You tend to learn more about a TV show from its second episode than you do from its pilot. A successful pilot generally becomes the first episode of a series, but before that, it's little more than an extended proof-of-concept trailer — a way to convince a network that it deserves to be a full-blown TV series. That means that most pilots are simultaneously more grandiose and shaggier than the episodes that follow, when a show's creative team can stop worrying about selling the concept of a full season and start worrying about building a full season.
It's the second episode of a TV series that truly sets the tone — what it looks like, what it sounds like, what its season-long arcs will be — and by that measure, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn't given themselves much to work with in tonight's "0-8-4," which is a significant step down from last week's good-but-not-great premiere. This is a fairly bland, disappointingly safe hour of television; cut the references to Tony Stark and Thor, and "0-8-4" could easily pass as a lost episode of Burn Notice without anyone noticing.
Last week's episode ended by teasing something called an "0-8-4," and this week we find out what the code means: The discovery of an "object of unknown origins," which requires the agents to intervene and determine whether it's useful or dangerous. (As a point of comparison, Coulson explains that the last 0-8-4 was Thor's hammer.) This time, it's off to Peru, where a strange piece of technology has been discovered in a Mayan temple. The device in question turns out to be based on the Tesseract — the favorite MacGuffin of the Marvel Universe, which served a pivotal role in both Captain America and The Avengers. It can also blow holes in airplanes.
Fortunately, this seemingly earth-shattering event turns out to be something the rookie agents can solve in an hour. (Forty-odd minutes if you shave off the commercials.) After being attacked by Peruvian rebels, our heroes escape with the weapon after receiving a little help from Agent Coulson's former ally and lover Camilla Reyes (guest star Leonor Varela, whom you probably remember as the first Marta on Arrested Development). Coulson brings Reyes and her soldiers onto his fancy new jet as the agents escort the weapon to a site for safe disposal and — in a plot twist that will shock anyone who’s forgotten how TV shows like this work — Reyes almost instantly double-crosses Coulson in an effort to secure the Tesseract weapon for herself.
"0-8-4" is all the more disappointing because it wastes a few good ideas. After last week's superhero-heavy outing, the episode wisely gives the agents a grounded, human-size villain in Camilla Reyes. Unfortunately, Reyes is also a total cipher, devoid of anything resembling nuance or personality, so she makes virtually no impression — a significant step backwards from last week's well-developed Michael Peterson, who spent the premiere walking the line between superhero and supervillain.
We also get to spend a little more time getting to know our ragtag band of heroes in "0-8-4"; some of them benefit from the extra spotlight, and some of them don't. Fitz and Simmons have had their accents adjusted from incomprehensible to charming since last week's episode, and Melinda May gets several new chances to show off why everyone remembers her as the Calvary (even if she'd really prefer you don't call her that). But Grant Ward — the cocky, quippy espionage expert introduced in last week's episode — has suddenly and inexplicably devolved into a dour asshole who spends most of his time complaining that everyone else on the team is in his way. Fortunately, the group manages to overcome its painfully contrived squabbling in time to save Agent Coulson and safely dispose of the Tesseract weapon at a classified S.H.I.E.L.D. base.
And while we're on the subject, Coulson is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s strongest link to the film series that spawned it, and there's a reason he's become such a fan-favorite character: His capable, ironic, slightly detached professionalism offered a nice human break from all the superheroics. But those cinematic appearances served as little more than cameos, and it's clear from the first two episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that the show's grasp on the character is flimsy at best. Coulson worked perfectly as a small side dish in the films, but if he's going to be the main course in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., he'll need a little more flavor and a lot more consistency as a character. Vague references to a past love affair and a collection of spy gadgets aren't going to cut it.
But for all the bluster of the episode's central story line, the most memorable scene in "0-8-4" took place at the very end of the episode. If you missed ABC's very, very transparent marketing campaign over the past couple of days, Samuel L. Jackson himself turned up at the very end of "0-8-4" as Nick Fury, in the TV equivalent of a post-credits cameo. It's a fun but pointlessly self-indulgent appearance in which he browbeats Coulson for destroying the jet. It's nice to see anything that strengthens Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s ties with the broader Marvel Universe, but if they only had Jackson for 30 seconds of screen time, I wish they'd found a way to do something more interesting with him — and in the meantime, I wonder if all these references to the film series are doing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. any favors in the comparison.
Don't get me wrong. Despite my disappointment in "0-8-4," I'm still fairly bullish on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Many terrific TV shows — The Shield, Justified, Fringe, even Joss Whedon's own Dollhouse — have started off with a string of mediocre one-off episodes before evolving into the tighter, deeper, more serialized dramas they should always have been anyway. It's not at all clear why Skye is still collaborating with the Anonymous-esque hacker group Rising Tide, but the revelation should fuel interesting new story lines and give Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. some badly needed subtext. Let's hope "0-8-4" turns out to be the TV equivalent of growing pains that help to turn Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. into the show it should be.
Let's hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- Skye wants to know if Agent Ward is reading The Hunger Games, which is apparently just as popular in the Marvel Universe. I wonder if anyone ever talks about how Mystique looks just like Jennifer Lawrence.
- How long until we get the rest of the story on Melinda May? Ward makes a reference to something that happened in Bahrain, and snipes sarcastically about how he's relieved to have a trusted friend watching his back. Did she leave an ally behind? Betray someone? Your guess is as good as mine.
- If you want to join the Agent Ward Book Club, he seems to be reading Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes. The New York Times Book Review called it "a brilliant account of war."
- "Exclusive look at Thor: The Dark World!" screamed the first commercial that aired during the episode. Marvel really has this synergy thing down cold.
- Last week's episode featured Cobie Smulders in a cameo as Maria Hill, and this week gave us Nick Fury. Maybe they're saving the Avengers for sweeps week.
- Don't forget to check back in for next week's recap, when Skye starts her official training as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in "The Asset."
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.