Marve's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Few captive audiences present as treacherous a minefield as the Television Critics Association, whose members are conditioned not to applaud or otherwise act like fans on those rare occasions during a press tour when a pilot episode is screened for the entire group for the first time. (Those of us with long memories remember when such events have backfired, most notably in my experience with the disastrous pilot of NBC's seaQuest DSV back in 1993.)

ABC took such a calculated risk Sunday with a lunchtime screening at the Beverly Hilton of Joss Whedon's highly anticipated (and clumsily titled) fantasy pilot Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the good news is that at first sampling this spin-off of the Avengers movie franchise, set in the aftermath of that film's epic Battle of New York, is a solid if slow-building piece of deluxe entertainment with loads of potential. While the assemble-the-team pilot is something short of an instant blockbuster, it's graced with witty flashes of Whedon-esque humor that turn superhero clichés and portentous comic-book dialogue on their head, while spotlighting Clark Gregg's sly and winning performance as the miraculously and mysteriously resurrected Agent Phil Coulson, who oversees a new team of crack S.H.I.E.L.D. agents (unevenly cast) investigating extraordinary events and threats to humanity.

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S.H.I.E.L.D.
is one of the most promising and certainly most hyped new series of an underwhelming fall season, but all of the top-secret rigmarole — this was the first public screening since Comic-Con — could lead to overly heightened expectations. "What we are trying to do with this show is just bring back some of the urgency of television," explained exec producer Jeph Loeb. It doesn't take much, though, for urgency to start looking like desperation. While it's obvious that Marvel has much at stake with this ambitious foray into network prime time, it's still just a TV show, not the Holy Grail.

The jury's out as well for ABC's other big-ticket fantasy item, the Once Upon a Time in Wonderland spin-off, because only a 20-minute cutdown was made available of this "psychedelic romance" about an empowered Alice (Sophie Lowe) who escapes from a Victorian mental asylum to go back down the rabbit hole to find the hunky genie who stole her heart. Trippy for sure, it still looks more focused than the mothership, which lost its way for much of Season 2. Plus: Bonus points for John Lithgow voicing the eternally impatient White Rabbit.

Some more observations from ABC's day of presentations:

A direct quote from entertainment president Paul Lee: "If I said Revenge, I probably meant Betrayal." We forgive him for confusing the two, because it's just hard for us to tell them apart. Betrayal is a limited-run series scheduled to air on Sundays after Revenge for the first half of the season, depicting a woman's extramarital affair with a man who winds up facing off against her prosecutor husband in a murder trial. Exec producer David Zabel said the show, adapted from a Dutch series, is aiming for "more of a cable vibe ... threading that needle between what is sort of a conventional ABC kind of soap opera and something that's much more sophisticated and adult." Which might work if the entire enterprise weren't so dreary and derivative. The next Scandal it isn't.

Ranking high in the annals of inept marketing decisions, few would top ABC's decision to distribute faux scratch-off lottery tickets in the TCA ballroom to promote the new Tuesday night drama Lucky 7, all but a few cards conveying the message, "Sorry, Not a Winner." The same can be said for the show, a well-meaning but tiresomely contrived story about working-class co-workers in Queens who hit the jackpot and learn (big shock) that money can't buy happiness.

The show's panel was memorable on two counts: for introducing us to Lorraine Bruce, a robust force of energy and humor who's the sole carry-over from the cast of the British series The Syndicate that inspired this adaptation; and for a genuinely moving testimony from co-star Luis Antonio Ramos, who choked up when describing what it means "to represent [a character] with a heart and soul and integrity" after a career of playing Latino villains. "I was really tired. I was tired of playing bad guys and stabbing people in the neck and doing those kinds of things. It was, like, wearing me out. And as an actor to have gotten these scripts, to read these things and to bring life to that, man, you can't beat that. That's the lottery for me."

Several of ABC's new comedies stood out because of their autobiographical nature — especially the raucous '80s family comedy The Goldbergs (Tuesdays at 9/8c), based on the upbringing of series creator Adam F. Goldberg, who as a kid captured his family's high-volume antics on home movies that helped him pitch the show. Curb Your Enthusiasm's Jeff Garlin, who plays the dad, brought the house down with his defense of the family's propensity for yelling, which involved loudly badgering several unlucky critics, including one wearing headphones within his eyesight.

The TCA room also warmly received Sarah Haskins, a comedy performer-turned-writer and co-creator of Trophy Wife (Tuesdays at 9:30/8:30c), who based this likable show on her own experience of marrying a man 20 years her senior with ex-wives and two children. (Malin Akerman plays the title character, with Bradley Whitford the husband and Marcia Gay Harden and Michaela Watkins the exes.) "He'd been married three times before, but we didn't think America could accept that, so we just kept it at two," Haskins said, to much laughter.

Two new Wednesday comedies couldn't be more different. Back in the Game (8:30/7:30c) is a harmless twist on The Bad News Bears, about a Little League team of misfits with a female coach (Psych's Maggie Lawson). But Super Fun Night (9:30/8:30c) has much more at stake. The latest show to enjoy the powerful Modern Family lead-in is an outrageous showcase for breakout comedian Rebel Wilson (Bridesmaids, Pitch Perfect), described by producer Conan O'Brien as "vulnerable, fearless ... [and] one of the most likable performers I've seen in a long career in television."

Wilson chose to mask her distinctive Australian accent to play a New York career woman in this anti-Sex and the City slapstick farce, but there's no mistaking her willingness to go all out for a joke, no matter how grotesque and humiliating. "You sometimes cringe when you see her going through something embarrassing, but she's so winning, and she's so likeable, and you root for her so much that you're in this with her," said O'Brien. "And when she survives and when she actually achieves her goal, it's exciting." Wilson said she's "always pitching the saddest storylines" for her character. "But the purpose of the show to me is to really inspire girls who don't think they're cool and popular or pretty and all that to get out there and that they can have fun and exciting lives, too."

If she can hold on to enough of Modern Family's audience to qualify as a new comedy hit, that might be an even bigger marvel for ABC than S.H.I.E.L.D.

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