“Marvel's Agents of SHIELD” is back for a new season, and I have a review of the premiere coming up just as soon as I find your head trauma joke in poor taste…
My hope at the end of “SHIELD” season 1 was that the show could sustain the improvement of the post-“Winter Soldier” episodes, which had finally given many of the characters defined roles (Ward as a heel, Skye as a wounded true believer, etc.) and the series itself an actual direction beyond perpetuating the Marvel brand. My fear was that Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen and company would look at that frustrating but ultimately rewarding first season and assume that they could afford to start slow again, and that we'd be back to tedious missions of the week staged by bland heroes.
Fortunately, season 2 gets off to a promising start with “Shadows.” There's a lot of exposition about what's happened since the finale and the new status quo with Coulson's fledgling reboot of SHIELD, plus a bunch of new characters to introduce – even if several of them, like Lucy Lawless' Isabelle Hartley, die before the hour is up – but it's a fairly lively hour in spite of that, helped by some good casting and smart creative choices by Tancharoen and Whedon.
Start with opening the season on Peggy Carter, Dum Dum Dugan and Jim Morita cleaning up a Hydra outpost back in 1945. Yes, this is itself a piece of brand extension – early promotion for “Agent Carter,” which will take over this timeslot at midseason, and presumably tell a story tying into what SHIELD and Hydra are up to in the present – but there's a reason Marvel is so keen to build a show around Hayley Atwell playing this character. She's fun to watch, and there was a lightness to the flashback even as it was dealing with a dangerous weapon and introducing “Dollhouse” alum Reed Diamond as this season's big bad. Links to the rest of the Marvel universe are always welcome when they're in service to the story the show is telling, where last year it felt too often like the corporate tail wagged the episodic dog.
Then look at what's been done to this band of once-boring ciphers we struggled to care about for much of season one. For much of last year, the show barely even had characters, let alone character arcs. Every character was either a mystery to be solved (Coulson, Skye, May to an extent) or the broadest of types, and any life in those people came from the actors. Now, they're starting to feel like people. Skye works much better as a guarded, fiery insider than the wide-eyed newbie she was a year ago. Ditto Fitz as the broken genius no one trusts to do much of anything. Going full M. Night Shyamalan with the FitzSimmons scenes by revealing that he is hallucinating the absent Simmons was maybe a bit further than the writers needed to push things, but overall I'm pleased that Iain de Caestecker actually has something to play, and is good at it. The producers still probably have too much of a weakness for Brett Dalton's work as Ward, and I'm dreading the possibility of a redemption arc, but he functioned decently as a villain, and if they confine him to one or two Hannibal Lecter-style quid pro quos a week, there's at least value in seeing Skye's reaction to both him and to Coulson placing her in that situation. And as I noted at the end of last season, I don't know what, if anything, B.J. Britt can do besides seem cool and wryly funny as Trip, but it's very handy to have a guy in the ensemble (even if he's still not a cast regular) who makes an impression and fills a role without having to be serviced constantly by the writers.
As for the newbies, Nick Blood's Lance Hunter turned out to be less Poochie-esque than I feared when I heard the name. We'll see how he fits in long-term, but he did well here in helping turn Isabelle into a three-dimensional character whose death (and, earlier, potential death after touching the artifact) had meaning. (Lucy Lawless gets a lot of credit for that as well, given what little time and material she got in such a busy hour.) As an “NYPD Blue” guy, I'll always have affection for Henry Simmons, though here I was mostly amused that the show cast one of the most superheroic-looking actors in the business as the team's mechanic and gadget guy.
This episode's also one where some Marvel nostalgia comes into play. Avengers #183 – with the Absorbing Man on the cover, swinging his trusty ball-and-chain (which the episode provided an homage to) – is the very first comic I recall owning, and having my father read to me at bedtime, so I was pleased to see him as the villain, and one who's obviously going to recur. With the current state of digital effects, his power is easy to convey, it looks cool (particularly when he's using it to blend into the background), and it led to several well-done action sequences. This, again, is exactly what the show should be doing: take advantage of the abundant supply of Marvel characters who will never be needed in a film, but who can be used to easily remind you that these characters exist in a superhero world, even if none of them (except maybe Skye) are super themselves.
Throw in a crackling interrogation showdown between Coulson (also more of a man than a mystery so far) and Talbot (whose mustache looked much less fake than in his early appearances), and you have an episode that maintains the quality level from the end of season 1, and suggests a show that's figured out a way to make that improvement sustainable.
When Drew McWeeny had to drop off the “SHIELD” beat this season due to a conflict, I took over not sure what I'd be in for – or whether I'd want to stick with it for long. The show that it was at the end of last season was one I felt I'd be pleased to stick with, and that's the show it still seems to be. Onward and upward.
What did everybody else think?