Rebecca Barry Hill: Saved by smart wit

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Chloe Bennet shines in her role as rebel computer hacker Skye in S.H.I.E.L.D.
Chloe Bennet shines in her role as rebel computer hacker Skye in S.H.I.E.L.D.

There are two scientifically proven TV viewers: those who love action, special effects and girls with pretty hair trying to outsmart their way out of life-or-death situations. And those who'd rather stick to Shakespeare (and all the soaps he inspired).

Then there's Joss Whedon. Fans will know the US writer/director behind 2012's biggest film hit, The Avengers, wasn't content to relax on his two-week shooting hiatus. So he made a black-and-white version of Much Ado About Nothing. It was modern and moody and very funny, and a complete surprise after all that hulk-smashing and hammer-throwing.

Sure, Whedon's comic mash-up movie demonstrated rare storytelling genius, but his take on the classic romantic comedy was more my kind of thing.

So forgive me for approaching TV2's big new show, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., (Sunday, 8.30pm) - the Avengers spin-off Whedon created and executive produces, and his brother Jed writes - with caution, and a few questions. Like, just how much is this going to feel like a budget knock-off? And, why S.H.I.E.L.D.? On the face of it, the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division is designed to protect us plebs with gratuitous use of crazy physics and sexy spy capers.

But in cracking down on all those pesky flying folk and mad billionaires developing kryptonite-type substances in a world now familiar with superheroes, well, the S.H.I.E.L.D team kinda feel like killjoys.

Some of the characters certainly hold themselves that way, making them pretty flat on screen. There's Melinda, played by the usually likeable Ming-Na Wen, who is so stern she appears to have a carrot firmly wedged, but who may finally get to do some ass-kicking - and carrot-removal - next week. Then there's the chiselled Grant Dalton as Ward, who is so very serious, although his flirt-athon with rebel computer hacker Skye shows chemistry does exist.

Thankfully, you couldn't say the same of the mild-mannered but quietly cool Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who's been resurrected from the dead after Loki impaled him at the end of The Avengers. With that trademark Whedon wit, Coulson apologised in the pilot for freakily emerging from the shadows, quipping, "I think there's a bulb out".

Elsewhere, age and experience apparently don't count for much in the brains department of the S.H.I.E.L.D team, possibly because the target audience is likely to be under 30. The nerdy Fitz and Simmonds are an irritatingly chipper English and Scottish pair. As for the hacktivist, her tough-chick persona and stupidly perfect hair made her unreal at first but after three episodes it's evident actress Chloe Bennet has a spark that keeps her front and centre.

That's a good thing, as it ain't always obvious who or what the focal point of each episode is, even if it appears there is an overarching story likely to keep this from falling into dull procedural territory. Despite setting some high stakes in the opening two episodes - the establishment of said team in the pilot, followed by something uninteresting about an artefact in Peru in the second episode - much of the show takes place in full-throttle action mode, with little downtime to process what had happened.

Still, there's a wry intelligence that saves the TV from being hurled out of the lounge. After a frustrating beginning, I'm slowly feeling the Thor. Sorry, thaw. The script is smarter than your average, even if the show lucked out on the special effects and acting budget that was poured into the behemoth Avengers film. And after a fraught and busy introduction, the latest episode was surprisingly entertaining. A scientist famous for discovering a dangerous anti-gravity element had him walking on the ceiling. If the show can keep the intrigue up like that, it'll be a winner. If not, it's back to the Bard.

- NZ Herald

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