One Thing I Love Today is a daily column dedicated to putting a spotlight on some pop culture item worth your attention. After all, there's enough snark out there. Why not start every day with one quick shotgun blast of positivity?
First of all, I'm only human.
Yes, when I saw Captain America: The First Avenger, part of the reason I thought Hayley Atwell was delightful is because she's a no-joke '40s-style bombshell, funny and pretty and architecturally impressive. And her role in the film is solid, well-written and part of the action, not just window dressing. When Captain America makes his sacrifice at the end of the film, it feels like it's an actual sacrifice. He's giving up someone special and a chance at normal human happiness.
What surprised me was when they decided to bring Atwell back in her own series. What surprised me more was when she quickly established herself as a powerhouse lead. The first season works in spite of itself, a collection of frustrating decisions that still add up to something that is worth seeing. The best thing about the first season was the chemistry between Atwell and James D'Arcy, who played Mr. Jarvis, the trusty manservant to Howard Stark, and the rather blunt-force messages the show sent about sexism in post-WWII America.
So while, yes, I am just happy to see Hayley Atwell simply show up on my television every week because she is Hayley Atwell, Agent Carter was a guilt-free pleasure heading into Season Two for me.
What surprised me most was when the show suddenly got great. Because that's exactly what's happened in the show's second season, thanks to not only a great cast, but an outstanding writing team who have taken care to be both bolder and more subtle this year, finding a way to talk about so many new things while keeping the best stuff from the first season. Mr. Jarvis is back, as is much of the first season cast like Dottie Underwood (Bridget Reagan), Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray), Agent Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), and, of course Howard Stark. Setting the mystery in the heart of '50s Hollywood has been great fun, but it's bigger than that. The show is, depending on which thematic thread you're following, either the horrors of aging that movie stars can deal with when they are valued solely for their looks, or a comment about how hard it was for black Angelenos at the time, or a dizzy send up of Howard Stark and his lifestyle, or… well, you get the picture.
Wynn Everett makes a sensational villain for this season. In some ways modeled on Hedy Lamarr, Whitney Frost is that thing you always hope for in a villain: you can completely understand her point of view despite the terrible things she's done since she was impacted by the Zero Mattter. Even better, Everett makes a hell of a pitch for why her side of things is the side that makes sense. There was a scene during the episode called “Monsters” where she tries to win Dr. Wilkes (Reggie Austin, who has had a great time on the show playing a scientist with a strong attraction to Peggy) over to her side, and the points she makes were surprisingly stark and strong. She appealed to him as a black man, and when she asks, “Can you honestly tell me you've ever had one day where you've felt like a real man in this country?” it hits home. This year's biggest theme is power, who has it, and how it is maintained.
Here's the thing… the only reason this works as well as it does is because there is room to breathe when you're doing a season of television. They can take the time to develop characters like the just-as-delightful-as-her-husband Mrs. Jarvis (Lotte Verbeek) this year, or they can spend an entire pre-credits sequence on one elaborate musical number, or they can slowly establish the seemingly-harmless Dottie Underwood into a great dark reflection of Peggy. The same thing was true of the first season of Jessica Jones on Netflix. By spending ten hours on the horrifying cat and mouse between Jessica (Kristen Ritter) and Kilgrave (David Tennant), they were able to explore just how much of a toll things took on Jessica and the people in her life. They were able to make it hurt. Melissa Rosenberg and her writing staff found something very real in Jessica's story, and they took the time to explore that fully, unafraid to offer us a lead who is a disaster on a personal level. Even Marvel's Agents Of SHIELD has done an excellent job gradually turning characters like Daisy (Chloe Bennett) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) into much stronger people than they were at the start of the show, while having huge fun with badasses like May (Ming Na Wen) and Bobbi (Adrianne Palicki). Both Agent Carter and Jessica Jones are dealing with heavier, smarter themes than anything else being done by Marvel right now, in either film or television, and that's what I want to celebrate today.