Tuesday, March 3, 2015

TV Review: Agent Carter

Agent Carter has not been picked up by any UK broadcaster. As such there is no legal way for me to watch a show that ran between the two halves of the second season of Agents of SHIELD (Channel 4) and features several returning characters from Captain America: The First Avenger, and is part of Marvel's wider Cinematic Universe. I guess the bubble has burst on US imports onto UK TV, after a run of failures from the "major" free-to-air broadcasters. The BBC and ITV have basically given up on it, preferring to invest in shows it can send the other way across the Atlantic, and both Channel 4 and Channel 5 have fallen into the same pattern of buying a show for a couple of seasons and then gradually letting them slide across the schedules to oblivion. I guess Channel 4 still show infinite reruns of The Big Bang Theory, if that's any consolation (spoiler: it isn't). 

Both these channels have had their hands on shows they've failed to turn into UK successes. Channel 5 especially has managed to buy, and then ditch, Once Upon a Time, Archer, Justified and Person of Interest, so if you're a fan of Gotham I wouldn't get your hopes up too much in the long run. Other shows - Sons of Anarchy, Grimm, Supernatural, and so on, have managed to find homes on satellite, and of course Sky has a good stable of imports that it treats pretty well, especially on Sky Atlantic, the home of the HBO shows they're always yammering on about in The Guardian. Netflix got Breaking Bad, Amazon got Constantine, so there are flickers of hope from the streaming services. But Agent Carter is still, sadly left out in the cold, which is bad news for fans, and a worrying sign of possible things to come. 

So what follows is a purely hypothetical review of the series, based on what I imagine I would have thought, if there was anyway I could get to see it. 

Agent Carter has it's genesis on a short feature that showcased how awesome Hayley Atwell was in Captain America: The First Avenger. This short showed her shunted to one side at the end of the war, pushed back to one side as the men came home and the women went back to the kitchen, and fighting to earn respect from her colleagues, as well as for her place in the SSR, which would go on to the be kernel of SHIELD. Other references to Carter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have made a critical figure in the founding and early days of SHIELD, but even so, a series featuring her as a lead has a lot of hurdles to jump for a mass audience. For a start, it's a period piece that isn't Downton Bloody Abbey, so may struggle with mass appeal. Secondly, it's a superhero show with no superheros, a criticism that dogged Agents of SHIELD, fairly or not. Thirdly, it's about a woman in a mans world, and there was always the worry that the implicit criticism in the setup would end up watered down or neutered. 

Thankfully, Agent Carter passes all of these with ease. First up, the period quickly becomes a strength, giving the show a down-to-earth feel that can put it's heroes under pressure simply because you can't just pick up a phone or google and answer. What high-tech does feature fits neatly into the time period, and thats where the second issue is addressed - this is very much a comic book show. It's pacey, it's got neat gadgets, it's got heroes and villians with enough depth to be interesting, but you're still mostly sure whose side everyone is on. Even Agent "Jerk" Thompson is still a good guy. 

Finally, it's true to it's convictions on Peggy's struggle to be accepted. A running theme through the show is that most of the characters lost something in the war - Sousa's leg, Thompson's honour, Dooley's marriage, Angie's independence and Howard Stark's nobility of purpose. Peggy lost the man she loves, sure, but she also lost any place in the world altogether. At the SSR, she's sidelined, pitied or disrespected, left to work through her grief on her own. The ingrained sexism of the world is a key plot point, allowing her first to undertake her own investigation, and then colour the treatment she gets as she moves - in the eyes of her co-workers - from invisible to potential threat to maybe, but probably not, near-equal. But then, none of them can match her. 

In only eight episodes, Agent Carter has a lot to get through, and relies a lot on it's sharp script and strong performances to give characters strength and depth. The cast is more than up to the task, and the script is smart not to play the men as idiots, just people of their era, and competant in their own right most of the time. It lets the show be about workplace sexism without making easy villains out the other Agents, which in turn lets you care about them with they're under threat. The short run does leave a couple of characters short-changed though - Angie vanishes for long stretches, which is a shame, and Sousa feels overly defined by his injury. But on the whole the show is a huge success. 

Anyway, thats what I would have thought, if there was any way I could have seen the show.