Agent Carter is among the most anticipated shows to premiere this year, and not for the same reasons as a lot of others. Fans anticipated the show with a mix of excitement and dread. Was it going to be a worthy spin-off to one of the best Marvel films (and one I personally saw seven times in theaters)? Or was it going to be a clunker that annoys everyone for years as its Marvel pedigree makes it immune to cancellation? Thankfully, it’s a dazzling show from the very first minutes.
Agent Carter follows Strategic Scientific Reserve agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), the field agent who stole Captain America’s heart in The First Avenger. Since the war ended, Carter has been relegated to desk work and moved into a women’s boarding house, and is generally heartbroken and dissatisfied. She’s thrust back into action, however, when she has to clear her wartime comrade Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) of accusations of illegal arms dealing. To do so, she teams up with Stark’s loyal and very proper butler, Jarvis (James D’Arcy), to track down the thieves responsible for the frame-up.
It’s a fun, upbeat show, with a lot of clever little bits. The dynamic between Carter and Jarvis is reminiscent of that other Avengers TV series, with the same mix of seriousness and camp. Carter’s day job as a marginalized desk worker is sometimes played for laughs, but is still real enough to reflect the sexism of the time. Her boarding house neighbors are dynamite, especially Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca), a fast-talking waitress, and seem like they’ll provide plenty of room for good B-plots. There’s some solid introduction of low-key Marvel elements that haven’t been explored much elsewhere, like Roxxon Oil (featuring the one-two character actor punch of James Urbaniak and Ray Wise!). It’s a solid series even two weeks in, and has plenty of room to grow without feeling like it’s missing anything.
It’s impossible to overstate how much Hayley Atwell runs this show. She’s funny; she’s smart; she kicks ass. But more than anything, she refuses to be one-dimensional or stock. The first episodes are very thoughtfully written, giving Peggy room to grieve for Steve Rogers without turning her into a parody. But Atwell’s performance goes even deeper. She’s an undeniable lead in her own right, and loses little when removed from the context of Captain America’s origin. And although it’s been years since the first Captain America film, it feels like we’ve never left that universe. Atwell is so believable, and her character so accessible, that there’s no feeling of discontinuity or weariness in the show.
Fair or not, Agent Carter is probably always going to be compared with the other Marvel Cinematic Universe series like Agents of SHIELD. But pretty much everywhere the latter goes wrong, this show goes right. The key, obviously, is Atwell, whose performance as the title character is just a nuanced and charismatic as in the films. But more than that, the series feels like a genuine part of the MCU, instead of a cheap cash-in.
See, where Agents of SHIELD falls down is that it can’t deliver the kinds of thrills that are associated with Avengers. (It’s actually why I think the comic book adaptation of the series is so much better, because there’s no barrier between the leads and honest-to-god superheroes, but I digress.) Agent Carter, on the other hand, tonally matches the Captain America films, with its themes of paranoia and strong idealists coming up against unpleasant realities. It’s also situated better in the context of the films. It’s established that there’s not large-scale superhero activity yet, so there’s no sense of disappointment when the Hulk or Iron Man doesn’t come crashing through the wall. The history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is largely a blank slate, and Agent Carter has the right balance of the realistic (the period fashions, the sets) and fantastic (spy technology and cool weapons, so far) that it feels right at home with what we’ve already seen. I’ll be excited to see what kind of fantastic elements they push for, but it’s not a show that runs off of novelty.
Agent Carter is more than “good for a Marvel show” or “good for a superhero show.” It’s a genuinely entertaining primetime series, full of action and fun but still grounded enough for solid performances and depth. I’m excited to see where it goes, but it’s already a step ahead of most freshman genre shows. It immediately clicks, and everyone’s better off for that.
Agent Carter airs Tuesday nights at 9/8c on ABC.