When it comes to heavy lifting, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is being asked to flex more than its share of muscle. Leading off an entire night of new ABC programming (always a risk, especially in these fragmented times), taking on TV's top-rated drama (NCIS), satisfying the expectations of Marvel Comics fans and Joss Whedon's considerable cult following, that's a lot for any spin-off to live up to, even with source material like The Avengers.
If the S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot (Tuesday, 8/7c) is a bit of a slow-burner, not so much a "wow" as a "hmmmm" as it assembles its team of head-turning secret agents — they're the heroes behind the superheroes, operating in the shadows as the more famous good guys reap the headlines — the potential is sky's-the-limit huge for this clever action romp. In patented Whedon fashion, S.H.I.E.L.D. slyly subverts portentous comic book clichés with refreshing blasts of self-effacing wit amid all the stylized mayhem.
The show's greatest asset is also its most provocative mystery: the resurrection of Agent Phil Coulson (the dry, wry Clark Gregg) from his untidy fate in The Avengers, supervising these quirky hotties as they jet around the world in a mammoth stealth aircraft. Their mission: investigating and containing bizarre and possibly otherworldly threats to a world still reeling from the cataclysmic events and revelations of the Avengers movie.
Will any of this make sense to a Marvel newbie? Probably, although anyone who's resisted up to this point isn't likely to be an easy convert. The show isn't all that complicated, and we're getting in on the ground floor, with a rebellious hacker (Chloe Bennet) recruited into the S.H.I.E.L.D. universe to be our skeptical, irreverent eyes and ears. The assortment of science geeks and all-business action figures who populate the team don't all immediately pop, but time is on their side. And with Agent Coulson on board, so am I.
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COMEDY TONIGHT: Life is but a scream in ABC's family sitcom The Goldbergs (9:01/8:01c), which is like The Wonder Years on high volume, fast-forwarding the nostalgia filter several decades from the '60s to the raucous '80s. Look past the big hair and loud clothes and you'll discover a relatively timeless, if shrill, love letter suggesting that the family that yells and curses together somehow stays together. Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Wendi McLendon-Covey (Reno 911!) engage in some expert clowning as parents Murray and Beverly — he's a belligerent despot, she's smotheringly sardonic — seen through the lens of youngest child Adam (Sean Giambrone), the alter ego of series creator Adam F. Goldberg, who apparently grew up with a home-movie camera attached to his shoulder. The voyeuristic lad idolizes his carefree and indulgent grandpa "Pops" (George Segal), who's much less prone to calling everyone a "moron" than the dyspeptic Murray. Are the Goldbergs good enough company to merit a weekly visit? So far so generic, and I'll decide later once my ears stop ringing.
ABC's more farcical Trophy Wife (9:31/8:31c), which completes a new-sitcom block, elevates a rather strained and thin premise with smart writing and sharp casting, starting with the title character of Kate (Malin Akerman), a former goodtime girl who's swept off her feet by Pete (Bradley Whitford in appealing mensch mode), only to land in a domestic stew involving three stepchildren and Pete's two ever-present ex-wives. Akerman's effortlessly sexy wackiness is a delightful counterpoint to the dour authority of Marcia Gay Harden as first wife Dr. Diane and the daffy neuroses of Michaela Watkins as flighty Wife No. 2 Jackie. We sympathize with Kate as she tries to live up to her new and suddenly adult responsibilities while things tend to spin comically out of control, but why Pete doesn't set more boundaries with this uneasily blended family may explain why he's already on his third spouse. The pilot is enjoyable, but it's hard to know where it's heading — unless by season's end, it becomes Trophy Expectant Mom, and that's not a show I'm not sure I want to see.
WINDFALL: That was the name of a short-lived NBC summer series back in 2006, about the tangled lives of lottery winners. No, I hardly remember it, either. And even as I was watching the latest iteration of this high concept, ABC's painfully earnest and woefully contrived Lucky 7 (10/9c), which ends ABC's all-new Tuesday on a dour if not sour note, it was fading from memory before I'd finished. Here's a shocker: Money can't buy happiness. Or much critical love for a show that hits anything but the jackpot as it wastes an admirably diverse ensemble (ethnically and otherwise) on hokey and mawkish subplots. I wish I liked this more, as TV could use more shows focusing on blue-collar Joes and Janes like the seven employees of a gas station/convenience mart in Queens who strike it rich and almost immediately come to rue their good fortune. But Lucky 7 fails to loosen up these sentimentalized working stiffs into anything resembling fully rounded characters, and wish fulfillment soon turned into a wish that I was watching something else.
Like maybe CBS's enthralling thriller Person of Interest, which moves from Thursday to its new night and time period (10/9c) for a third season with everything, including the mysterious missing Machine, in flux. Shaw (Sarah Shahi, now a series regular) is partnered with Reese (Jim Caviezel), and their latest case involves figuring which of the many naval officers visiting New York City for Fleet Week is the Machine's target du jour. Carter (Taraji P. Henson) has been demoted to patrol cop after tangling with the infamous HR, but she's not about to give up — and neither is institutionalized hacker Root (Amy Acker). Sounds like we're off to a strong start. Color me interested.
THE LONG GOODBYE: The aforementioned Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. face no greater foe than the juggernaut that is CBS's NCIS, entering its 11th season with its own challenge: how to write out one of its most popular characters (Cote de Pablo's Ziva) without alienating its mammoth fan base. In the opener (8/7c), Tony and McGee investigate an explosion at a black-tie event as civilians — but where's Ziva? Stay tuned. ... The fifth season of NCIS: LA (9/8c) picks up from last spring's gruesome cliffhanger, with Sam and Deeks recovering from being tortured while the search continues for the missing nukes.
GEEK CHIC: "This is literally a walking piece of art," marvels one of the contestants on Syfy's addictive Face Off (9/8c) after pulling off yet another astounding feat of make-up magic. The current "vets vs. rookies" season has been terrific so far, and this week's challenges are among the most entertaining and inspiring. First is a "Foundation" challenge guest-starring the immortal horror hostess Elvira, who tasks the players to come up with a "hip, young edgy take on my look," with the parameters that it must be "sexy, spooky and funny." The "Spotlight" challenge aims considerably higher, asking the make-up mavens to create characters reflecting art movements including cubism, surrealism and expressionism. One contestant is so overwhelmed she begins wailing, "Mr. Westmore, where are you?" — a reminder of how valuable the advice is each week from Oscar-winning mentor Michael Westmore. And unlike the self-absorbed contestants on so many shows of this sort, the Face Off players step up remarkably when one of their own is injured. Face Off may not be high art, but it's great fun.
One demographic you can be sure will be tuning in to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the young geek culture of fanboys/girls represented by Syfy's latest docu-series Fangasm (10/89c), which recruits seven comics-obsessed interns — yes, one actually lives in his parents' basement — to work for Stan Lee's Comikaze Expo, rooming together in Los Angeles. Their squealing zeal takes a little getting used to, and watching them cavort around a hot tub is made only slightly more palatable by the fact that they keep dumping ice in the water to cool it down. Oh, those nerds. But there's no mistaking the genuinely emotional impact when the most Sheldon Cooper-like of the group has a face-to-face with one of his Star Trek idols.
THE TUESDAY GUIDE: A good thing Fox got solid sampling last week for its new Tuesday comedies, because the competition suddenly got much tougher. Don't bother with Dads (8/7c) unless the notion of watching old men get stoned on pot brownies hits your sweet spot. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine (8:30/7:30c) deserves a second look, with Capt. Holt (Andre Braugher) punishing the perennially tardy Jake (Andy Samberg) by assigning him a beneath-his-station graffiti case that takes on unexpected political ramifications. ... Surprise Emmy winner and woman of few words Merritt Wever (Nurse Jackie) is back on Fox's New Girl (9/8c). ... James Franco squares off with Mindy Kaling on Fox's The Mindy Project (9:30/8:30c), and while he might be able to win a "cute-off" in an attempt to win the office's affections, things get more complicated when alcohol enters the picture. ... NBC's Chicago Fire takes advantage of a Voice "blind audition" lead-in as it starts its second season (10:01/9:01) with Severide (Taylor Kinney) apparently being targeted by an arsonist, while the firehouse faces scrutiny by a budget-conscious consultant (the always welcome Michelle Forbes) who could close the place down. ... ESPN's The Book of Manning documentary (8/7c) takes a multi-generational look at the storied football family, from patriarch Archie Manning to his star quarterback sons Peyton and Eli.