It pains me in ways I can not even begin to describe, but I must start this weeks missive with the issuing of my own heartfelt apologies. Thanks to some fat-head at central dispatch, my preview reels didn’t make it to the parcel post in time, and this correspondent was pressed, against all sense and better judgement, to join the ranks of the great unwashed in a visit to the cinematheque to peruse the inaugural double-bill presentation of ‘The Thrilling Peggy Carter Adventure Hour’. Hence the abominably late hour of this release. But let us not dwell. This eight part serial is a follow up to the feature length adventures of ‘Captain America, Sentinel of Liberty’, and is to precede the marvellous science-fiction stylings of the Adventures of the Agents of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. Following a brisk two and half hours of Pathé newsreels, the lamps dimmed, the score rose from the orchestra pit, and a feeling of tense expectation fell across the murmuring masses…
So here we are again, another Marvel cinematic universe TV tie-in, following a long way behind Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD which premiered back in 2013, and is now well into it’s second series. The show sees the return of characters from the first Captain America film, primarily Agent Peggy Carter herself (Hayley Atwell) and Tony Stark’s father, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), with the cast padded out by the addition of a young Edwyn Jarvis (James D’Arcy) and a variety of agents from SHIELD-precursor, the Strategic Science Reserve.
A seemingly strange choice to bring to television, with a lack of existing comic material to adapt, and limited opportunities to tie into the cinematic releases, the show’s apparent limitations could potentially be some of its main strengths. While Agents of SHIELD frequently finds itself having to tread water in-between big-screen events, and avoid tampering with the status quo lest a movie-only watcher be left in the cold, Agent Carter’s lack of connection to the present day might allow for more autonomy, and a greater sense of overall stakes. (Though within the confines of us knowing the when’s and where’s of the death of our two main characters, and a pretty certain knowledge that we’re leading up to the creation of SHIELD within the first couple of seasons).
The first thing that strikes me is how hard they work to remind us of the shows origins. The initial minute or two is filled with flashbacks to the original Captain America film from 2011, setting up Peggy’s relationship to Cap, their shared history with Howard Stark, and Steve’s apparent demise while ditching into the Arctic ocean following his fight with the Red Skull. It quickly becomes apparent why they took the time to do this, as the rest of the show feels so disconnected to the wider Marvel continuity.
I personally came into this with the Agent Carter and the Howling Commandos cameo on Agents of SHIELD fresh in my memory. It was a thrilling teaser, a glimpse at pre-SHIELD super-spies towards the end of World War II, and I was expecting more of the same. Disappointingly, they introduce us instead to what appears to be Peggy’s undercover identity, working for a phone company in post-war New York, nary a commando, howling or otherwise, in sight.
Things seem to perk up when we’re shown that she’s actually an undercover agent of the SSR, but quickly take a nose dive again when she’s portrayed as a glorified secretary, even within the secret agency. They’re clearly playing up a 40s sexism angle, but it doesn’t feel right for the character – Peggy’s fought alongside Captain America by this point, she’s met Super Villains, it’s a hard sell to try and believe that this is where she’d end up only one year later. We move from Peggy to the reintroduction of Howard Stark via some old-timey footage, setting up the wider story arc of the series. It’s okay, a fun idea, but without any real finesse in its execution. The only real stand out in these episodes is the introduction of Jarvis, Howard Stark’s Butler (Tony’s in the comics, but relegated to AI voice-over on the big screen). He’s set up to be the comedy foil for Carter, and plays it as straight as is possible, the right choice for squeezing the most fun out of the part. The fight choreography stands out as well, one nice instance being a scrappy kitchen-based combat scene reminiscent of the Opera-backed bathroom fight in the Thomas Jane Punisher movie.
Sadly, that’s where it ends for me and all in all, I found the show to be a pretty turgid experience. It’s most egregious offence is a lack of wit. It’s just not as snappy, funny, zany or screwball as it could, and should be. It’s not screaming ‘Marvel Universe’ at me either, there’s no costumed crazies, no made, exiled Nazi scientists… and where are the Howling Commandos? At least they’ve got some carry-over appeal from the books. I want to like this, I really do, it’s just that… well, it’s kind of boring. Everyone looks alike, everyone talks alike, nothing stands out more than anything else.
One interesting production choice that should work for me (though it doesn’t) is their decision to format the series along the lines of a pulp radio serial, with one rolling mystery/adventure story line revealing itself over the 8 episodes of season 1. As I’m not a massive fan of the traditional monster-of-the-week set-up I should find this appealing, but there’s something not quite working – some unsettling quality coming from the lack of an episodic structure; episodes just seems to finish out of the blue, without a satisfactory conclusion or wrap-up. I find myself wishing they’d embraced the ‘thrilling adventure hour’ format that they repeatedly reference and poke fun at, more wholeheartedly. Ending each chapter on a wacky Batman-66-esque ‘Will they survive?’ cliffhanger would really add some much needed fun.
I’ll keep watching of course, for now. Maybe it’s suffering from that dreaded modern affliction of ‘writing for the trade’ and will play better in one sitting. But as far as first impressions go, I’m left feeling that Marvel should probably leave the TV to DC.