'SHIELD' pilot screens at Comic-Con: Here's what we thought

The room exploded. When Marvel TV head Jeph Loeb revealed the “clip” of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was the entire pilot, Ballroom 20 broke into cheers. Comic-Con got to be the first audience to watch the eagerly awaited show’s first episode, a pilot that even industry reporters and many Hollywood insiders had not yet viewed.

So how was it?

In a way, judging a pilot from this screening is really tough. Because there is arguably no better audience for S.H.I.E.L.D. than this crowd. As I’ve pointed out before, the action-drama seems like it was conceived by fans waiting in line at Hall H — Marvel comics plus hit movie franchise plus Joss Whedon plus, uh, let’s resurrect Agent Coulson!

This is not EW’s official review. That will come later. But here are our first impressions:
— Pilot story: A couple new S.H.I.E.L.D. team members are recruited as the government organization tries to stop a man (J. August Richards) who was the victim of an experiment that gave him super-powered yet dangerously combustible strength (like the Extremis technology that powered the villains in Iron Man 3). The first episode was very much a weekly procedural drama, with plenty of little character teases to keep you interested.

– The dialogue was, to give a shout out to a certain fan site, Whedonesque. It was the best aspect of the pilot, and precisely what you expect from this team. Smart, witty, self referential, with lines playing off your expectations (such as a riff on Spider-Man’s “with great power comes great responsibility” line).

– Clark Gregg grounds the drama. I’m not a fan of bringing back firmly and explicitly killed-off characters. But watching the pilot you realize the wisdom of having Agent Coulson. Though a minor role in the films, he’s a very TV-friendly presence here. The character believes he was only dead for eight seconds or so after Loki killed him in The Avengers then spent time recovering in Tahiti. But we’re told by his colleagues, “He really doesn’t know does he?” and “He can never know.” So, it’s a nice tease for the ongoing storyline. Also, as EW.com reported earlier today, Cobie Smulders has joined the cast too.

–  The rest of the S.H.I.E.L.D. cast: There are several young actors who are relatively new to TV audiences. Chloe Bennett as a “pseudo anarchist hacker type” Skye seemed to pop the most. I suspect her hyper-sexy adorkable-ness (think Olivia Munn back in her Attack of the Show days) will have plenty of young male fans thinking “yes, a girlfriend like that would do nicely,” while perhaps annoying some others. The rest of the cast didn’t have as much of a chance to really define themselves, so it’s tough to say, but there is potential here.

– Action: Trying to pull off a cinematic idea on a TV budget is one of the show’s big challenges. If anything, S.H.I.E.L.D. was less lavish and action-driven than I expected (Fox’s Almost Human looked more pricy). That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It can be a mistake to make a costly pilot if it means that regular episodes look dinky by comparison. You want the first episode to impress, but not set expectations too high.

— My TV-business side wondered this a few times: Is this show accessible enough to be a hit? When you have a joke referencing “the sweaty cosplay girls crowding around Stark Tower,” okay, that’s funny if you’ve seen the Iron Man films and you know what cosplay is. I suspect that’s 80 percent of EW readers. Yet I bet it’s a much, much lower percentage of ABC viewers. Love or hate The CW’s Arrow pilot, you could understand every line without knowing anything about DC Comics or clocking time on Reddit. But S.H.I.E.L.D. does have one aspect that’s sure to meet with ABC’s approval: Everybody in the cast is hot looking.

– Here’s the question: If you strip away all the hype and history. Forget The Avengers, ignore that it’s Marvel, and somehow delete from your brain this is Joss Whedon’s TV return … if you do all that and just watch this pilot as a regular TV show … it still works. You can still imagine it on the air — though at Fox, not Marvel’s corporate cousin ABC. There has been a lot of shows that have tried to resurrect the 1980s-style broadcast primetime procedural action hour in recent years. This one might pull it off.

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