Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Marvel's Agent Carter outdoes AGENTS OF SHIELD at almost every turn

ABC has been experimenting with ways to keep the time slots of some of its biggest shows "warm" while those shows take necessary breaks during the season. This season it commissioned short runs of two series that briefly replaced returning shows. Once Upon a Time was briefly replaced by the musical fantasy show Galavant, and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (a ridiculously, unnecessarily long title I will not be typing in full again) found its Tuesday berth occupied by Agent Carter for seven weeks.

I'll cut to the chase. If ABC wants to serve up 22 eps of Agent Carter next season and order only 8 episodes of SHIELD to act as a temporary relief pitcher, I'd have zero complaints with that. Seriously ABC, can we keep her? From where I sit, Agent Carter is the superior Marvel spinoff by far. With only five episodes having aired so far, the series has found its voice with incredible ease. There's barely been any shakedown period for the show and the writing staff (led by creators Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, and showrunners Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas) seems to have understood the kind of show they wanted to make from Day One.

Strangely, despite the fact it's set nearly over 60 years from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (save for its "parent," Captain America: The First Avenger), it feels much more like a part of that universe than SHIELD does. Part of this might be that Captain America did just that good a job of world-building. The 40s-era setting also makes the show visually distinctive on network TV. You won't find another series set in this era, and the production design and costuming teams deserve huge kudos for their part in making the show look gorgeous. There's a color and style that really makes the images pop, and helps match Captain America's aesthetic to boot.

(And let's also throw some love to the VFX team. The show's VFX Supervisor Sheena Duggal said last week on Twitter that, "We have over 1000 VFX across 8 EP's. That's crazy for network TVs limited budget." That it looks so good is a testament to their professionalism.)

SHIELD doesn't have that sort of visual continuity with the films. Nothing we've seen on the series really feels like an outgrowth of the SHIELD environs glimpsed in The Avengers, for one. Thus, we've gone from the really intricately-designed Helicarrier of the films to the cramped and relatively unadorned jet that our heroes use. Even when the show has utilized guest stars from the other movies, those characters have felt out of place, and it's difficult to associate them with their feature counterparts.

And then there's Agent Carter's best asset - Haley Atwell as the eponymous character. Peggy Carter doesn't take any shit, particularly since she was so vital to the war effort only to find herself treated as a mere secretary around her government office post-war. I think in a lesser actresses hands, Peggy's clashes against her sexist co-workers could come across as petulant. There's a fair amount of charm there, but even more significant is the confidence behind every action and statement.

A good example is a recent episode when she pushes to be sent on a mission to Russia. Her boss isn't keen on the idea, claiming the heat he'll get if "a woman" is killed is not something he wants to deal with. (There's also more than a subtle implication that he doesn't consider this spy craft to be "woman's work" at all, despite the fact Peggy is the one who earned this lead by cracking a Russian code where their male code-breakers have failed.) So Peggy trumps him, asking if his concerns would be allayed if the Howling Commandos were recruited to join them on the mission. He agrees, clearly not believing there's a snowball's chance in hell that the Commandos would do so. Peggy might as well be asking for McArthur himself to be part of this campaign. Peggy steps out of the room while the two male agents discuss business and re-enters not three minutes later saying she's already made the call and the Howling Commandos are in.

Bad. Ass. Honestly, that's almost a Tony Stark move there.

Notably, when Peggy is reunited with the Howling Commandos (whom she fought alongside during the war) they give her partner, Agent Thompson, some grief about not putting as much trust and respect in Peggy as these war buddies clearly do. It's a recurring theme in Agent Carter that Peggy is ridiculously undervalued despite being the most capable person in her office. There are usually several instances a show where we're reminded of the sexism of the time. I won't say it's not laid on a little thick at times. The show's treatment of this isn't subtle, but perhaps it's not inappropriate to the time. I've chosen to rationalize it as Carter's insistence on kicking in those doors has had the reaction of the men doubling down to compensate for her strength.

Since Peggy is seemingly so talented at every thing the show has thrown at her, there's obviously the risk that she could become a "Mary Sue." It's a fate that befell SHIELD's Skye last season, and one they only recently seem to have figured out how to dial back. The reason why Peggy's savant skills in everything from code-breaking to fighting in a skirt don't become ridiculous is that no matter what she does, no one EVER seems to give her credit for it. Even when her co-workers are aware of her feats, it doesn't earn her any respect or have them falling at her feet. It's a neat trick that keeps her as an underdog, despite being the best agent on her team by far.

If there's a weakness from this, it's that the net effect is that Peggy's co-workers still aren't terribly developed as characters. Gradually they're gaining distinction from each other, but week-to-week I sometimes have trouble even remembering their names. At the moment, they're mostly defined by their work relationships with Peggy, but since this is not an ensemble, it's not a fatal error. It's also an issue that's likely to be mitigated as her relationships with each of the men gains some depth. We're clearly on a path where she's going to win the respect of a few of these guys in different degrees, and that'll allow the writers to transform the knee-jerk sexism into something more.

This season has also benefited from having a very focused story through just eight episodes. It's a lot easier to tell one story in that time, using Carter as the main protagonist. If this arc was stretched out across 22 episodes, it would probably be more necessary to develop the supporting characters more. It takes a lot to fill up 22 hours of TV. SHIELD spent much of last season delaying progress in a number of its arcs, perhaps most frustratingly demonstrated when it came to addressing how Agent Coulson (killed in The Avengers) was alive and well there.

I felt the show made a misstep in dangling that mystery in front of the audience, but not giving Coulson or any of the characters much awareness of the mystery for nearly 10 episodes. Every few episodes we'd get a reminder that something wasn't right with Coulson, but no forward momentum. There was nothing driving that plot to a resolution for a while. Accurately or not, it felt like the writers were kicking that reveal down the road until after they could come up with an answer.

SHIELD's also stuck in a weird place where it appears the movies won't acknowledge Coulson's resurrection for fear of confusing the film-only audience. Thus, the writers are stuck adjusting to any large-universe changes from the films, but have to craft excuses that will keep the film characters from learning of Coulson's continued existence. That disconnect only furthers the estrangement between SHIELD and the movies. I like Clark Gregg as an actor, but I kind of wish SHIELD was built around a more dynamic character, and one who didn't bring so much awkward baggage with him. Coulson might have fared better as a supporting "Chief O'Brien" type character rather than the anchor of the ensemble.

In the match-up between Carter and Coulson, there's really no contest as to who's the most compelling lead. Agent Carter makes the very smart decision to give Peggy a private life, a "secret identity" if you will. The occasional scenes at the boarding house she shares with several other women adds some necessary tension. Not only are these people who don't know Peggy's more qualified than most male spies, but these are people who don't know she works for the government at all. Just as Alias was more interesting when there were people who didn't know Sydney was a spy, forcing her to maintain a double life, Agent Carter wrings a lot of life and humor out of Peggy's current residence. A series of mission after mission can run the risk of getting old fast, and it's nice that this aspect lets the writers do some world-building. I wish SHIELD offered similar opportunities for Coulson to let his own hair down.

I hesitate even offering this much criticism of SHIELD because I've never seen a fan base so defensive about criticism of their show. I've literally had people use the defense "It gets really good after 17 episodes!" While it's true that the show reached a turning point when it dealt with fallout from The Winter Soldier, it never reached the heights of Agent Carter. I stuck with it through the first season to give it a chance, and honestly, the only thing that lured me back for season two was the presence of Reed Diamond as the main antagonist. I'll concede the show's gotten better since its launch, but I think this is where I get off the ride.

One area where Agent Carter isn't coming out ahead of SHIELD is in the ratings. Carter has a season average of 1.59 in the coveted 18-49 ratings demographic, while SHIELD has a 1.7.  As I understand it, renewal isn't a certainty for Agent Carter, so if this sounds at all like the kind of show you'd like, I beg you to support it. There are only three episodes left, counting tonight's.


  1. And just before the break, what did SHIELD do? Kill of Diamond's Hydra boss - which I think was a dumb move. I also can't agree with you more. Carter is the stronger series, and for the last monthor so, I haven't missed AoS one bit. Yeah, it took nearly half a season to get something going, but if it was any other series, the network would have not waited for ep 17 to roll around, they would have at least put it on hiatus after ten or cancel it sooner. I think networks are slightly more tolerant of series based on comics and/or films based on comics. Look at FOX's commitment to Gotham - hey i you thought SHIELD was rotten, you haven't seen anything yet. It even has a recurring Mary Sue type, The CW is committed to its Arrow-verse (although Arrow and The Flash have an edge of having some degree of quality) . Perhaps the short Carter season has focus more on FX, design and character arc.

  2. I agree that Carter is the superior show, but I don't think I would want to see 22 episodes of it. I think the fact that it's only eight episodes is it's greatest strength. It's the perfect length for the beginning of this era of "TV longform" that Netflix and HBO are ushering in.
    SHIELD, on the other hand, tried to do the same thing but failed, because it's a whole season long. It still felt the need for villain of the week episode and had to take necessary breaks mid-season. That coupled with the fact that it took a season and a half to get to the full premise of the show has given it a very bumpy beginning. But now that we're there, and we can fully sink into the Inhumans' storyline, I think SHIELD will become much more solid.