Translating big-budget blockbuster movies to television has been a historically tricky business. Yes, movies have translated successfully to television and we can list out some of the usual suspects for posterity – M*A*S*H, Buffy, Friday Night Lights, and I guess we can now add Fargo to this list – but most fail miserably (here’s the intro to a sitcom that you didn’t know existed based on the Michael Keaton movie Gung Ho, with Scott Bakula playing the lead). The obvious problem here is that movies cost a lot of money and television doesn’t have near the financial resources to pay, say, very famous actors or to produce sets that are of the same quality of the source material. So, in the end, the television series comes off as a watered down version of the real thing, which is then rejected by audiences.
It doesn’t even have to necessarily be translating movies to television, sometimes television to television can be just as bad when budgets are cut. In 1983, NBC aired a miniseries about aliens visiting Earth titled V that spawned another miniseries in 1984, V: The Final Battle. Both of these miniseries were immensely popular. As it turned out, that would not be the final battle, because in the fall of 1984, NBC ordered a full season of V. Now, this made a lot of people who loved the two miniseries very happy, but when audiences tuned into the weekly series (a series that still cost an insane at the time one million dollars an episode), gone were a lot of the special effects that made the miniseries so appealing. Instead of laser guns, most of the action was with just regular old bullet guns that we could see on Magnum P.I., or whatever. Plus, stories that worked so well over just a short amount of time (the original miniseries was just two two-hour episodes, the second was three two-hour episodes) felt thin and unnecessarily drawn out. The magic was gone and V was canceled after 19 episodes.
The V series reminds me a lot of what we saw during the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – basically, we see all of these remarkable things happen in the movies, but then we get to the television show and everything just looks and feels different, yet we’re told this is all happening in the same universe. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier we got to see the multiple helicarriers that S.H.I.E.L.D. had at its disposable (at least before S.H.I.E.L.D. was pretty much destroyed at the end of The Winter Soldier), but then, on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the team just uses a fairly normal airplane and everything just feels strangely unremarkable. (I have yet to watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. this second season, but from most accounts, it has improved.) It certainly doesn’t feel like an event like the Marvel movies feel like an event.
Having said all that … Agent Carter felt like an event.
The first episode of Agent Carter (which aired on ABC, along with the second episode, on Tuesday night) opens with a scene from Captain America: The First Avenger, which is a really bold move. To use a scene from a blockbuster movie and attempt to seam that together with a new television show could go a long way to exemplify the differences between Marvel’s theatrical product and the limitations of television. Instead, it did the exact opposite. It basically announced, “We want you to think of Agent Carter as a movie.” And Marvel was right, because this first episode felt like a movie. (Marvel has a tendency to know what they are doing.)
Marvel may have finally cracked how to take a successful blockbuster movie and properly adapt it for television. Again, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recovered, but starting with Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson was a clumsy premise for a television show after Coulson’s dramatic death in The Avengers. People like Coulson, but not everyone loved his resurrection – and, to be honest, it does lessen the emotional punch of his “death” scene at the hands of Loki, a death that was used as a rallying cry for the rest of the movie.
Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter didn’t need a convoluted story to reintroduce her to the story: The last time we saw her, she had just lost the love of her life in a plane crash, then reunited with him 70 years later in The Winter Soldier. Obviously, a lot happened in-between. And a lot happened in the first two episodes of Agent Carter, which has everything to do with the entire season being only eight episodes long. Unlike shows (like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) that have to fill 22 episodes, there’s no room for filler – it has to get to the point right away to tell the story, just like the theatrical Marvel properties do, which is why this feels more like the Marvel we expect now.
Plus, the nice thing about Agent Carter is that it isn’t as beholden to the films. It can tell its own story in its own style. Set in 1946, the gist is that Carter still works for the Strategic Scientific Reserve (as we saw in the first Captain America film), but is also secretly working for Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) – Tony’s father, who has been wrongly accused of selling arms to nefarious types – which sends Carter on a whole host of adventures. The story arc of Agent Carter doesn’t have to all of a sudden switch directions once a new Marvel movie comes out. Important things can actually happen, as opposed to having wait to wait for the new Thor movie so the S.H.I.E.L.D. team can clean up the mess from the action we saw in the movie (this was an actual hyped plot point from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).
This wasn’t meant to be a negative piece about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which, again, its second season sits on my DVR still waiting to be watched), that has to be a near-impossible show to conceive from week to week (22 of them!), not knowing where the movies might be taking the eventual plot of the series. It’s just, for these reasons, Agent Carter just works. Marvel finally figured out how to bring the true feel of its movies to television, and now Peggy Carter basically has her own movie franchise, just distributed a little differently.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.