Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Now that its premiere season is behind us, it’s a good time to look back at the pilot of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and remember how we got here. A re-watch of the pilot serves as a reminder not only of the show’s charm — maybe the reason we hung on through some slow weeks — but the Whedon/Tancharoen family’s skill at storytelling. Despite the lukewarm reaction when it first aired, this is a hell of a good pilot, in hindsight. It kicks off the season arc, the story of Coulson (Clark Gregg) building his team and gradually learning about TAHITI, and all of the relationships therein. But instead of making its B-plot a one-off, it too sets up a long, methodical hero’s journey.

MikePetersonThe latter is what interested me most. Even though we had a long stretch of Mike-less episodes, this season was very much Deathlok‘s origin story. In fact, Mike (J. August Richards) himself says that at minute 30. Continue reading

Arrow and Revolution

It’s official. Bows and arrows are the hottest accessory for fall. I don’t know if Darryl from The Walking Dead started it, or if we can credit Katniss Everdeen, but two of the fall pilots screened at Comic-Con last night heavily featured this handy but rustic weapon.

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The Incredible Hulk

Although the character The Incredible Hulk was born in 1962 and took animated form in 1966, the television series that ran from 1977-82 is probably responsible for introducing the masses, including us Gen-X kids, to the gamma radiation-fueled green guy. More recent live action portrayals have been underwhelming at best, until The Avengers. I don’t know if everyone was as pleasantly surprised with Mark Ruffalo‘s Hulk as I was, but I think it was partially because he reminds me of the actor imprinted on my memory as THE David Bruce Banner, Bill Bixby. (His name on his tombstone is David Bruce, though he goes by David on the show and Bruce in The Avengers. If anyone can explain this, please do.) Continue reading

Wonder Woman

The Wonder Woman series had a few false starts before the 1975 TV movie, which spawned the well-remembered Lynda Carter series. Even when it finally got off the ground, the show — full title, The New Adventures of Wonder Woman — only lasted one season before it was retooled and moved to another network (CBS).

In recent years, other attempts at bringing the DC Comics property to the small screen have failed, including one led by Joss Whedon. You could hardly escape last year’s debate about Adrianne Palicki’s pants. Why is bringing the Amazonian princess to life such a challenge? And what did the 1970s series get right that others missed? Continue reading

The Middleman

On paper The Middleman sounds like an amazing show: young struggling artist and gamer girl gets recruited by mysterious crime-fighting agency to battle comic book-style villains. (So many words to love in that sentence.)

It’s based on a graphic novel by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine, and the production style echoes that origin. It’s got a Scott Pilgrim thing going on, but its tone also reminds me of Wonderfalls or Pushing Daisies. Yet, it only takes about five minutes of the pilot to notice that this show is terrible. That could be why it only lasted 12 episodes in 2008, but then, better shows have lasted even less (e.g. the aforementioned Wonderfalls). And, for all I know, there is a die-hard Middleman fan base out there cranking out fan fiction and tweeting to the network to revive it. So what’s wrong with it?

First of all, it was on ABC Family. ABC Family seems to think it has an audience for campy genre TV (Three Moons Over Milford) yet only succeeds with teen soap operas (Secret Life, Pretty Little Liars). They also tend to keep things in a safe-for-family-viewing zone that doesn’t necessarily work for genre TV.

Middleman banks on its audience’s existing knowledge of comics, gaming, sci-fi, and action movies. It packs in the references like digitally-added TIE fighters. Geeks love them some references (see Tropes are Not Bad), but personally I prefer my references baked into the plot (The Big Bang Theory) rather than flung at me like paper napkin fireballs (Breaking In).

So what makes this hour-long pilot feel like its the length of the bonus footage from LOTR? Let’s back up and look at the plot.

We start at A.N.D. Laboratories (tagline: We scramble your DNA. Get it?) A young dark-haired secretary (Natalie Morales, seen more recently on Parks and Recreation), sits flipping a silver lighter open and shut and chatting with her mother as things go haywire in the laboratory behind her. The mom conversation serves as exposition. The heroine, Wendy, who looks kinda like Hilary Swank, is an art school graduate with a boyfriend her mother disapproves of. Suddenly an amorphous monster with many eyeballs bursts through the glass windows of the laboratory and Wendy fights it off with a letter opener, dropping her lighter in the process.

A clean-cut man in a dated military uniform shows up, makes her promise not to tell anyone what she’s seen. He calls himself The Middleman (Matt Keeslar). Wendy’s lighter is blamed for the ensuing explosion, and she is unable to get another temp job, so winds up getting recruited by The Middleman’s shadowy employer. What we have here is a typical Hero’s Journey. The hero(ine) is seen in her ordinary world, meets her mentor figure, is called to adventure, refuses the call, accepts the call, then faces an ordeal*.

So here’s the problem. I don’t like the hero. Wendy moves through these stages way too easily, without any introspection or suffering. We don’t get to know her in the ordinary world (i.e. pre-hero) for long enough to give a Gungan’s ass about her. Then, when she’s called to join this crime-fighting task force, she doesn’t show anything other than vague annoyance. Is she surprised, honored, scared? Don’t know. The reason that she has a change of heart and decides to join is only that her loser of a boyfriend dumps her for completely superficial reasons. We’ve had no opportunity to see them together as a couple, so we’re not invested in the relationship to begin with. When he dumps her, we don’t know what she’s feeling; should we be sad that her heart is broken or cheer that she is free from a bad relationship? And is the end of this seemingly insignificant courtship really enough to send her running to join “the paramilitary version of Amway,” as she calls it.

As with the line quoted above, this pilot actually has a few nuggets of great dialogue. Unfortunately they’re buried under a pile of crap. I’ll leave you with one more, spoken by The Middleman in the climactic scene and arguably the best line of the whole thing: “The only thing I hate more than mad scientists trying to take over the world is mad scientists trying to take over the world and using the brains of innocent primates in order to do it.”

*If you’re into this sort of thing check out The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.

The Secret Circle and Locke & Key

So far at Comic-Con I have seen two pilots, which bear several similarities. The Secret Circle and Locke and Key each begin with a parent gruesomely murdered by a mysterious villain, and children going to live with relatives in old family homes harboring secrets. Both involve elements of the supernatural.  That’s about where the similarities end.

The Secret Circle has lots of pretty girls and high school rivalries and a budding grandmother-granddaughter bonding story. Locke and Key is terrifying, set in a remote manor, and raises more questions than it answers. Which one do you think got picked up for the fall schedule? Yep… If you didn’t see Locke and Key at one of its two Comic-Con screenings today, you probably never will. And it’s a damn shame, because it’s awesome. Fox (who passed on it) probably wasn’t the right network. It looks like something one would see on AMC or even HBO. One of the concerns from fans of the comics was that the emphasis of the show would be too much on the mother character and less on the children. That fear turned out to be unfounded, and the audience in the screening room seemed delighted by the pilot.

I’ll write descriptions of both of these later. Too busy geeking out!

Birds of Prey

With excitement building for the Wonder Woman reboot this fall, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at some other DC Comics heroines, the ladies of 2002’s Birds of Prey.

In a nutshell, a blonde, a brunette and a redhead live together looking hot and fighting crime. The pilot is the story of how they got together. The show, or at least the pilot can be appreciated at face value, if the viewer has no previous knowledge of the characters. It could even be accused of ripping off Charmed, with its story of three powerful women joining forces and a suspicious cop on their trail. But there is ton of back story—at least 40 years worth of comic book lore.

Alfred, of Batman fame, narrates the opening. The story is set in New Gotham, and Batman has disappeared from its crime-ridden streets. The voiceover lends a storybook feeling, a bit like the tone of Pushing Daisies.

Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer), formerly Batgirl, is confined to a wheelchair since The Joker shot her. She now lives in a clock tower—a set that looks like the same one Smallville used—surrounded by computers. By day she works as a school teacher. Living with her is Helena (Ashley Scott), the daughter of Batman and Catwoman. She was raised by her mother, killed by a henchman of The Joker while her daughter stood by, helpless. She has grown up to be The Huntress, a hero who runs across building tops by night, fighting crime while The Oracle oversees from her tower. In the comic world, The Huntress had completely different
origins, but did turn to heroism following the murder of her parents. (This according to The DC Comics Encyclopedia.)

As these two women experienced their personal tragedies, a third girl dreamt their pain. She is now teenage Dinah (Rachel Skarsten), and she has travelled to New Gotham to seek out the women from her dreams. On her way to find them, she witnesses a man being hit by a bus. She runs to his side and, when she touches him, she sees a vision of him being attacked by rats. Her power, it seems, is the ability to share people’s thoughts or fears. The comic book Dinah became The Black Canary, though that name isn’t mentioned in the pilot.

The man’s death sparks the women’s investigation into a series of related murders disguised as suicides, which leads them to some dockyards and the lair of the killer. Among the three of them they get to combine supernatural, or metahuman powers of an X-man with the high tech gadgetry of Batman.

As the women investigate these deaths, the police are also on the case. Detective Jesse Reese (Shemar Moore) is one officer who believes that something bigger is happening beneat the surface. He’s the “the truth is out there” character of the show. Sums up what may be the message-of-show with the awkwardly worded adage, “Myths are just the truth a few generations later.”

Another significant introduction in this pilot is that of Helena’s psychiatrist, one Harleen Quinzel (Mia Sara – remember her, Sloane Peterson from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?), whose name reveals that she’s an enemy-in-waiting.

With its roots in death and destruction, this pilot promises a fairly dark show. There are small doses of humor, with lines like, “This place is supposed to be a secret. That’s the whole point of a secret lair.” Barbara and Helena argue about lighter things, too, like being out of groceries. There’s also a quick Superman/Smallville reference: “There’s been some really weird stuff with meteor showers.”

This pilot does a nice job of tying together the episode plot with a longer-term plot, when Harleen interacts with the episode villain at the end. There’s both resolution and reason to keep watching.

UPDATE 2/17/2012: In case you’re a big fan of the Black Canary character, you may like to know that Katie Cassidy has been cast to play her in the forthcoming Green Arrow series on The CW. And, in case you haven’t been paying attention, that Wonder Woman reboot never happened, but I’ve since blogged about the pilot of the 1970s series.

The Walking Dead (in retrospect)

I always say that pilot can only be truly appreciated in retrospect. You can’t know how good it is until you see how the whole season—sometimes the whole series—plays out. So I’ve waited until now to blog about The Walking Dead.

This show, which had a 6-episode first season on AMC, has been reviewed and analyzed extensively, for the most part favorably (in places like these.) So I won’t bother raving about how entertaining, exciting and original it is. Though it is all of those things.

The thing to understand about this show is, it’s not a zombie show. It’s a suspenseful, end-of-the-world drama that just happens to have zombies. The pilot lets us know that, giving us rich character introductions and a bleak, ominous landscape.

The opening scene lets us know something isn’t right. A police officer, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), parks his squad car and makes his way through an intersection littered with overturned vehicles. Beyond that he finds an abandoned camp site where bodies rot in cars. Rick appears completely calm, as though he is finding only what he expected. And, while the sight of him putting a bullet in the forehead of a little girl with a teddy bear and half a face packs a punch to the audience, it doesn’t seem that out of the ordinary for Rick.

In hindsight this opening scene feels odd. Where are we? When are we? When Rick first leaves the hospital, trying desperately to figure out what happened to the world during his coma, he is understandably freaked out. He doesn’t know the ways of the new frontier until at least episode 2. Suddenly it’s not clear when in the timeline of the show this scene takes place; maybe we haven’t seen it yet? Why did the writers choose this point of attack? Just to shock us with Cindy Lou Who getting her head blown off? Rick shows much more emotion when, mid-way through the pilot, he shoots the half-woman crawling across the lawn.

A flashback is used to set up the relationship between Rick and his partner, Shane (John Bernthal). This relationship is crucial to the story arc, and its position in the script suggests that. The writers don’t miss a chance to also mention Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), the woman who will represent the point in their love triangle. In the chase of a suspect, Rick and Shane are clearly the competent ones. More importantly, they’re both basically good guys. They have each other’s backs, and together they defend the public good. These characteristics will leave us torn as the story unfolds, unable to paint Shane as a hero or villain. This will prove especially true in the opening scene of episode 6, in a flashback to when the hospital was overrun with zombies. The relationship between the men is also a source of frustrating dramatic irony later in the pilot, when Rick radios through to the campsite having no idea Shane is there.

We don’t get to know any of the other characters in the campsite at this stage. We see just enough to see that a group of survivors is making the best of it on the outskirts of town.

The pilot spends a good chunk of its 66 minutes having us get to know the character Morgan (Lennie James); he has a big dramatic introduction and the possibility of a reunion with Rick for later on. There’s no payoff through, at least this season. Morgan, although a rich character, winds up being no more than a device for explaining the world to the viewing audience. (I, for one, want to know if he ever shoots his wife).

One of the questions running through this episode—for viewers, not the characters—was “how far will they go?” This is a horror show on basic cable. The opening with the little girl gives a pretty strong hint, but we wonder how gross, how shocking, how scary AMC will be. The show does not disappoint in this respect.  The pilot leaves us with a bizarre, gag-worthy gut feast that didn’t let us forget about the show until the following Sunday.