"Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." should round up all the Joss Whedon stragglers.
His creations raised the bar for teen dramas ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), elevated science fiction ("Firefly") and upended the horror formula ("The Cabin in the Woods"). Then he got hold of Marvel's stable of superheroes and made them fun again.
Last summer's "The Avengers," which ended up as the third-biggest movie ever, introduced millions to the sensibilities of Hollywood's most powerful nerd (besides J.J. Abrams). Now, that movie's small-screen spinoff arrives Tuesday on network TV in prime time with no vampires, spaceships, zombies or Gwyneth Paltrow. No scares, gross-outs or complex mythology. No excuses.
"Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." does carry over some favorite faces from "The Avengers," including the steadfast Agent Hill ("How I Met Your Mother" actress Cobie Smulders), still striding confidently through the hallways of the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division.
"Welcome to Level Seven," she tells Agent Ward (Brett Dalton), who has just been called up to the big leagues. He's cocky and in over his head, but he grasps the agency's mission: "We're the line between the world and the much weirder world."
And because the world witnessed the Avengers' coming-out party, now called the Battle of New York, that line is constantly shifting. Paired with the endearing self-awareness and cerebral nods to pop culture Whedon brings to his best projects, it's the perfect setup for fall's most promising new TV show.
Because Disney bought the rights to Marvel's "Avengers" franchise three years ago, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." (that title is really annoying to type, by the way) landed on ABC. The Mouse House obviously sank some resources into the show, but skeptics wondered whether it was possible to make a superhero series on a small-screen, Mickey Mouse budget.
This is no "cosplay" convention: Samuel L. Jackson will not be showing up in an eye patch. Luckily for ABC -- and anyone who had to look up the word "cosplay" -- "S.H.I.E.L.D." isn't a superhero show. Despite being network-pretty to the last drop, its heroes are all Jason Bourne and no Jar-Jar Binks.
S.H.I.E.L.D. came into play in the first "Iron Man" movie, with Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) begging for a sit-down with Tony Stark. Gregg's performance made Coulson the Marvel universe's favorite bureaucrat; he appeared in "Iron Man 2," "Thor" and "The Avengers," where his death galvanized the good guys. So it's a surprise to see Coulson walking around alive on TV.
"I did stop breathing," he insists. (Yes, that's what we remember seeing.) His return required more than fancy off-screen CPR, but Hill's whisper of "he can never know!" behind his back tables the discussion.
Agents Ward and Hill are part of Coulson's team tasked with finding the "unregistered gifted" -- humans with superpowers who are literally flying under the radar. When one freelancer catapults several stories into a burning building to save a woman trapped inside, breaks the sidewalk with his landing and runs off unharmed, a smartphone video of the rescue goes viral faster than sleepwalking kittens.
To track down the hacker group behind that footage going public, S.H.I.E.L.D. calls on Fitz and Simmons, lab-coated gadget-pushers fulfilling the role of James Bond's Q with a quippy Chip-and-Dale dynamic. Coulson even cajoles his reluctant martial arts go-to gal, Agent May (Ming-Na Wen), back into the field.
Eventually, they locate a brainy blogger named Skye (Chloe Bennet), who lives off the grid in her van. Defiant, she accuses her interrogators of covering up "Project Centipede." When that term elicits nothing but blank stares, she realizes, "You don't know what that is." Of course, they're about to find out.
According to Whedon, the model for "S.H.I.E.L.D." is a beloved episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" titled "The Zeppo," which focused on a character's tangential storyline while the rest of the "Scooby Gang" prevented the apocalypse in the background.
"S.H.I.E.L.D." doesn't land far from "Buffy" territory, where baby sitters and British bachelors guarded the gateway to hell, or Marvel's "X-Men," where the benevolent mutants teamed up against the interesting ones, or even "Men in Black."
But as far as fictional government agencies go, S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't even that shadowy -- its unwieldy acronym appears on black SUVs and even megaphones. Instead of a spy story, "S.H.I.E.L.D." is shaping up to be an action-packed, out-of-the-box procedural.
Whedon is handing over the keys to his brother and sister-in-law, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, who worked together on "Dollhouse" and delivered the last two seasons of "Spartacus" for Starz. If the pilot hasn't oversold us on production values that will plummet later, the show should be able to avoid the disappointing downturn that NBC's "Revolution" suffered after "Iron Man" director Jon Favreau turned in a great first episode.
Despite being Marvel's flagship live-action TV show, "S.H.I.E.L.D." is more likely to generate catchphrases than Halloween costumes. The first hour ends with the show's first "gifted" subject physically and emotionally devastated, surveying the ruins of his former life. "It's a disaster," someone tells him.
"No," he says. "It's an origin story."