Hollywood it-boy Joss Whedon has made a lot of great television that never got the respect (or the lifespan) it deserved. Does his new show, ABC's Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, which premieres Tuesday, September 24, at 8 p.m., live up to the legacy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly?
Now, it isn't all on Joss himself. His brother Jed and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen will be the showrunners since Joss does, after all, have to make The Avengers sequel and seemingly every other product in Hollywood. But with Whedon on board as creator, it's hard not to think of SHIELD as his glorious return to the medium that made him famous. But does it have the spark of his earlier work? Let's break it down.
When asked to define "Whedon-esque" the first place you go is the dialogue. Whedon's dialogue is fast paced, quippy, and laden with pop culture references. The characters have verbal tics that seems like catchphrases, like the character Kaylee's use of the word "shiny" in Firefly. There is, of course, "Buffy Speak," defined by TV Tropes as "any of a variety of speech patterns used to indicate that a character, while intelligent, is perhaps too young, too inexperienced and/or insufficiently educated (or simply talks too fast) to properly express the complex ideas and thoughts that they clearly possess." But "Buffy Speak," as Buffy's writers explain, is also Whedon-speak.
The Whedon-speak is not quite as prevalent in SHIELD as it would be if you were to turn on an episode of Buffy, but it's certainly there. There are plenty of zippy references: Agent Jemma Simmons—who handles biochem for the team—cries, "I'm not Hermione, I can't create instant paralysis with that." There are the sassy asides: Agent Leo Fitz mutters under his breath at one point, "by lucky I mean unappreciated genius." There is the verbal wordplay, much of which comes from hacker Skye, who says things like "holy no way" and "with great power comes...a ton of weird crap that you are not prepared to deal with." And then there is just the random quirky quips. In reading off an agent's assessment of another agent Coulson says: "Under people skills she drew a...I think it's a little poop with knives sticking out of it." It was actually a porcupine.
Obviously, this is a Marvel production, so it's squarely rooted in their superhero world. However, it looks like the primary villain of SHIELD is going to be an organization dosing humans with Extremis, the drug that gave Gwyneth Paltrow super powers in Iron Man 3. Whedon's work often deals with evil entities manipulating humans to do bad. Dollhouse was essentially all a creepy corporation that erased people's minds, turning them into blank slates. Buffy's season four Big Bad was connected to a secret military operation known as The Initiative, building a scary hybrid demon robot. In Firefly the Alliance government performs tests on the character River Tam. Clearly, if the pilot is any indication, SHIELD will deal with how power derived from experimenting with human nature can be dangerous. That's a very Whedon-y theme.
No matter how much power or strength Whedon's characters have he likes them to be underdogs in one way or another. Yes, Buffy was a superhero, but she was also just a normal teenage girl who happened to fall in with a crowd of lovable weirdos. The crew of Firefly's Serenity were all outlaws. Angel of Buffy and Angel was a vampire with a soul, and Dollhouse was about people whose agency was taken away from them.
In interviews, Whedon has explained that SHIELD is about the ordinary people in the superhero world. Watching the show, it's clear that's mostly true. When the agents go up against a man who has been gained super strength through Extremis, it's clear that physically they are no match.
That said, SHIELD as an agency is a sleek organization. Sure, the agents are the underdogs of the superhero world, but they aren't really underdogs in our world. It's early on in the show so obviously some characters are more clearly drawn than others. In the pilot Whedon and his team clearly know how to write for Gregg and their beloved Agent Coulson, who they revived from the dead for the purpose of the show, and may have some inner turmoil related to said "death." The science team Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) have a nice oddball rhythm that fits within the Whedon ethos. Meanwhile, Brett Dalton's Agent Ward for now just seems like a really really attractive tough guy even though he may also have some dark secrets. Same with Ming-Na Wen's Melinda May. Eh to both of them.
This is the hardest to define, but the best Whedon works brim with heart. The works themselves—like the characters—feel like ragtag efforts made only for you, the fan. That's something that might be harder to accomplish here. SHIELD, yes, has all of these Whedon-y qualities, but it's also, certainly, a Marvel project, which means it's a Disney project. It's looks corporate, but to truly be a great addition to the Whedon canon it needs to not feel corporate. That's where it has some work to do.