I can’t be the only one stricken with flashbacks to the 90s by the Agents of SHIELD pilot. When gruff G-man Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) self-seriously intones, “We protect people from the news they aren’t ready to hear,” I half-wondered whether he would grow up to be the Cigarette-Smoking Man in The X-Files. SHIELD dredges up the same debates between secretiveness, effectiveness, and safety on the one hand, and transparency and freedom on the other, that its paranoia-fueled predecessor fostered and thrived in. Those debates, which are more topical than ever, are framed in a whole new way, though: it’s the “good guys” who justify cover-ups and their antagonist, a bouncy hacker named Skye (Chloe Bennet), who fights for exposure.
More than anything else, the pilot of Agents of SHIELD is a mission statement: there’s a battle between “the truth” versus “world peace.” (We can hash out in the comments how necessary or artificial this dichotomy is; I sure hope the show will address it at some point.)
Also borrowed from The X-Files is a fear of government omnipotence and omniscience. Skye’s broadcasted questions — “How will you come at us? From the air? From the ground? How will you silence us this time?” — are legitimately scary, though the goofy-serious delivery softens the impact. Perhaps even more creepy, though, is SHIELD’s obsession with surveillance and identification, as when Mike (J. August Richards) is categorized as “an unregistered gifted.” And there are layers of secrets within SHIELD itself: though Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is the leader of his team, he himself suffers from an (as yet unrevealed) delusion regarding his death in The Avengers.
The sturdy set-up for the themes for the show, however, means that the characters aren’t given time to pop. Rather, the pilot merely offers contrasts in character: Coulson the mild-mannered badass versus Ward the showily uptight efficiency machine, jittery journo Skye versus cool-as-an-iceberg Melinda May (Ming Na), the surprising awesomeness of the gadgets versus the dorks (Iain de Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge) who make them. (The mini-drones that lit up and smelled the former lab were the perfect prop in helping us ground ourselves in a reality quite similar to ours, but about 20-50 years ahead in technological advancement.) In fact, the characters seem like sketchy outlines of familiar Joss Whedon archetypes: the overly gabby hero with killer aim, the manly man with the squishy insides, the geeks with the short attention spans.
It remains to be seen whether Whedon’s signature levity will doom the show to cartoonishness and render the debates between secrecy and transparency toothless. If memory serves, not a single character was murdered in the pilot. That led to the episode’s falsest note when Skye is kidnapped into SHIELD headquarters but remains feisty, instead of fearing that she’ll be killed and left in a ditch for antagonizing her much more powerful nemeses. (Ask Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden what it’s like to be under the thumb of the U.S. government.) Okay, human experimentation in the form of Operation Centipede is pretty bad, but it was voluntary, if not exactly conducted with informed consent. The lack of fear of death feels conspicuously out-of-place on a show premised on the discovery of creatures and beings whose great powers allow them to cause destruction and death on a mass scale.
If the characterization and stakes are lacking, though, the world-building seems set up to provide lots of interesting stories. The story of Mike’s resentment and powerlessness worked because it dealt with the psychological effects of learning that life is now not just about keeping up with the Joneses — it’s also about now keeping up with the Starks (and making sure you’re not reduced to collateral damage in supersized battles between mutants, gods, aliens, and men in robot suits.
“With great power comes a ton of weird crap you are not prepared to deal with,” warns Skye. That’s as true for the people who have those powers as for those without them. If Agents of SHIELD can tackle how the question of how it feels to be on either side of that coin, it just might distinguish itself from its source material and its predecessors — and earn a compelling origin story of its own.