Monday Morning Critic: Is Marvel’s ‘Agent Carter’ Any Good?
Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
In this week’s installment: three reviews of three upcoming premieres.
In the past, I’ve taken an approach towards pilots that I will occasionally deploy here in the ‘MMC’: The 5 Questions And 500 Words approach. The title pretty much serves as a descriptor: Instead of overloading both you the reader and I the critic with an avalanche of words about all major pilots about to premiere, I’ll cut to the chase as quickly as possible in order to save you time and me some sanity. It’s hopefully a win-win situation. With that in mind, here are three such reviews about showing premiering over the next seven days.
‘Agent Carter’ premieres with two episodes this Tuesday, January 6, at 8 pm EST on ABC
Does one have to be a Marvel aficionado to enjoy this series?
Given the box office for entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I’m not sure there are few non-Marvel fans left. But in short: No, this is a fine entry point for anyone looking for a new series in the January doldrums. The first few minutes set up Peggy Carter’s basic story, and from there, it’s primarily a post-WWII spy show that happens to exist in the Marvel Universe. Fans of Marvel will catch lots of Easter eggs, but those are ancillary to enjoying the show.
I’m not exactly a fan of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ How does this show compare to that one?
I’m not exactly a big fan of ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.’ either, but I would say ‘Agent Carter’ compares favorably. For one thing, this eight-episode run seems to have a single story in mind, and all energies are spent towards that one thing. That gives the show a focus that ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.’ sorely lacked until episodes that aired after ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier,’ at which point almost all good will that show possessed had already evaporated.
So you’re saying it’s good?
I’m saying it’s better than ‘Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.,’ which I realize is damning the show with faint praise. But let’s be clear: Hayley Atwell is fantastic here as Peggy Carter, and every moment’s she’s onscreen (especially with James D’Arcy as Howard Stark’s butler Jarvis) crackles with energy, life, and intelligence. But the show’s insistence on focusing on one eight-hour mystery means there are lots of scenes involving ridiculous amounts of exposition, often deployed by the male members of the Strategic Scientific Reserve. So be ready for a lot of Chad Michael Murray telling Agent Carter that there ain’t no place for dames in the SSR, and other fun bouts of sexism deployed at Carter’s expense.
But you’re not saying the show is sexist, right?
Oh heck no. The show paints these men as idiots that don’t recognize Carter’s value and skill. But this just means we’ll get eight episodes of a slow thaw in their perspective, which when coupled with the season-long mystery leads to a lot of stalling on the way towards a fairly predetermined ending. That would be fine if the characters were compelling, but through the two episodes made available, only Atwell and D’Arcy remotely stand out. Even Enver Gjokaj, so good on ‘Dollhouse,’ is lost in the mix here.
Still, it’s an eight-episode show. How much character time could the show possibly spend?
Tons! The idea that limited-run seasons/series have to focus on plot over character is a false binary. There are plenty of interesting things that ‘Agent Carter’ could be about another chase for glowing objects (and trust me, there are glowing objects galore). It’s a fantastic period in which to set a television program, regardless of its connection to the larger MCU. There’s nothing that says life inside an all-women’s hotel (where Peggy ends up taking residence) need be any less compelling than a close-quarters round of fisticuffs. And while the action in ‘Agent Carter’ is plenty exciting, eight hours is still an eternity if the material between those bouts is subpar. There’s a germ of a really good show here, if only ‘Agent Carter’ (and by extension, Marvel) would just get out of the way and let Atwell, not the special effects, take the true lead.
‘Empire’ premieres this Wednesday, January 7, at 9 pm EST on FOX.
What’s the basic gist of this series?
Music mogul Luscious Lyon (Terrence Howard) receives life-altering news that leads him to announce to his three sons that one of them will soon take over his business. If this sounds Shakespearean, don’t worry: One of the sons invokes ‘King Lear’ almost immediate after the series’ hook is announced. At the same time, Luscious’ ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) gets out of jail to claim her share of the business and potentially unveil some of Luscious’ less-than-noble means of rising to the top.
Is it worth checking out?
I’d say ‘yes,’ but with a few qualifications. Primarily, this show suffers from “pilot-itis,” that debilitating condition in which there is so much plot shoved into the program’s initial installment that trying to predict what ‘Empire’ will be on a weekly basis is all-but-impossible at this stage. I could tell you that a lot of the pilot’s problems will disappear once the show gets into the busy work of deploying narrative on a weekly basis now that the premise has been established. But that would be complete conjecture on my part.
What are the good parts of the pilot?
Having Howard and Henson lead this show buys ‘Empire’ a lot of good will, as these two have chemistry to burn and Henson in particular has an absolute blast eating up the screen as the over-the-top Cookie. However, she’s far from a one-note diva: There’s one storyline in particular that gives both shading to her character as well as the show’s most compelling moments.
Can you give more information about that without spoiling the show?
All three of the brothers up for eventual ownership of the company are already involved in the business. Two of them are artists. One member of that pair is gay. And ‘Empire’ does a particularly amazing job of depicting the homophobia that suffuses both this family and the hip-hop world in general. It’s so potently dealt with so immediately that it overshadows almost everything else, and thus puts the rest of the pilot in a semi-bad light. Can ‘Empire’ make the rest of the show this good? I have no idea, but I’m certainly curious to find out.
So you’ll watch more?
Absolutely! Had FOX made more episodes available, I would have readily consumed them. Again: this isn’t a perfect pilot at all, and there’s some incredible messiness throughout. But as with ‘Agent Carter,’ there are hints of a great show underneath all the busy work, and I’m curious to see if ‘Empire’ can transcend its pilot or succumb to its weaknesses. There’s enough talent on both sides of the camera here to give this program the benefit of the doubt, but I’d be lying if I said doubt didn’t exist at this point.
‘Togetherness’ premieres this Sunday, January 11, at 9:30 pm EST on HBO.
This looks a lot like FX’s ‘Married,’ but with the possibility of more nudity. How accurate is this assessment?
Not very, although you’d be hard-pressed to know that judging from the promos. The Duplass brothers (Jay and Mark, who have a hand in writing/directing every episode) bring their particular sensibilities to this eight-episode season, all of which were made available for review. Whereas both ‘Married’ and ‘Togetherness’ share stories about thirty-something married couples and their odd group of friends, I’d say ‘Togetherness’ brings a deeper sense of melancholy and cinematic flair to the proceedings. Having an entire season to review makes the show’s deeper themes become much more apparent.
You’re just throwing shade at ‘Empire,’ aren’t you?
Nope, but I would say that I was much more bullish on ‘Togetherness’ with each subsequent episode, and having seen the entire season I can give my stamp of approval without reservation or any of the usual asterisks. Being wrong about shows, in both positive and negative reviews, is a part of the business. And the basic/premium cable methods of production certainly differ wildly from major networks. But why you see so many critics able to write so much about cable shows stems from the sheer amount of episodes often made available for review. This doesn’t necessarily lead to more positive reviews, but certainly leads to better-informed reviews.
Can you stop talking about criticism and get back to talking about ‘Togetherness’?
Yes, sorry about that. It’s a show about stasis, about the ruts people get into, and how it can feel rude to dare even think about being happier than one is. That’s a totally pretentious way to discuss what’s essentially an open-hearted show about fundamentally screwed up people, but that’s really what this eight-episode season is all about. It can be alternatively sweet, bitter, ethereal, hopeful, pessimistic, romantic, sexy, and crushing. I may or may not have been shouting about something that happened late in the season, even though I was praying for it early on. It’s a show that sneaks up on you rather than present its power in an overt manner.
Any cast standouts?
Melanie Lynskey and Steve Zissis steal the show from Mark Duplass (who stars in addition to his other roles) and Amanda Peet, although all four are uniformly excellent. While ‘Togetherness’ by design withholds some of Duplass’ and Peet’s best scenes until the end of the season, Lynskey and Zissis are fantastic from moment one, and lend most of the heart and heartbreak throughout. John Ortiz also plays a crucial role that makes goodness seem like the sexiest quality a person could ever have.
But…it’s a comedy, right?
There are laughs, but they are gentle ones, by design. This isn’t meant to make audiences burst into laughter. The best parts of ‘Togetherness’ actually feel disjointed in the moment but feel part of a larger tapestry when viewed from afar. A well-coordinated air drum solo, a surprise game in a park, a shouting match in an outdoor shower, and competitive line-dancing all add up to something much larger as a whole. ‘Togetherness’ is about the small moments that accumulate weight over time. That makes TV the perfect medium in which to tell this particular story of these particular characters.