Public Service Announcement 17 of 2014: The Americans, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Ironside

I seem to know quite a few people who gave up on The Americans during its first season, which just goes to show how opinions can differ. I thought this 80s-set drama about Russian spies in American suburbia was terrifically enjoyable, and very probably the best new (cable) drama of 2013. So I’m delighted to see it back on British screens this weekend, commendably soon after US transmission (well done ITV). And the exciting news is that, according to initial reaction to the first episodes of season 2, The Americans has got even better, which opens up the thrilling possibility that, rather like Justified did between seasons 1 and 2, The Americans might have gone from really good to great. Anyway, don’t listen to the naysayers: The Americans is worthy of your time (Saturday 15 March, 9.20pm, ITV 1).

Which, sadly, is more than can be said for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., returning tonight after its mid-season hiatus. I almost never bail on shows – and I should do so a lot more, frankly – but one good episode and a couple of half-decent ones were nowhere near enough to persuade me to continue either watching or reviewing. It should be said that the evidence from America, where a handful of post-hiatus episodes has been screened, is that there might have been a recent improvement in quality; it’s too late for me, I’m afraid. Our friend Tim at Slouching towards TV is, I think, carrying on with weekly reviews, but we’re out.

Which makes us “losers”, apparently, according to Clark Gregg, Mr Tahiti-It’s-A-Magical-Place himself. We should have had more patience, according to Mr Gregg – ironically the best thing about the show so far – who compared the first run of episodes to eating the “healthy stuff” and saving “dessert” for later. Now, I like it when actors are passionate about their shows, and I suppose you could applaud his ingenuity in trying to turn the show’s limp plots, miscast and misfiring actors, and lame dialogue into virtues; and, for that matter, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. into The Sopranos or something. Having given the matter further careful consideration, though, he and his show can piss off (tonight, 8pm, Channel 4).

And I suppose we should mention the UK debut of Ironside, a remake of the 60s/70s show about a wheelchair-bound detective. Blair Underwood – always watchable – is the star, but it was cancelled after only a few episodes, so it hardly seems worth taking an interest. I’m guessing that there must be contractual reasons why 5USA is bothering to show it at all, otherwise it would look odd that it’s broadcasting Ironside while cancelling its contract to show Justified (Tuesday 18 March, 9pm, 5USA).

Coming soon: Person of Interest, and new Scandi-drama Mammon. And just around the corner: Burn Notice, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. s1 ep 9

Project Humanise S.H.I.E.L.D. is ongoing: at the start and passim, FitzSimmons are hazing Skye, the new girl, which leads to a positive flood of practical jokes – and one very unlikely prankster!!1! Then at the end of the episode, there’s a bit of playful banter over a game of Just Like Scrabble, when Simmons plays the word “aglet”, and no-one knows what it means. As it happens, to my knowledge the other show which has featured “aglet” as a plot point is Phineas and Ferb, and that’s a comparison Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. really doesn’t want to be inviting, because despite being ostensibly a show for kids the songs alone in Phineas and Ferb have approximately a zillion times more wit, heart, and humanity than the whole of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Anyway, the main story this week is about a woman who seems to have become the unwilling recipient of telekinetic powers. She maintains, though, that she’s being haunted by a demon, which turns out to be closer to the truth, although the question is whether he’s a demon, an alien, a ghost trapped between two worlds, or… oh, I don’t care.

I don’t care. I don’t care whether Coulson is alive, dead, or something else. (Clark Gregg deserves a better show, BTW.)  I don’t care why Melinda May is called “the cavalry”. I don’t care why the dull one… whatever the dull one’s deal is. Skye is pretty, but her character has actually regressed since the first episode: her arc this week was specifically about how she doesn’t get to do anything, which is an admission of guilt in itself. Fitz and Simmons aren’t as endearing as they’re supposed to be, although I’d quite like them to get together. But that’s about it: a half-hearted ship and one good episode isn’t enough, any longer, to keep me reviewing this show when there are so many better ones out there. Our friend Tim is reviewing this show over at Slouching towards TV, for anyone who wants to keep up, but for now Unpopcult is getting off the bus.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. s1 ep 8

Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

There’s an introductory bit in ‘The Well’ set in the aftermath of another film I haven’t seen, but we quickly move on to some bobbins about an Asgardian staff, concealed in three pieces around the planet (i.e. not remotely convincing locations), which is being tracked down by a “Norse paganist hate group”. S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to discuss this with a professor in (not remotely convincing) Seville, but at least he turns out to be John “The Biscuit” Cage. Anyone who touches the staff is imbued with rage and super-strength, so lots of people touch it, meaning plenty of bodies and stuff getting flung around; this, too, is not remotely convincing.

Coulson talks, and dreams, some more about the whole Tahiti thing, about which he can shut up any time he likes – he died, he came back to life, whatevs, MOVE the eff ON, show. There’s a determined attempt to humanise the dull one, who gets some backstory related to, I think, the drowning of his brother when they were both children, which in turn gives Skye an opportunity to seduce him by being all, I’m here if you need someone to talk to. Instead, though, he stomps off for some lovely, rage-filled sex with – but let’s not spoil the only surprise in the whole episode. Yes, I called that one wrong, but it wasn’t worth waiting 40 minutes for. This was boring. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to raise its game stat. I may not be back.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. s1 ep 7

822x-3This week a South Ossetian separatist group has in its possession a McGuffin-y super weapon – the Overkill Device – and Coulson’s team is summoned to The Hub to be given orders on what to do. There’s a flutter of excitement when The Hub is mentioned, but it’s really just a big office, a bit like Division in the early seasons of Nikita, say.

Anyway, in order to eliminate the Overkill Device, which could, theoretically, detonate weapons thousands of miles away, S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to send in a two-person team: a dull guy good at kicking people around, and someone sufficiently tech-savvy to disable the McGuffin. So the dull one and Fitz head off to South Ossetia to do an odd couple number, with Fitz mixing nervousness and occasional competence along the way.

Back at The Hub, Amador from The Americans has turned up, and Skye’s being a total pain in the ass: information about the mission is way above her level of security clearance, but she just won’t take “no, and anyway you’ve been in the door like five minutes and already leaked secret information, so why should anyone trust you?” for an answer, leading to the revelation that Fitz and the dull one are on something that looks like a suicide mission. Wonder if they’ll survive and, perhaps, end up respecting each other a little more by the end?

*sigh*

In truth, I probably liked this episode a little more than last week’s, even though Skye can shut up any time she likes, and I never want to hear about Coulson’s Tahiti experience ever again. On the plus side, the dialogue didn’t ever make me laugh, or even smile, but it was OK. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been OK for a while now: American viewing figures are now almost half what they were for the first episode, and falling every week. The Blacklist, meantime – a better show, of course – has seen a much smaller decline, and its ratings are steady. None of this is a surprise. Last week, I said that I wasn’t convinced that the show has settled down yet. I now think that I was wrong: the show has settled down, and that’s a problem.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. s1 ep 6

212px-133543_0608_preWe open with the leader of a scout troupe being killed by a mysterious electric force, then left hovering in mid-air. After another similar death, it turns out that both of the deceased are connected to the alien invasion (The Chitauris? Have I got that right?) of New York which happened in that film I didn’t see: they attended as firefighters, they kept an alien helmet as a keepsake, and after cleaning the helmet up they’ve become infected with some sort of alien dust-borne virus. Which causes them to spark out and hover in mid-air.

S.H.I.E.L.D. is on the case, and discovers in due course that the virus can be transferred from person to person as well, which is less than ideal for Simmons, who is working on a cure but has contracted the electric alien virus herself. Fitz nobly enters the room where she’s being held in quarantine to assist her, thus risking his own life as well.

Of course everyone lives; the intention is really to give Fitz and Simmons a bit of room to establish themselves as slightly more than the resident geeks. And if “slightly more” was indeed the target, I suppose the writers managed it: a bit of charm here, a peck on the cheek there. If I’ve got it right, the S.H.I.E.L.D. office chemistry is as follows: Simmons has a crush on Fitz; Fitz has a crush on Skye; Skye has a crush on the dull one. And the dull one will presumably need to be told what a crush is. (I also wouldn’t be entirely surprised to discover that Coulson and Melinda May are friends with benefits, as it happens, but perhaps that’s for another episode.)

It wasn’t bad; ‘FZZT’ was executed with the usual level of competence and occasional flair. The problem is that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. generally isn’t fun enough to be fun, and there’s nowhere near enough emotional investment in the characters for it to be serious. I’m not convinced that the show has settled down yet.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. s1 ep 5

822x‘The Girl In The Flower Dress’ is Raina (Ruth Negga, once of Misfits), who picks up Chan, a Hong Kong street performer with pyrokinesis, which is not a diagnosis with which I am familiar. It turns out that he can – gasp! – make his hands go on fire and then – gasp! – throw the fire at people. A great deal of fuss is made about this superpower, but it really isn’t anything that you couldn’t do with an aerosol and a lighter, and it’s almost as effective as a gun.

Raina, though, is from Centipede, the undefined baddies of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’, and they want Chan because his blood is fire-resistant, and this will help them to build their super-soldier, or something. Unfortunately they’ve built Chan’s part up a little, suggested he call himself Scorch (“Oh crap”, remarks Coulson on finding out. “They gave him a name”), given him a Nike Pro Combat top, and generally encouraged him to think that he’s the man. Consequently he is indeed, as Coulson suggests, a bit of a tool.

As for how Raina found Chan: well, this is the more interesting part of the episode. He was on a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. spreadsheet of People With Powers, stolen by Skye’s old boyfriend, Rising Tide super-hacker Miles. Skye warns Miles that S.H.I.E.L.D. is after him, has a brief romantic reunion with him, and gets to wander around in her underwear for a while, which is another pink dress moment, but without the pink dress. This is the treachery that Melinda and the dull one have been waiting for, and Skye is in big trouble with a more-disappointed-than-angry Coulson, although she eventually manages to persuade them that she’s still on Team S.H.I.E.L.D.

I’m kind of glad that the double agent business has been blown up – or has it? – but this show still has a serious problem with the supporting characters. At one point, for example, Skye and the dull one play Battleships. This is clearly supposed to humanise him, but if anything it amplifies the point: he’s now a dull guy playing Battleships. And the rest of the episode, unlike last time, isn’t good enough to make up for it. Last week I was entertained. This week, I was rather bored. That, I suspect, is how this show rolls.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. s1 ep 4

822x-3Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been as divisive as anything I can recall writing about on Unpopcult; not just the show itself, but from episode to episode there have been wide differences of opinion. Which presumably means that at least one of you hated ‘Eye Spy’, because I liked it as much as any episode since, and probably including, the first one.

In the best cold open of the season so far, a mysterious gang of red-mask-wearing men, all with briefcases chained to their wrists, walks out of a building in Stockholm, across an open space, and onto the tunnelbana (extra marks for actually filming in Sweden). I assumed them to be this week’s baddies but then the lights go out, a hand is severed, and a briefcase stolen, all by the quiet woman who was watching everything and following them.

The stolen briefcase contained diamonds, and the quiet woman is Akela Amador, former S.H.I.E.L.D. member and protégée of Coulson. May doesn’t trust her and wants to eliminate her; Coulson, who feels guilty about pushing her too hard when she worked for him, thinks he might be responsible for whatever has gone wrong with her and wants to help her. This takes us to Belarus (not, this time, the real Belarus) and the revelation that Akela has a kill switch implanted inside her and is being coerced by an unknown Big Bad.

Compared to last week there’s much less time spent on exposition: the focus is, instead, on the plot and the relationships between the characters, where there are some welcome signs that the writers have realised that the dull one – Ward? – and the geeky ones need to be more vividly drawn.

The most important thing, though, is that the producers have finally located the member of the writing staff who knows from dialogue, with the consequence that the banter zings rather than plods: I was amused throughout, laughed once or twice (“SEDUCE HIM”), and generally entertained. I liked this a lot. More of the same, please.