousins, lending a sense of grandiosity and importance to the episode’s events. The narrative properly commences in the second scene. Two Norwegian extremists discover an alien artefact in a forest and use the artefact’s bizarre powers to muster an army. Soon Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) is affected by the artefact and must track the extremists across Europe before he’s driven mad by visions of his past. The team’s only hope of stopping the extremists and curing Ward lies in a professor of Norse mythology (Peter MacNicol) who has more than a few secrets of his own.

The episode is certainly not without fault. The ending is extremely abrupt and easy; everything endangering the team is quickly defeated and forgotten about within a few short scenes. The episode’s writers seem to have little to no understanding of how large Europe is (the characters travel from England to Spain to Norway to Ireland in barely any time at all). Members of contemporary Pagan religious may be somewhat offended by how this episode defines their belief system and confuses it with Odinism. Most disappointing but not unexpected is the fact that the ideology of the episode’s villains is never explained. The antagonists this week are a Norwegian “hate group”: nothing more is said of who they are and what their intentions are likely to be. One can make a logical assumption that the intent of the writers was to call to mind the 2011 Norwegian terrorist attacks committed by far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik. This is some extremely dark and mature subject matter for a superhero TV show to touch on and such courage should be commended. The best science fiction television is frequently a means by which writers are able to deliver commentary about heavy world issues in an entertaining manner. However, the fact that this dark connection is only hinted at and not directly confronted makes one wonder why the writers chose to even address this topic in the first place.

However, aside from these issues, The Well is a surprisingly strong entry. Guest star Peter MacNicol delivers an amusing performance as the slimy Professor Randolph. The character is a fun distraction from the episode’s bleak subject matter and the ultimate twist reveal about him is unexpected and fascinating. Much more personality is given to the character of Ward, who has mostly been relegated to the position of “macho tough guy” until this point. The episode’s title is a reference to a tragic occasion in Ward’s past that comes back to haunt him. The events of the episode serve to examine and humanise the character. The writing is so much more competent than it was two episodes ago (when this same character introspection was attempted with Simmons and failed miserably). The episode is also much more successful in its character dialogue. Whereas most episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. exhibit the characters speaking to each other in a series of one-liners and witty retorts, most of the writing in this most recent episode feels very natural. Despite the ending being somewhat hurried, the final few scenes of the episode are very intriguing as they set up some very interesting character conflict to come. The “post-credits” stinger that closes out the episode is also very intriguing to long time fans of the show (yet another indication that Coulson may not be who he thinks he is). This was a really strong and really fun episode of a show that has had little of either so far. If every episode was as strong as this one, the reputation of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be very different.

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TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “The Asset”

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Dr Hall’s gravity device.

The Asset, the third episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., is the first to feel utterly unnecessary. Nothing truly significant takes place and nothing important is revealed. That’s not to say that the episode isn’t fun or exciting; merely that for the first time, the show feels like it is dragging its heels (problematic, considering the fact that we’re three episodes in).

The episode begins with a short and enticing sequence in which a truck is ripped off a lonely freeway and up into the sky by an unseen force. It transpires that the truck is secretly a S.H.I.E.L.D. transport vehicle carrying a brilliant scientist (Ian Hart) named Dr Hall. Because of Hall’s research into gravity manipulation, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team is dispatched to rescue him from the Malta-based home of a sinister magnate called Ian Quinn (David Conrad). Because of Quinn’s bureaucratic protection from international agencies, the team is forced to send the untrained Skye (Chloe Bennet) into Quinn’s home to find and to help rescue Dr Hall.

The entirety of the episode feels like a missed opportunity. Skye attempting to blend in at a garden party of wealthy socialites could have been comedic and provocative; given Skye’s previously-established egalitarian political views, her character is written with an odd level of comfortableness among the sort of characters she should disdain. Given the even-handed and subtle political debate in the last episode, it seems peculiar that Skye’s hot-headed personality is not brought to the forefront when surrounded by the wealthy and the powerful. Similarly wasted is any sense of tension in these garden party sequences. Skye is working as a spy yet there is no real sense of tension of threat in these scenes. She and the team are entirely in control of the situation until she decides to pursue her own strategy. A viewer cannot develop a sense of concern for her safety because she always appears to have the upper hand. In addition, the biggest waste by far is in the science fiction element of the story. Dr Hall’s kidnapping is due to his understanding of a rare element that can control gravity. A device that has been built beneath Quinn’s mansion is capable of dramatically altering gravity across a large area. This could have made for some amazing visuals- seeing the contents of a beautiful Malta mansion floating around as if in space would have made for unforgettable television. Yet the best we get is two actors standing in a small room that has been set-dressed to look like they’re standing on the ceiling.

Obviously, the television effects budget of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. prevents its creators from indulging in the kind of spectacle seen in its cinematic cousins (the Marvel superhero films), but considering that the program has featured flying cars and exploding superhumans, something a bit more visually interesting than an upside down room was surely possible. Dr Hall is apparently a character plucked from Marvel’s superhero comics so it seems likely that the character will reappear on the show in the future; perhaps at that point the real possibilities of a zero-gravity weapon will become better utilised. There are certainly positive aspects to this episode but they do not help to overcome the sense that this was the first totally redundant episode of the show. David Conrad equips himself well as the villainous Quinn (much more so than the dreadful performance by Leonor Valera in episode two) as does Ian Hart as the desperate and fanatical Dr Hall. For some reason, it is revealed that Dr Hall is a former teacher of Fitzsimmons (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge); something that never becomes relevant in the episode as the three characters do not share a scene together.

Brett Dalton’s Grant Ward is given a more developed back-story, revealing the reasons for his abrasive personality. The mystery of Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) continues to evolve in interesting ways. It now seems very likely that the Coulson who appeared in The Avengers is not the same man currently leading the team. The best aspect of the episode is that the dialogue sounded a great deal more natural. For the most part the implausibly witty banter that made all of the characters sound so artificial has been cut back; the characters now talk to one another in a manner closer to that of real people rather than talking to each other in sound bites. The Asset is a disappointing episode because it really has no impact or importance other than to set up a possible villain for a future episode (Dr Hall). None of the interesting ideas put forward are developed and nothing of real substance happens. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to have no strong identity.

Image reproduced from comicbook.com