Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen in ABC TV’s “Marvel’s Agent’s of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Please don’t take our lack of review for last week’s episode as a sign that we’re unhappy with the show. On the contrary, we’re pleasantly surprised to see it improving with each episode, making these last two the best in the run of the show, in our opinion. And not coincidentally, both episodes tend to be the closest to the kind of show we’ve always argued this should be.
But before we get to that, this is as good a place as any to address some bidness. You might have noticed that we’ve seriously stepped up our TV game lately. This has been the plan for a while now, but we decided to wait until the new fall season started and we could jump into the waters, trying things out left and right. TV reviewing has always been in the DNA of this site, going back to its founding as a Project Runway recapping site. Some of our most popular (and most fulfilling) posts have been not just our Mad Men coverage, but our reviews of Glee, LOST, and many other shows, up to the present day, with Downton Abbey, Orphan Black, Doctor Who, and Orange is the New Black joining the roster. This will continue to be the plan, but since there are only two people working frantically behind the curtain, we can’t provide a broad array of TV coverage and also do weekly reviews of all the shows we watch. Not if we want a life that includes eating and sleeping. Some shows will likely continue to get the weekly treatment, like Doctor Who, American Horror Story, possibly The Flash, The Affair, and How to Get Away with Murder), but many of the other shows, like this one, are probably only going to be reviewed on a bi-weekly basis. We reserve the right to hastily write an unexpected “holy shit” post on an off-week if any one of the shows manages an episode so good or so bad that we have to say something. And we will continue to add shows to the roster as they premiere or we get time to write about them, like Amazon’s much-discussed Transparent, which we promise to get to soon.
Anyway, enough of that.
So, okay. This show’s getting much, much better than we all had reason to expect, yes? The scripting is much tighter, with a more energetic feel in the last two weeks than in the entirety of season one. Last week’s episode punched a bunch of holes in our theory that Simmons had gone to the dark side and was beaming messages into Fitz’s head, but we were more than happy to be wrong, because the double agent setup is just about the most interesting and unexpected thing you could do with the character and still have it make sense. We how doubts about making HYDRA the big bad of the show, but we have to admit, it’s done an amazingly good job of giving the show – and the team – a reason to exist. We’re not gonna lie, though. Sometimes the stakes don’t seem particularly high (or well explained) and all this subterfuge and combat comes off like CONTROL vs. KAOS (or even Spy vs.Spy).
But honestly? That’s fine by us. There’s a semi-campy quality to the whole thing that really makes it work. Agent May in a slip beating the ever-loving crap out of a lookalike in a sequined disco dress in a hotel room (complete with WHOLLY UNCONVINCING stuntwomen shots) is straight out of the Bionic Woman playbook and we cannot help but enjoy the hell out of it. It seems to us, going just by what we’re seeing onscreen, that this show never had all that impressive a budget or plan for things like locations and art direction. And while that’s always going to make it look like a show of lesser quality, we have to admit, going cheesy with the direction and staging set pieces like the above is the absolute best way to go. Put the money into the fight coordinating (as they clearly have). It’s more fun watching stuntwoman in wigs and dresses flip and pummel their way through a cheesy set than have bored actors reciting lines on a dark airplane or in front of a not-so-great special effect. Although we suppose it would get old quickly. It’s at least a little more visually fun than the somewhat generically Southern California locations and endless barracks/warehouse/inside-an-airplane sets.
But of course it’s not ’70s-style action sequences that’s going to make this show. It’s always going to come down to a set of characters you want to watch each week, which has always been its notorious weak point. Fitz and his story arc suddenly came alive this episode and that scene with Mack and Lance at the end was one of the most charming and well-acted bits the show has ever done. Incidentally, in our last review we tossed off a line about Mack being HYDRA. While it’s always possible, we honestly can’t remember why we thought that, and we’ve gone over the episodes to find a scene to back it up, but can’t. Walking that one back. And we promise if it turns out he is HYDRA, we won’t take credit for figuring it out.
It was all the fantastic work done by Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen that really made this episode blow up, though. These two are supposed to be at the center of the story and are supposed to have this amazingly tight relationship going back decades. Unfortunately, it’s never really come across onscreen. The problem with Ming-Na Wen’s stone-faced portrayal of May has always been that it never felt like it was coming from a place of confidence. Quite the opposite; it always gave us the impression of being tentative, as if she never quite knew what the character was supposed to be doing. Given that she’s always been a competent to good television actress, and the weakness of the scripts up until this season, we tend to blame the writing, rather than her, especially since, with this episode, it felt like she really nailed this character to the wall and figured her out. There was a 1000 percent increase in actor confidence with her scenes, and suddenly Melinda May came alive to us as an interesting, and much more important for a show like this, exciting person. She was funny, scary, kickass, tender and smart. It’s probably not a coincidence that Clark Gregg came off more charming and more like the cinematic version of Coulson than we’ve seen in the entire run of the series. He needs other strong characters to play off of, and Ming-Na Wen is finally able to give him that. Their scenes crackled.
Unfortunately, Skye is still a big charisma suck and increasingly Chloe Bennett comes off like she’s doing a Sarah Michelle Gellar impersonation; as if the creators gave her a bunch of Buffy DVDs and told her to start practicing. There’s some improvement there, but they really need to rehab this character as well as they just did with May, Coulson, Simmons and Fitz, who have all taken enormous leaps forward so far. Ward’s still as generic as she is in a lot of ways, but using him like a Hannibal Lecter type to her Clarice isn’t the worst idea in the world. Even so, it’s amazing to us that we can only point to one, maybe two people in the cast who really need some work. Last season, EVERYTHING, from top to bottom, needed a rethink. That’s a pretty impressive turnaround. It’s still got a ways to go, but it’s commendable how far it’s come.
Photo: ABC/Kelsey McNeal
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