“Well short of Marvel-ous”
I read somewhere, that this was Marvel’s 20th media entry, between films, TV series, etc. and the very first to feature a female lead. To be blunt: it shows. Just because your series is set in the forties, does not mean it also has to perpetuate the attitudes of the time: the tagline for the teaser was “Sometimes the best man for the job…is a woman”, which is about four decades past its expiration date. Another example: right the way through to the end, the opening, “previously on” montage included a clip of Carter being told to answer the phones, even though it was entirely irrelevant to proceedings. But it does showcase the attitude present through the entire show, which felt almost apologetic about the entire concept. The series itself was basically a throwaway, feeling like a token gesture, given not even half of a regular order, being given a mere eight episodes to be shoe-horned into the schedules while Agents of SHIELD was on winter hiatus.
Given this short run, you’d think the makers would have wanted to trim all the excess fat off their storyline, especially since the period setting should free it up from the tiresome apparent need to tie all contemporary Marvel features into the same “universe”. Ah, but no. Instead, we get a lengthy thread, particularly in the first half of the series, focusing on Tony Stark’s dad, to the extent that Carter felt like a supporting player in her own show, just as she was in the Captain America films. Really, as someone who is not a “Marvel fan”, who can take or leave their product [The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy were both forgettably alright, and I bailed on Agents of SHIELD after a few episodes], I could give a damn. I was looking for a standalone story, not one that spent half its time apparently trying to tie itself to the apron-strings of other media entities. This may help explain why the show’s ratings plummeted, losing about 30% of its live audience by episode four.
That’s a bit of a shame, because it did actually improve over the second half. We got less of the “Hey, look! It’s a woman! In the forties! Doing stuff! Isn’t that just amazing!” attitude, and she actually got to investigate a genuine threat, rather than helping Stark’s butler bail his employer’s ass out. This uncovers a Soviet plot to train young girls as sleeper agents for embedding in the United States, which leads in turn to a plan to release a poisonous gas which induces murderous psychosis in those exposed to it, back in Times Square. This was much more interesting and entertaining, and it’s just a shame the show didn’t get there sooner, while the short order meant it ended abruptly thereafter, with nothing except a coda that I presume was some kind of inside reference. making sense to those familiar with the inhabitants of the Marvel universe. Which would not be me, so the only reaction it provoked was “It’s the Dream Lord from Doctor Who“, and I imagine that was not the intended effect.
The main reason to keep watching the show was Atwell, who fit the lead character like a white leather glove. She brought an immense degree of likeability to the role, and not having seen her in the Captain America films was not a problem at all. D’Arcy, as Stark’s manservant, Edwin Jarvis, also brought the right sense of outraged propriety to his role, and the pair had a decent quality of chemistry together, without the show needing to shoehorn in any unresolved sexual tensions. [Indeed, the lack of any real romantic interest for Carter was a plus, even if it was mostly because she was still pining for the missing Captain America] But beyond those two, and Bridget Regan as Dottie Underwood, a strong female antagonist, the supporting cast was largely forgettable. All the men with whom she worked at the SSR were basically interchangeable suits, and even Lyndsey Fonseca, who was Alexandra Udinov in Nikita, was given nothing much of significance to do in her role as a waitress who befriends Peggy.
The action, as you’d expect, was also very solid: particular highlights I remember include an excellent brawl in a diner, and a thrilling chase aboard a truck loaded with an explosive chemical. Atwell more than held her own in this aspect, showing why her colleagues’ relentless and repetitively dismissive attitude of Agent Carter rang false. But whether there will be a second series or not remains in doubt, with ratings that were short of the show for which it was standing in. Despite not having enjoyed this one very much, I’m still pulling for it, because there’s a severe shortage of action heroines on television at the moment and luke-warm success is better than nothing at all. Though I desperately wanted to love this, I couldn’t, and can only hope for better from A.K.A. Jessica Jones, due to premiere on Netflix later this year. Perhaps Marvel will learn from the missteps here, and present us with a heroine truly worthy of the name.
Star: Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Chad Michael Murray, Enver Gjokaj