Dominant as Marvel Studios have been on the movie landscape the past decade or so — without a doubt, the success of their model of narrative interconnectivity has completely transformed how most of commercial filmmaking works — their ride has been far more wobbly on the television side. The entertainment conglomerate’s first true foray into small screen fare, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., may be heading —shockingly — into its fifth season, but no one mistakes it for a sensation or anything more than a modest success, artistically or in terms of its ratings. Similarly, the bevy of Netflix shows mining the comic book publisher’s stable of darker, more street-level heroes have met with a decidedly mixed reception.
A major contributor to the problem is a sense of undue seriousness, which primarily manifests as an overt commitment to heaping melodrama. Most of the series give off an aura of ponderous gloom, even when delivering some snappy moments and appealing characters. As they stretch on, those qualities are further burdened by compounding convolution, which make the various storylines instantly exhausting.
There is one Marvel live-action show that strayed from this norm, becoming, in my eyes anyway, the studio’s clearest creative success in the series format. Of course, it’s also the one ongoing series that has officially faced the dreaded judgment of cancellation.
Although Agent Carter aped the origin of Agents in S.H.I.E.L.D. in spinning off directly from the Marvel movies, it was different in every other substantive way. The show picked up with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) shortly after the events of Captain America: The First Avenger, so it was set in the years immediately following World War II. It followed her as she began work with the Strategic Scientific Reserve — the precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D. — facing down adversaries fighting for the forces of evil even as she had to contend will colleagues who caused a whole other set of hardships through their era-appropriate withering sexism.
Agent Carter was flawed in its first season, but it had its strengths, chief among them the performance of Atwell. She took a character who sometimes struggled to transcend the plucky love interest trope in her film introduction and made her into a layered figure, strong-willed but also vulnerable, all without succumbing to cliche. And the series had a point of view. Underneath the eager cash-in motivation, it was gratifyingly purposeful.
In the second season, the creators of Agent Carter expertly retained what was already strong in the show and showed they’d been paying close attention to what they’d be. They downplayed the more muddled through lines and accentuated the smaller portions that proved winning. This working methodology practically bangs pans together and announces itself as the most logical approach for any showrunners to employ as a series progresses, but its amazing how often the opposite tack is taken, including, it must be said, by many of the other Marvel outings.
Peggy was liberated from the more dour environs of the first season’s New York City setting and whisked off to sunny California, a shift orchestrated with the ease of giving her a West Coast case to work. Since the Marvel movie mythos had already established Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) as a Howard Hughes avatar, it was similarly simple to wind Peggy’s exploits into the land of Hollywood, setting her against a megalomaniacal movie star named Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett).
The change of scenery was already enough to give Atwell more zingy moments to play, letting her be loose and charming as well as strident and strong. To further facilitate that, the second season gave plenty of screen time to Peggy’s interactions with Jarvis (James D’Arcy), devoted butler to Howard Stark. Again, this was no flailing attempt at ginning up some choice material. Atwell and D’Arcy demonstrated marvelous chemistry in their comparatively limited interactions in the first season. Collaborative showrunners Tara Butters, Michele Fazekas, and Chris Dingess recognized and exploited a good thing.
In the earlier season, Agent Carter could feel a little bound to its period setting without fully taking advantage of its possibilities. After the retro sets were built and the smashing costumes draped over the actors, there was little else to truly distinguish it as a piece of a fine fictional past. That’s also corrected in the second season, as the old Hollywood glamor is further stirred up by bullish gangsters straight of the film noir gems of the era. The show embraced and adapted the more stylish sensibility of the earlier creative era, giving it more texture, even if the obvious budget limitations meant there could only be so much panache to the visuals. Still, the tribute was pure and warm, as best exemplified by a dream sequence dance number that played out the various conflicts Peggy was going through.
That willingness to play around — to upend expectations just slightly, as if inviting the audience in on the joke rather than trying to leave them rattled — was fully representative of one of the most vital qualities elevating the whole season. Agent Carter operated with a crackling joy at dressing up boundless imagination with just enough plausibility. In other words, the show felt like a really great old school Marvel comic book, right down to the jaunty pseudo-science built around goofy, imposing contraptions.
Once more acknowledging that I’m about to deliver a compliment that indicates more creator thinking that should be commonplace but is actually somewhat revolutionary, the second season of Agent Carter committed itself to being fun. It is striking and a little sad that such a mindset qualifies as novel, but there it is. At nearly every turn — the bittersweet romantic entanglements, the mounting mania of the villains, the clever incorporation of first season villain Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan) into various schemes — the storytelling is sure-footed and inviting.
Reminiscent of some of the better Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, the second season of Agent Carter serves it corporate obligations while simultaneously — maybe miraculously — coming across as an earnest realization of the more personal aspirations of those assembled for the singular project, as if every question that began “Wouldn’t it be great if…” was met with a resounding and cheerful, “Let’s do it!”
—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
—Cheers, Season Five
—The Sopranos, Season One
—St. Elsewhere, Season Four
—Veronica Mars, Season One
—The Office, Season Two
—The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
—Gilmore Girls, Season Three
—Seinfeld, Season Four
—Justified, Season Two
—Parks and Recreation, Season Three
—Louie, Season Two
—Togetherness, Season One
—Braindead, Season One
—Community, Season Two