ABC’s troubles with Agents of SHIELD are well-known, having seen its viewership cut in half since its fall 2013 debut. With such a spectre behind it, one has to wonder if ABC’s second Marvel TV series has anything going for it.
Style and Concept, Both Fresh and Old
Three episodes in, Agent Carter is a more focused series that centers on a single protagonist without the reliance on globe-shattering conflict. The show’s namesake, Peggy Carter (played by Hayley Atwell), is a British agent working for the American Strategic Science Reserve (SSR). Set in 1946, Carter’s employment consists of secretarial duties in a male-chauvinistic environment; but she finds an exciting catalyst when wanted industrialist Howard Stark (played Dominic Cooper) enlists her to help clear his name from the suspicion of treason.
Formulaic, Yet Polished
Each of Carter’s episodic adventures adds a piece to a bigger puzzle of a larger conspiracy, which is seamlessly accomplished without diluting the excitement of each episode.
The series spins off from Captain America, taking place soon after the hero’s supposed demise in the first film. Carter was a former love-interest of ol’ Cap, and the aftermath of his disappearance plays into the agent’s emotional struggle.
Fortunately, the series does not dwell in soapiness, relying on detective-work and action to keep the viewer’s attention. In this sense, Agent Carter evokes the old investigative serials of the 1930s and ’40s – an uncommon formula in this day and age.
That leads us to the show’s key advantages over its sibling, Agents of SHIELD.
For starters, the new series enjoys the visual allure of a past epoch, with a stylistic nod to film noir that in itself does wonders, providing a nostalgic setting that instills richness and depth. The music, fashion, and cityscape all cast a fine vintage glow that you don’t find in The Vampire Diaries, NCIS, or CSI-Whatever.
Second, Carter doesn’t contend with the same expectations that SHIELD suffered. Audiences expected to see monumental action, recognizable supervillains, and cameos from the franchise’s movie icons–all impractical for television. Carter is more down-to-earth with a heroine who relies on human prowess than superhuman power. Audiences wanted Agents of SHIELD to be Avengers TV; when it wasn’t, they drove away. No one expects that kind of unrealistic scale with this show. If anything, Agent Carter’s ornate setting, superb editing, and thrilling sequences show a refinement above expectation.
Another advantage is the fact Agent Carter is driven by a single character, as opposed to a whole team. Agent Carter is more than an aesthetic throwback to an earlier era: she is an iron-willed, intelligent, and noble sleuth in line with the comic detectives of yore. Actually, you may consider Carter superior to Philip Marlowe in that she’s, well, a three-dimensional personality instead of someone flat and drab.
Having a plot this centralized means not having to disperse energy on a wide cast of characters. Agents of SHIELD invested multiple episodes developing a somewhat-interesting cast. Carter achieves this with one.
Storm Clouds Ahead
There are signs of trouble, however. Rave reviews aside, Agent Carter’s ratings are nothing to gloat about. Given the cost of a period action show, Carter will need to maintain that modest viewership just to have a chance of survival.
It’d be a shame to see a show as polished and refreshing as this to vanish so soon, but the big networks are desperate for numbers.
As a result, we may end up having a well-written program go extinct in favor of another iteration of The Bachelor – and that would be the real loss.