Marvel’s Agent Carter premiered last night, filling this gap while Agents of SHIELD is on hiatus, figuring out how to maintain the awesomeness they managed to cultivate. This is the same Agent Peggy Carter we met in Captain America, only now the war is over, she’s mourning Steve’s death, and she’s stuck with a bunch of S.S.R. meatheads who treat her like a secretary who also doubled as Cap’s bang buddy. That is, until Howard Stark enlists her clandestine help in clearing him of treason. From there on out it’s secret spy stuff and punching dudes in the face. Overall, it was a fantastic way to spend two hours. It was exciting and fun and oh my word, the hats.
But it was flawed. There are some major highs and some middling lows. Let’s get the big high point out of the way, the best thing Agent Carter has going for it.
High: Hayley Atwell
My god, can she carry a show. And deliver snark. And punches. And wear a hat.
High: This Sydney Bristow moment:
Atwell went full spy here, and her blonde American was so good, I can’t wait to see what other accents and wigs the rest of the season brings.
High: The energy
Agent Carter feels a little tentative at times, but for the most part, it’s fast-paced, snappy, and explosiony enough to hold your attention for an entire two hour premiere.
Low: The dialogue
Sure, there are some snappy Rosalind Russell-esque back and forths, but for the most part, it’s all the worst bits of comic book writing. Dialogue that belongs in panels, not coming out of an actor’s mouth.
High: The world-building
Okay, I DO wish they wouldn’t show actual footage from Captain America (it only hurts by comparison), and maybe fewer shots of Howard Stark sailing off into the embarrassingly green screened skyline. But for he most part, they’ve created a complete, fun world here. It’s part noir, part Disneyland, and it works. For the most part. At least when they stick to interior (as in not obviously poorly disguised backlots) locations.
High: The women
This is a comics-based, action-driven show is about a woman, led by a pair of female show runners. I wish this weren’t such a big deal, but it really, really is. A lot of people (or maybe just a few VERY LOUD people) get all up in arm whenever anyone drops the word “Bechdel,” but it’s an important point to bring up. Look, the Bechdel test is not an indication of quality, or even of any implied feminist tone, but it IS worth looking at. Agent Carter is about a woman in a man’s world, so to emphasize that dynamic, there’s not a ton of alternate female energy. But there’s not none. Peggy does have relationships with other women, something that is missing from the vast, VAST majority of television shows. Most notably, Peggy is BFFs with Ted Mosby’s daughter.
Low: The beating us over the head with the women
We get it, Peggy is a brilliant agent, yet continually overlooked and undervalued because of her gender. She has only the poor, gorgeous Enver Gjokaj to (slowly) stand up for her. (And Stark. And Jarvis. And Diner Girl.) She’s out of place. She stands out. That point is pretty hard to miss.
We really don’t need that point to be hammered home in every scene. We don’t need for 90% of the characters to be dimwitted, ogreish Chad Michael Murrays who react to menstruation as if they’re in a Mad Men sitcom spin-off written by Chuck Lorre. Yes, watching Peggy navigate their brutishness to her advantage (like when she plays the crimson wave card) is amusing. Once. Or twice. Hopefully now that that stage of misogyny has been set (mighty heavily handedly), we can move on in future episodes. It’s there; that larger context isn’t going anywhere. We’re not going to forget if five minutes goes by without Enter Stupid Man, asking to be proven wrong written into the script.
Low: The beating us over the head with a lot of things
This goes back to the dialogue issue. There’s a LOT of exposition here. A lot of Peggy talking about how out of place she is, how she longs for a purpose. And again, I LOVE PEGGY. I’m on the board of the I Heart Peggy Fan Club. But I don’t like feeling dumbed down to. Show us what she’s dealing with, don’t tell us (and tell us and tell us).
High: Its short run format
Agent Carter came in with a burst of energy. It’s not perfect, but it’s not off to the same excruciatingly slow start Agents of SHIELD had. Whatever clunks and stumbles the show may hit, there’s a sort of romance to this short, seven week arc. What problems can it encounter that would make us lose interest in seven weeks?
Low: Its short run format
Seven weeks. That’s all this show has to get us to fall in love with it. And like I said, it’s not perfect. No one’s expecting it to be, of course— it’s only the first episode. But it doesn’t feel fully formed yet. With these brief miniseries, there’s no time to ramp up. As Fargo and True Detective showed us (and yes, it IS totally unfair to compare this to those niche cable shows, but for this specific aspect I’m standing by it), these short runs need to start as strong as they end. If one side or the other is weak, you’re going to lose your audience.
High: James D’Arcy’s Edwin Jarvis
Perhaps the highest high point, or maybe second only to Atwell herself, is James D’Arcy as Stark’s butler Edwin Jarvis. (Yes, like that Jarvis.) He takes on the buttoned-up, naysaying sidekick assistant role usually filled by a female character. He’s in bed by nine. He makes his wife soufflés. He’s perfect.
Vivian Kane has completely given up on punctuating SHIELD.