I’m willing to be patient with Joss Whedon’s shows. The first seasons of Buffy, Angel, and Dollhouse were each series’ worst. (Firefly, of course, only had the one season.) But Whedon’s intended pilots for his two most recent shows, Firefly and Dollhouse, were confident introductions to characters and a universe that we were joining in medias res, not still being sketched out from scratch.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s second episode, however, taught me to lower my expectations for this series. Written by Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen, and Jeffrey Bell, “0-8-4” was nothing short of embarrassing — from the hammy, cliched dialogue and the obvious plot twists to the forced, programmatic story arc and the paper-thin, never-not-yammering characters. The one improvement from the pilot is that the show looks slightly less cheap; unlike last week’s installment, this episode actually seemed to have a budget. (What is it about Whedon’s shows that they all have that bargain-basement look?)
Though “0-8-4” had some German-engineered glow-thingie the Agents were ostensibly sent to Peru to retrieve, the international operation was nothing more than a team-building exercise. And the spotlight on the characters only served to show how ludicrously young they are. The four actors playing Ward, Fitz, Simmons, and Skye range in age from 21 to the 28ish, so let’s assume their characters are around that age. It’s not just that factoids like Ward knowing six languages and Simmons having two Ph.D.s strain credibility; it’s that it makes little sense for Coulson to handpick such a green, inexperienced team. (It doesn’t help that the actors themselves are also fairly unseasoned; they play what’s on the page and seem to add little else to their characters.)
The show even addresses this improbability. Seeing Coulson “surrounding [himself] with young, attractive agents,” Camila (Leonor Varela), the snake on the plane, diagnoses her former lover with a mid-life crisis. Despite Coulson’s faith in his recruits, it makes me question the seriousness with which he assembled his team. Why play daddy when he can be the general of a well-oiled army?
In addition to the fact that the majority of the main cast look like they belong in a reboot of Saved by the Bell, there are other little character inconsistencies that make them feel less like the regular-ish Joes they’re supposed to be and more like a collection of network notes. If Skye lives in a van, it defies belief that she’d walk around all the time with perfectly blow-dried hair. And why does she have a cell phone from the decade she was born in? Tweedleweak and Tweedledweeb not knowing any self-defense — or carrying a firearm, for that matter — also feels like a TV contrivance, not something that would happen in real life. Hell, even Indiana Jones had a whip.
In the episode’s most interesting revelation, we learn that Melinda used to be called “The Cavalry” — a cool nickname if there ever was one — but Ming-Na Wen is wasted in a role that doesn’t require her to do much more than stare ahead blankly like a psychiatric patient. Despite her contribution to the “let’s punch a hole in the jet” plan, she isn’t integrated at all into the rest of the team — or the show. (Oh, and there’s no way that inflatable raft wouldn’t be sucked out of the plane in a heartbeat.)
If I sound impatient, that’s because I am. Like Skye, we were promised a “front-row seat to the craziest show on Earth.” What we got instead was a corporate retreat 30,000 feet in the air so the worker bees can stop flying into each other and finally learn what professionalism looks like. It wasn’t just boring; it was annoying.
Not even Samuel L. Jackson could save that mess.