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Have a Seat 'Agents of SHIELD', 'Agent Carter' Has Got TV Handled

REVIEW: Agent Carter (S1E1,2)

Agent Carter premiered two episodes Tuesday night and it exceeded every expectation and blew away any doubts skeptics may have had; including this one. See, when the show was first announced I thought it was a terrible idea. Who wanted to see a show about an obscure female character set in the 40's? I thought it would be too broad and unrelatable. I have to admit I was dead wrong. Agent Carter is not only exciting, enjoyable and entertaining, it's also the best television show Marvel has produced. 


Peggy Carter finds life after the war mired in a thankless desk job with the Strategic Scientic Reserve (a precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D) battling a sexist work environment while yearning to be a field agent. Despite her stellar military record, she's undervalued and dismissed. However, it's because of that treatment that she's able to run circles around the male agents unbeknownst. 

Haley Atwell proves that her strong work in Captain America: The First Avenger was no fluke. She's funny, fierce, versatile and absolutely dynamic. When Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper reprises his role from the same film) enlists her to help prove his innocence, she reluctantly agrees to get back in the game even though it puts her in direct conflict with the SSR. Stark's inventions have gone missing and are ending up on the black market and Stark is suspect number one. 

"Now is Not the End" features some more from the Captain America films as the same writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, script the first episode. Joseph V Russo, the co-director of The Winter Soldier, helms the second episode, 'Tunnel and Bridge". The creative team lends some consistency in the quality of the action and storytelling that elevates the material from a television miniseries to near theatrical level heights. 

Peggy thwarts a would-be assassin in close-quarter combat so well it would make Jason Bourne proud. Atwell easily transitions from diffusing a bomb to beating down an intruder to weeping for her fallen roommate. The direction from Louis D'Esposito makes these moments a flawless visceral experience. 

In the second episode, Russo creates a wonderfully subversive scene using the hilariously simple-minded radio show, "Captain America Adventure Program," as a backdrop as Peggy has to put the hurt on another guy. As she's brawling the show jump cuts to the overly appreciative female voice actress in the studio. It directly contrasts the reality of Peggy getting it done herself and not depending on a male hero like Cap to save the day. With every punch, she's not just laying waste to a guy, but to the patriarchy itself. 

It's a reality of the times when the end of the war found returning G.I.'s going back to work in industries that women held down while they were away. The displaced women, like the dearly departed roommate Colleen, had to seek employment elsewhere. It's a running commentary on society and how women were pigeonholed into specific roles. It's not clear if that portrayal is solely a reflection of the time period or a broader scathing indictment of society in the here and now. Regardless, Peggy is a feminist warrior in the fact that she defends herself, demands respect and gets the job done. Even using men's misconceptions against them. However, she isn't alone in this crusade to save Stark.

Edwin Jarvis (James D'Arcy) is under direct orders from Stark to aid Peggy anyway he can and their contrasting personalities add some humorous and charming conflicts. The butler's buttoned-up stoic but sarcastic demeanor against Peggy's gung-ho style offers some comedic relief. It also illustrates that despite Peggy's insistence to work alone she really needs some support. She's feeling like a magnet of doom that even prevents her from sharing an apartment with new waitress/actress friend Angie (Lyndsey Fonseca). She doesn't want to place anyone elses life in danger by mere proximity to herself. This self-awareness is just one of the things that make Peggy more than just a super-agent but a more faceted character. Something Marvel's other TV show has struggled in doing in a season and a half. 

Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter may share a family tree with the SSR at its roots, but the level of execution in each series couldn't be more different. The most obvious is the setting. SHIELD lives in the shadow of the more exciting wing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the movies, and takes its cues from there. It began its rookie season treading water before the events of The Winter Soldier gave the show some weight and energy to its plotlines

Prior to that it was busy finding itself, trying desperately to appease fans with Easter eggs that didn't amount to more than "hey, there's that stick that was in Thor" and mentioning names of far more interesting characters that you'd have to pay money to watch. Add in convoluted stories, benign adventures that didn't amount to much or had any resonance, a wacky scientific duo, and poor character development and well the weekly drop in ratings from the sky-high debut was not unexpected. 

With Agent Carter, its miniseries structure keeps the story moving along knowing full well there'll be a beginning, middle and an end. Instead of meandering around looking for a purpose, Peggy is on a mission and uses her wits, charm and bravery to try and clear Stark's name. Peggy and the show have a visual style that's soaked in pulp noir. The 40's time period allows for indulgent production design from clothes, sets and cars that are both nostalgic and inviting. In the end, it's Atwell that binds all the wonderful elements surrounding the show together. 

Atwell's performance holds the audience, earns their attention and keeps them rooting all the way along. She's as charming and capable as James Bond with the same air of confidence, but without an ounce of pretension. Atwell gives Peggy multiple layers to grasp onto and is as disarming with a smile as she is with a punch to the face. A miniseries may not be enough to contain Atwell's starpower. Let's hope there's more Agent Carter to come. 

Check out scenes from the next episode, "Time & Tide."




Comments

  1. I'm also hoping for another run, but I like the fact it's 8-episodes... Another thing that was tough for SHIELD to manage. They've got the hang of things now though, and I think it's a much better show than when it started. Agent Carter has the advantage it wasn't the first out the gate and expectations were low. In other words, a nice surprise whereas SHIELD was bound to disappoint.

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  2. I agree, SHIELD came in with impossible expectations. Everyone had their own version in mind about what they wanted to see and it was its own thing. My biggest problem was the poor execution. And yes it's far better than a year ago. Yet I still don't feel engaged into the show. I'm glad there are people who enjoy it though.

    Agent Carter does benefit from being born out of The First Avenger and its own one-shot but the execution was far better right from the gate. hindsight is an advantage but it feels and looks like a better creative team made AC a winner. As far as expectations go, i agree the stakes for AC were different but not lower. It seemed like a placeholder until AoS returned but for a show with a female lead the mountain was pretty high to climb. if it failed how soon would they try again? AC's success should lead to more of its kind - women kicking ass. something more common on TV.

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