Hayley Atwell Is Magnetic, But Marvel’s Agent Carter Is Not a Marvel

Photo: Michael Desmond/ABC

It's 1946. The war is over, the lapels are wide, the stockings have seams, and the sexism is a part of everyday office life. And Captain America's girlfriend is very sad, but also very cool! She can kick ass — if only someone would let her. But instead of getting to be high commander of ass-kickings and being glam, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is stuck doing secretarial work and being harassed. She hates it, but luckily her friend Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) needs help, and the only way to do that is for Peggy to go double-agent on her work at the Strategic Science Reserve. She agrees, and off we go.

Marvel's Agent Carter, premiering tonight at 8 p.m. on ABC, is a companion piece of sorts to Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., itself a companion piece to all the Marvel movies you may or may not have seen. The show is theoretically understandable without any knowledge of the Marvel universe, but I can't picture the circumstances under which someone who has never otherwise participated in watching any of these many, many options would somehow decide that Agent Carter would be his or her entrée into that world. In any case, Atwell herself is magnetic onscreen, and there's plenty going on in the first two episodes: Boo, all those guys in her office underestimate her. Eek, a phony-baloney-looking glowing orb is locked in a safe. Oy, a bad guy is so bad that "he doesn't have a name anymore." Pow, she whacks a guy with a briefcase. Bzzz, she knows how to use lots of tools. Gasp, she is just outsmarting everyone.

Give me pulp or wit or dazzling tension. Give me humor and sex appeal and a distinctive aesthetic. Give me women to believe in. And Agent Carter does — but in the opposite of droves. It has all the things I'd like in a show but none of the energy to hold them together. Agent Carter needs to do what it does a lot more, whether it's commit harder (or ... with more money) to the production design or allowing characters to express emotions. The "surprises" are not surprising, and the fight sequences lack the imagination of Chuck or Alias. Throughout the episodes, I kept wondering when the real show would kick in, the real potency and sensibility, and it never did. It's a too-wimpy showerhead or a shoe missing its insoles. It gets the job done, but is that really how you want to live?

Maybe so, and there are worse ways to do it than with Agent Carter. But watching the first two episodes felt like being on a well-intentioned but fruitless blind date. Yep, she's smart and cool and gorgeous, but nope, I don't want to go out with her again. And yes, I really tried: I watched both episodes ABC made available to critics, and in the interest of being a good sport, I watched the pilot twice, hoping to develop some kind of spark, because it's probably more about me than her that this show left me cold. I don't have any ill will toward Agent Carter, and if someone told me they really liked it and couldn't believe I didn't, I wouldn't even be incredulous. I'd be happy for them, this person and the show, that they found each other. It takes all kinds.