RogerBW's Blog

Agent Carter, season 1 08 March 2015

2014-2015 superheroic fantasy. In 1946, after the presumed death of Captain America, his girlfriend Peggy Carter works for a secret government agency.

I'm not a superhero fan. (Litotes.) So I'm not really in the target audience for this sort of thing; but I am interested in stories about real people trying to survive in the spillover from the sort of thing that superheroes do. That's an odd position to be in: I can enjoy a series when it stays small, with enemy-of-the-week stuff, but when it gets too blatantly superhero-ish it loses me. (As happened with Agents of SHIELD.) I don't mind references to bigger comics continuity, but I'm likely to miss them, and if major plot is hung on them I'm likely to miss that too.

Even without any involvement from Joss Whedon, the series' first principle is to grind Carter down. She's apparently the only woman working for the SSR, and so we get 1940s sexism from everybody, again and again. It's not quite a straight copy of the real world where women got thrown out of work as men returned from the war; these are the guys who were doing war work, and nobody's been thrown out to give Carter a job, so they've apparently forgotten all their wartime experience of female resistance agents and partisans in order to keep things appropriately downbeat.

Perhaps because this first season has only eight episodes, there's not much room for crime-of-the-week, so instead we just get the major plot: Howard ("not Hughes") Stark's vault of secret inventions has been raided, his toys are showing up in the hands of criminals, and the SSR thinks he did it himself. Various bad guys show up or reveal themselves, but the superheroic weirdness is confined to the tech: there's nobody with Powers as distinct from amazing levels of training, which helps a lot with my suspension of disbelief.

Parts of the plot do feel as though they were split into segments which were then spread thinly across episodes: one of the themes is Carter learning to let go of Steve Rogers' memory, but that's so little mentioned in the middle episodes that by the time it becomes a major foreground point at the end it feels like a retrograde step. (Pacing is quite odd anyway, with much of the big climactic action happening in the penultimate episode.) Similarly, the first couple of episodes have occasional cutaways to a radio soap recounting the Adventures of Captain America: then that's all forgotten about until it makes a handy inter-scene break in the finale, and if it wasn't going to be used it might have been better not to set it up in the first place.

The costuming and visual style are both highly evocative; I'm not an expert but I didn't find any glaring errors. (Obviously Carter's own costumes aren't authentic, since she has to be able to move and fight in them, but they look at least plausible.) The supporting cast is sometimes overshadowed by all this, though Enver Gjokaj in another thankless role is a bit of a standout. Hayley Atwell herself, as Carter, does a good job of (a) looking like the inspiration for a 1940s pinup and (b) portraying both a person with a complex interior life and a highly-skilled operative.

The real high point for me is that this is a complete story: there are some faint attempts at an end-of-season cliffhanger, but basically the arc is complete in itself and there are no major dangling threads to annoy if there's no season 2. (Ratings have been middling to poor, and as I write there's been no word on renewal.) I'm very glad the studios didn't have complete confidence in this and fund a full season: as with The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a limited run makes for tight story-telling and little time for filler.

(Later: it was renewed for a second season.)

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:22pm on 08 March 2015

    I enjoyed this immensely and didn't find the pacing odd at all. I did notice as with many period dramas all the equipment especially the cars are shiny and well cared for. I guess that's inevitable given the collectors that maintain this stuff.

    I did think SSR fell for the trap around Russia (trying not to give too much away here) far too easily. It was so obviously a setup.

    The fight I enjoyed most was Peggy on top of the van full of explosives. Who knew you can fight like that in a 1946 skirt? Some room for GURPS Perks here perhaps.

    I didn't realise it was only 8 episodes until I went looking for the ninth. Lack of that spoiled my weekend viewing plans. I hope they make more, one of the best things I've watched in ages. But like Sarah Conner Chronicles which I also greatly enjoyed, it'll probably get cancelled. Good stuff always seems to, and US TV exectives seem only concerned with the US audience figures.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 02:36pm on 08 March 2015

    I think most people who enjoy superheroes (and their attendant backstory and mythology) want more whizz-bang action, or at least great dripping gobs of angst like Agents of SHIELD.

    Yes, of course it was an obvious setup, but part of the premise seems to be that the SSR is staffed entirely by idiots with the exception of Carter.

    It's not an authentic 1946 skirt, but it can be made to look like one.

    As far as I can see, the Marvel people are very keen that their TV series should cross-promote with the endless string of films: thus Agents of SHIELD had setup for and fallout from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There's no real scope for that here, which I fear will count against it. It has been hugely popular with reviewers, though. I'd give it a 40% chance of renewal.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 03:24pm on 08 March 2015

    I was wondering whether to give Agents of Shield a try, but if it's more obviously super powered and has holes in it if you don't watch the films, I'll give it a miss. The great gobbets of angst counts against it for me also.

    If people like the period social history in Agent Carter, there's a new series of WPC 56 starting on BBC1 weekday afternoons. Supposedly what it's like being a 1950s WPC (female police officer for non UK readers).

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