Thursday, November 28, 2013

Almost Sleepy Agents

Ask me six months ago what new show I'd be most excited about watching every week and I would have said Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. without hesitation. Ask me today, and it's a different story.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is set in the shared continity universe of the Marvel Studio movies that include Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. Lead by Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), whose first appearance in Iron Man cemented him into the Marvel universe, the team is made up of two highly skilled field agents, Melinda May and Grant Ward, two scientists, Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons, and a civilian computer hacker and activist, Skye. They operate out of a mobile command centre in the form of a huge retrofitted cargo plane, stamped with the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo everywhere.

References to the movies are natural and common, with mentions of the greater organisation beyond Coulson's team dropped in regularly. While the series is unable to have regular cameos from the principle actors from the various movies, there have been some nice surprises, including Cobie Smulders in the pilot reprising her role as Agent Maria Hill, that give us hope that Robert Downy Jr. or Chris Evans might drop by for a chat in a later episode.

I'm really enjoying S.H.I.E.L.D. I understood from the before the pilot aired that I should expect something closer to Warehouse 13, and I'm loving that that is what we have. Some people are dissappointed that there aren't super-powered beings leaping all over the screen in every episode, but it's a TV series! And the first season. They don't have the budget to do that. Instead, the team investigate strange artifacts or weapons, and occasionally run into someone with powers.

The cast is strong, and the characters are becoming more defined. The writing is clever and sharp, and there's some great dialogue among all the action and tension. And in true Joss Wheadon fashion, there's a deeper mystery at work for the fans to follow and ponder over. Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is lots of fun, and some great weekly viewing.

But it's not my favourite show right now.

Originally, I pretty much ignored Sleepy Hollow outright. I disliked the premise: Injured in his own time, Ichabod Crane wakes up in the modern world and has to defeat the Headless Horseman in a strange, new land. It just didn't sound particularly inventive. But people kept telling me great things about the series, and then Claire started hearing about it and growing interested. Only one male caucasian on the main cast (two, if we assume Headless is one two, I guess), and, pretty early on, the writing staff realised what the fans knew from the seccond episode: Ichabod isn't the main character, it's Lt. Abbie Mills, Ichabods police officer friend who has seen and knows more than she's willing to admit.

So we tried out the first episode, and we both loved it! It's clever, very funny, and wonderfully cast. Ichabod reacts to the modern world in a real way, obsessing over electric windows and the number of Starbuck's within a block of each other. Big things like cars and computers seem almost too much for his brain to handle, so he focuses on the smaller changes, and it's wonderful. At one point, he's handed a pistol for his own protection and told "It's works just like the old ones. Point and shoot." I immediately smiled at the important fact that Abbie took for granted, and, sure enough, after firing once, Ichabod throws the gun away, thinking it spent. A great moment, well crafted.

The show is suitably creepy for it's source material. It's never gorey or downright scarey. It's just that subtle find of creepy that sends shives down your spine and leaves you wanting more, but maybe tomorrow, or next week. The end of the pilot is especially shiver-inducing. If you're a fan of the Dresden Files series of urban fantasy novels by Jim Butcher, then you'll understand when I say that the thing in the mirror at the end of Sleepy Hollow's pilot is how I imagine He Who Walks Behind should be portrayed in a movie or proper series adaptation.

Plus, Sleepy Hollow has Orlando Jones as Captain Irving (a nice nod to Washington Irving, author of the original poem), and he's always great to watch.

And then there's Almost Human, a sci-fi series filmed here in Vancouver staring Karl Urban as Det. Kennex and Michael Ealy as his android partner, Dorian. Rather like Sleepy Hollow, I was unimpressed with the lack of creativity from the trailer for this show. A human cop is injured and his partner killed when their police android decides that they are not a priority based on mission parameters. This leads to him hating on androids, bu being forced to work with one as an active officer. He's given a "defective" unit, an older model that displays too much emotion, and they bond. It sounds like something one of those automated plot generators would spit out:

He's a white cop with an artificial leg who hates androids. He's a black android who feels too much emotion. They fight crime!

And it does hit a lot of the generic clich├ęs: A tough but kind hearted older female superior officer, a young, sexy collegue, a rival officer who thinks the main character is a has-been, and who thinks of androids as lifeless tools, and even a missing ex-girlfriend who may or may not be mixed up in something bigger.

It sounds like it should be unwatchable, but they pull it off. For one thing, it's fun. The banter between Kennex and Dorian is well written and delivered, and I especially liked the discussions on life, love and death from episode two. The "Stop scanning my testicles" was a great character moment between the two. I like their view of a future that is "normal", not a dystopian nightmare, or a utopian paradise, but a world of hope and crime in a big city. The ills of the world have not been solved, but we haven't degenerated into chaos either.

Almost Human is a fun show to switch off and woatch. It has a lot of heart for a sci-fi action show, and, as suggested by the title, it takes a bit of time to discuss the line between human and not human in a world where androids can be programed to be "too human", a "condition" that causes that line, the DRNs, to be discontinued and shelved in favour of more conventional models. I'm really looking forward to seeing more from this series, and hope we at least get a season or two out of it. I think it has glimmers of the fantastic within it's first two episodes, and has a whole lot of potential beneath it's skin. Also, someone must have written fan fiction of how Almost Human is the setup world for Battlestar Galactica![1]

Agent's of S.H.I.E.L.D., Sleepy Hollow and Almost Human are all on my weekly viewing, each providing it's own style of entertainment and surprise. If I had to pick one fo the three to recommend, I think it would be Sleepy Hollow right now, though Almost Human has the potential to usurp that given a few episodes of development. Maybe it's my levels of expectation versus my levels of enjoyment on viewing, but S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn't left me as excited as the other two shows after each episode. It's still a great show, and I'll be watching every episode, I just think the others, for now, are a little greater.

[1] - I'd love to see one of the BSG Final Five actors appear in Almost Human as one of the creators of the androids, with another appearing as the programmer for the too human DRN line! Actually... excuse me a minute. I have something to start writing...

1 comment:

ria rua said...

I absolutely agree. Even though I am really enjoying Shield - I love the characters - but each episode seems to fall just short of something amazing.

I watched the first two episodes of Sleepy Hollow and really liked it, but I think Almost Human is my favourite show at the moment. I simply love the interaction between Dorian and John. If the show keeps up like this it has the potential to go a long time.

I'm also watching Once upon a Time. The first season was amazing. The second not so much, but if you have a few spare afternoons season 1 is worth checking out.