I understand that Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has fans. I'm just not one of them. I tried to give the show a chance, but - well, I'll get into that later. Anyway, I don't want to antagonize those fans - and frankly, tonight's episode gives me less reason to anyway.
Explaining why and how involves spoilers, so - you've been warned.
I've seen a few episodes and they struck me as very formulaic and, well, shall we say "procedural." I also want to note that there's nothing wrong with this, if, like anything else, it's executed properly. House (at least prior to Season 6 and especially the final season) remains in my mind one of the best, shining examples of how the static "procedural" format can in fact be fresh, engaging and dynamic (in fact it's when the show started going off the rails from that format is when it started to lose quality). The Law & Order franchise in fact wove the procedural format into its very storytelling core to where the "procedure" in fact was the story, and those stories were gripping and visceral at its height.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't the best example of the fine line between the procedural format and falling into a dry formula, but it nonetheless tends to fall towards the latter. Reviewers across the 'net (say, TV Club for example) have complained about the relatively small feel of the stakes being raised in every episode. That's frankly a patented ridiculous criticism - if the stakes were always high, then it would feel just as, if not even more formulaic. It's whether or not the stakes (or for that matter, the plot) feel as if it matters, and tonight's episode is a shining example of stakes that are globally small but personally high.
Of course, I'm talking about Agent Coulson and his apparent resurrection from the "Battle of New York" (a.k.a. Marvel's The Avengers), the character and event this show was sold as being entirely built around. Instead what we got was the "Monster of the Week" forumla that failed to compel me. Usually this "Monster of the Week" forumla involved the Agents chasing a very vaguely defined bad guy/threat (said bad guy's ability to be a threat being clearly defined, but rarely beyond that) and then going through a bunch of steps to contain said threat, sometimes in a rather bungled way (the episode where they chase who they initially thought had ESP has a particularly awful scene where the characters can't figure out that in image of a van they're watching is their own van). Once again there have been exceptions to this - the "bad guy" with the EXTREMIS virus (from Iron Man 3) was a really effective, well-developed, sympathetic threat (perhaps explaining why he apparently makes a brief appearance in tonight's episode). It doesn't even have to be the episode's villain - someone, or at least something, would benefit the show by giving a story worth telling.
Agent Coulsons' resurrection certainly qualifies. We finally get the specific story we've been waiting for all this time, and it's by no means a bad one. In the process we learn more about Agent Coulson's character - not a lot, but in fact enough to tease us for future promise. We learn that Director Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. aren't entirely clean (readers of the Marvel comics, especially Ultimates, will already be nodding their heads in anticipated agreement). Perhaps most interestingly is that we get even just a hint of the motivations behind "The Woman in the Flower Dress" - and it's not entirely made of complete evil or aspirations for world domination. In fact, once again, we only learn enough about her to deepen the mystery further. It's not a complete story, and that's the point, because now we're excited to learn the rest of it. We finally have a carrot and a stick we care about instead of just chasing random people in a boring, bungled manner.
Of course, the episode doesn't exactly shed the show's problems either. Skye's storyline and involvement in the plot is improved at least in avoiding being boring, and I thought was actually halfway clever. It works for this episode but they need to develop her character and involvement further because, well, not every episode can be a Coulson episode (especially with Chloe Bennett's billing). Ward still makes Star Trek: The Next Genration's Data look like Mister Congeniality for All Eternity (though his fight scenes were pretty awesome - and on that note May punching the Woman in the Flower Dress was actually funny, as it honestly should've been); and the two science dweebs (sorry, but that's the most appropriate name I can think of them) are still annoying and practically nothing more but a pair of actors hired to serve as props that can also spout exposition. In fact almost every scene involving straight-up exposition was boring (that's another big problem the show has, since it tends to have quite a bit of exposition). Oh, and the Baroness rip-off and her goons? Can someone explain to me what the hell they were even doing in the episode (especially since Skye ended up doing all the heavy lifting)?
But anyway, if the show can keep this up then maybe there's hope for a Season 3 or even 4. Maybe there's even hope that I'll actually start watching it every week.