Wednesday, January 14, 2015

TV Review: Dan Grote on Marvel's Agent Carter

Two of the unlikeliest success stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been SHIELD Agent (now Director) Phil Coulson and pre-SHIELD Agent Peggy Carter, two people with absolutely no superpowers but, at their best, tons of personality.

Both got their own One-Shot short films – Coulson got two, actually. And now, both have their own TV shows and comics series.

Agent Carter, a seven-part miniseries, premiered last week on ABC. Meanwhile, at your local comics shop, Marvel dropped the first issue of Operation S.I.N., a five-issue series by Kathryn Immomen and Rich Ellis starring Carter and O.G. genius sass-mouth Howard Stark. The mini serves as both a stinger to last year’s Original Sin crossover and cross-platform marketing for Carter, a character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966.

Carter the TV series picks up in 1946 with Peggy (Hayley Atwell) in pretty much the exact same spot she was in at the beginning of the Agent Carter One-Shot: Working at the SSR, relegated to secretarial work by a second-rate Mad Men cast of chauvinists who came home from World War II and took all the jobs they felt themselves entitled to as conquering heroes. To help refresh people’s memories as to why this show exists, the opening of the pilot splices in the scene from Captain America: The First Avenger in which Chris Evans crashes the Red Skull’s plane into the Northern Atlantic. Boom, instant pathos.

Then Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) comes calling a with problem only a Stark could have: Someone is selling Howard’s “bad babies” – a creepy-uncle term for some of his deadlier inventions – on the black market, he’s being persecuted by the government for it, and he needs Carter to go on a secret MacGuffin Quest to set things right. The first weapon is a chemical explosive (more of an implosive, really) called nitramene packaged in containment units that look like perfume bottles.

Aiding Carter in her quest is Jarvis – the human being, not the O.S. voiced by Paul Bettany. James D’Arcy’s Edwin Jarvis, not at all trained in the ways of espionage, helps Carter track down strange weapons while fretting about his domestic duties and the hell he’ll catch from his as-yet-unseen wife. There’s definitely shades of Niles and Maris from Frasier here (kids, ask your parents about Frasier). So far, Jarvis is the show’s breakout character, so I look forward to the 7-part miniseries next winter in which Jarvis raises a young Tony Stark and Mr. Belvedere-style antics ensue.

Oh, and Stark and Jarvis have some kind of hidden agenda in employing Carter, but that was probably obvious.

The main villain of the series is either a person or an organization called Leviathan. Which immediately begs the question: Are World War II-era evil organizations only allowed to be named after mythical sea beasts? Either way, Leviathan likes to employ people whose larynxes have been removed, which makes for some fun conversation scenes. Also, this person/thing communicates with his larynx-less henchmen via a self-typing typewriter, which makes me want to play Ouija and watch shows produced by Stephen J. Cannell at the same time (kids, ask your grandparents who Stephen J. Cannell is).

The men of the SSR are written to give the folks at Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce a run for their money, but of course those guys are on AMC and able to get away with far more. Shea Whigham is the chief who constantly looks like he smelled a fart, Chad Michael Murray is the alpha douche, Kyle Bornheimer is the fat slob, and Enver Gjokaj is the sympathetic one, on account of his bum leg. The one-dimensionality of their characters can best be summed up by a scene in which they use a literal carrot and stick in an interrogation scene that ends in a brutal beating administered by Murray.

Meanwhile, Carter gets to dress up in costumes and use fake accents as she goes about her business, which I suppose harkens to the Jennifer Garner Alias series, but for some reason I’m reminded more of Jim Varney dressing up as his own mother in the Ernest movies. Don’t get me wrong, Atwell’s a knockout, fun to watch, and even funny at times. It just may be because I watched Ernest Saves Christmas only a few weeks ago.

The second hour works in a Captain America radio play that Carter justifiably finds anathema. The program – which regularly pops up at inopportune times – features Cap, the Red Skull, and Army Nurse Betty Carver, Cap’s frail love interest who regularly gets herself kidnapped by the Skull. In other words, the anti-Peggy.

The first two hours feature some fun casting choices for bit players, including James Urbaniak (Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture himself) as a Roxxon scientist, Kevin Heffernan from the Broken Lizard troupe (Super Troopers, Beer Fest) as a rude diner patron, Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) as the head of the Roxxon oil company, and Lynsy Fonseca (Kick-Ass, Hot Tub Time Machine) as a waitress who finds Peggy a place to stay after her previous roommate a) contracts tuberculosis and b) is killed by one of the no-larynx guys.

The pilot also features an appearance by a young Dr. Anton Vanko, father of Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash from Iron Man 2. A teaser for future episodes includes shots of the Howling Commandos, which I’m definitely looking forward to as a fan of Neal McDonough’s Dum Dum Dugan.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. set the bar low for how an MCU TV show should start, but Agent Carter has a lot going for it. It’s built off established characters, it’s only seven episodes so there’s no time for wheel-spinning, and it doesn’t have to tie itself to whatever’s coming to the theaters. So what you get is a fun, pulpy, kinda soapy period piece with a heroine who has the honor of being Marvel Studios’ first female lead and isn’t entirely out of place on a network with shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder.

Dan Grote has been a Matt Signal contributor since 2014 and friends with Matt since there were four Supermen and two Psylockes. His two novels, My Evil Twin and I and Of Robots, God and Government, are available on Amazon.

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