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Josh Reviews Agent Carter: Season One

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I had high hopes for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. when it launched last year.  The idea of a Marvel TV show was of course of interest to me, but what really excited me was that, as opposed to the various DC Comics superhero shows over the years, this new Marvel TV show would be set in continuity with the Marvel movie universe.  It seems like a total no-brainer of an idea, and yet, nothing like this had ever been done before.  I was super-excited.

And yet, right from the pilot, I was underwhelmed.  Despite the involvement of some great talent both in front of and behind the camera (particularly the show-runner husband-and-wife team of Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, of whom I have been a far for years), the show seemed surprisingly lifeless.  The characters were dull, the writing was flat, and the episodic structure did not engage me.  Things picked up a little towards the end of the season, when the series’ story-lines took a major turn in connection with the revelations about S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  The first half of this second season has seen the show continue to improve, and I’ve enjoyed the way the show has utilized elements of the mythology of the Inhumans, a classic group of Marvel Comics characters.  But I still think the show is surprisingly mediocre, lacking either the fun or the edge-of-your-seat intensity I was hoping for.

I was excited to hear that Marvel would be launching a second TV series (a mini-series of sorts to fill the time-slot during Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mid-season hiatus) that would allow Hayley Atwell to reprise her role as Peggy Carter from Captain America: The First Avenger.  I loved everything about that idea.  Ms. Atwell was marvelous as Peggy — she was one of the best things about that first Cap film.  I felt there was still a lot of life left in that character, and I loved the notion of seeing what happened to her in the years following the loss of Cap.  I also loved the idea of a period-piece show; that seemed like a lot of fun, and something unusual for a superhero TV show.  And considering the revelations in Captain America: The Winter Soldier about the nature of S.H.I.E.L.D., suddenly a show about the origins of S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed ripe with potential.  We’d seen that this premise had juice in the wonderful Peggy Carter one-shot short film attached to the DVD of Iron Man Three.  Frankly, the only thing that had me worried was the mediocre quality of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — would Agent Carter be of just as middling a level of quality?

Well, thankfully no.  Agent Carter is a definite improvement upon Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and while it’s not spectacular, I found it to be a very enjoyable eight-episode mini-series.  I very much hope that we’ll see a second run of episodes sometime soon.

The best thing about the show is Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter.  Ms. Atwell is absolutely dynamite in the role.  She’s smart, she’s tough, she’s funny.  She is a strong leading lady, and it’s thrilling to see her character be given this time in the spotlight.  It’s well-deserved.

The central hook of the show is very clever.  WWII is over, and Peggy now works for the S.S.R. (Strategic Scientific Reserve), which is the agency that will one day morph into S.H.I.E.L.D.  But with all the men back from the war, Peggy — like many women of the time did — finds herself marginalized and looked down upon by her fellow agents.  This is a great, tough spot into which to put this character.  We immediately empathize with Peggy, as we know what she’s been through and what a great agent she can be.  Watching Peggy struggle with these internal challenges within the agency for which she works, while also attempting to overcome an external villainous enemy, is a great idea for a show.

The external threat, set up in the show’s premiere, is a good one.  Someone has broken into Howard Stark (Tony’s father)’s lab and stolen all of his secret technology and weapons.  The S.S.R. is convinced that Howard faked the theft as an excuse to make money by selling his technology to the highest bidder.  So Howard has to go on the run to avoid arrest, and Peggy must clear his name while also uncovering and foiling whatever mastermind is behind the plot.

Agent Carter makes good use of characters and story-lines from Captain America: The First Avenger.  I was very pleased by how well the show builds off of the end of that film.  I loved that they brought back Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark.  He was terrific as Tony’s dad in that first Cap film, and he is well-used by the show.  I loved the way the one remaining vial of Cap’s blood is such an important plot-point in the show.  More importantly, I was pleased that Peggy’s grief over Cap’s death, and her struggle to find some way to move past the loss of the man she loved, becomes such a strong emotional through-line in the show.  The season finale was a brilliant call-back to the end of The First Avenger as Peggy once again found herself on the radio, feeling helpless to prevent the death of someone she cared about, up in an airplane.  The emotional power of that sequence in the finale made this whole first run of episodes worth-while.  That was great.

I also loved seeing the Howling Commandos back in action.  That was a delight.  More, please!!  I just cannot get enough of Band of Brothers’ Neal McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan.  Give these guys their own spin-of show next, OK?

As for new elements in Agent Carter, my favorite would have to be James D’Arcy as Edwin Jarvis.  One of my favorite ideas in the first Iron Man film, the film that began this whole amazing run of Marvel movies that I am so enjoying, was the idea that, while Jarvis was the Avengers’ butler in the comic books, in the film Jarvis was Tony’s name for the A.I. he had created who powered his suit and all the rest of his technology.  And so it feels absolutely perfect to learn here in Agent Carter that in the Marvel movieverse Edwin Jarvis was indeed a man: he was Tony’s father Howard’s butler!  I love it.  Mr. D’Arcy did a fine job bringing Jarvis to life.  I love that this man remains something of a mystery to me even at the end of this run of episodes.  I feel like there is a lot more to Jarvis that we don’t know yet.  I enjoyed the development of his bond with Peggy.  One of the things I’d be most excited to see in a second season of Agent Carter is the further development of this relationship.  And maybe can we actually meet Jarvis’ wife?

So what didn’t work in Agent Carter?  Well, for all that I liked the idea of Peggy’s having to battle sexism from her male co-workers at the S.S.R., everyone’s boorishness and idiocy got a little tiring at times.  I don’t like it when James Bond is the only person in M.I.6 who has half a brain, and I feel the same here.  The stories would work better if the heroes were all smart, and the villains even smarter.  (Though I did enjoy seeing Dollhouse’s Enver Gjokaj as the handicapped Agent Sousa.  He was a strong character, and I’d love to see him further developed in season two, beyond his puppydog affection for Peggy.)  (Aside: we know from Captain America: The Winter Soldier that Peggy eventually married… and that she married someone who was a soldier who was rescued by Cap.  Is this Sousa??  I am enjoying the mystery of that…)

I was also underwhelmed by Leviathan.  I was at first hugely excited to see Leviathan revealed as the name of the criminal organization behind some of the evil goings-on in the show, as Leviathan was taken from Jonathan Hickman’s brilliant S.H.I.E.L.D.-focused comic book series Secret Warriors from a few years ago.  But where I expected to discover a large criminal enterprise, in the end we just got two people: an old man and a woman.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved that the old man was Dr. Faustus (a great Captain America villain from the comics) and that the woman was from the same Black Widow program that, presumably, birthed Natasha Romanov.  But this wound up being a far smaller-scale criminal organization than I’d expected.  I’d love to see Leviathan further fleshed out in a season two.  (And to learn what if anything Leviathan has to do with Hydra.  We get a hint of this in the stinger final scene of the season finale, which was cool, even if my wife was 100% correct at the stupidity on display of the S.S.R. putting two dangerous super-villain characters in the same cell.  Oh well.)

Agent Carter is by no means groundbreaking television.  I’d love to see the show up its intensity in a second season.  Give us some more surprising twists of turns, and a greater sense of danger for our heroes.  But I was very happy with this first run of episodes.  The short eight-episode run meant that the show was nice and lean, with a strong sense of momentum moving through the episodes and a satisfying structure in which the story had a clear beginning, middle, and end.  I would love for this show to continue, and for us to get a richer, deeper sense of this world and these characters.  I’d love to get to see the beginnings of S.H.I.E.L.D…. and wouldn’t it be amazing if we were able to get a glimpse of the early days of the Winter Soldier?  That would be cool.  Here’s hoping.

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