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ABC road-tests 'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' to critics at TCAs

Director/writer Joss Whedon, winner of movie of the

Director/writer Joss Whedon, winner of movie of the year for "Marvel's The Avengers," at the 2013 MTV Movie Awards at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Calif. (April 14, 2013) (Credit: Getty Images)

BEVERLY HILLS -- The network leg of the biannual TV critics press tour wrapped a couple of hours ago, and in true showmanship fashion, ABC did manage to save the best for last -- and really, the best of the entire tour: "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."

With a bit of cloak and dagger swagger, the network shipped the pilot of the series to the Beverly Hilton -- if not via armored car, then close enough -- and insisted that writers in attendance for the 1 p.m. screening not record any portion of what they were about to see with their cellphones, lest they be vaporized, or otherwise meet an ending that would be far too gruesome to explain to their spouses or employers.

The demand normally would have been amusing (except the network was serious) and then (fade to darkness) the show began....

Without giving too much away, and really, I'd need an hour of your time to give much of anything away, let's cut straight to the appraisal: It is terrific. And it will be a hit. And it was everything any comic fan ... any lover of the Avengers ... any true-blue superhero-worshipping-shut-in will love instantly. The only outstanding question is whether everyone else will, or whether this will be able to balance the interests of hardcore fanboys and girls (who will like it very much) with an audience that may not be as fully plugged into the Marvel mythology, or is as interested in it as they. ("The Avengers" was one of the most successful films in cinematic history, so that question may already be answered, but the demands of a weekly TV serial and a major motion picture are as different as apples from grapes.)

Plus -- spoiler-alert -- Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) is back. He really didn't die. Surprised? Hey, this is a comic book universe where death isn't forever, and sometimes not even "death."

The pilot is a thing of TV beauty, but it is also complex and allusive -- alluding to things that I'm not even entirely sure what is being alluded to. (It would be a very good idea to watch "The Avengers," of which this is a continuation, before plunging in, just to get your alluding list in order.)

Honestly, this series is something to get excited about for a whole host of reasons, notwithstanding the beauty of what is on-screen; ABC has tipped the bank into this project, and it shows.

So yes, "Agents" will be a hit, and if it is not a "hit" then network TV is irremediably broken.

But enough of this. Let's go to the panel. ABC assembled a murderer's row of producers -- as well as Gregg -- for Sunday afternoon's panel, and they explained in detail their aspirations for this new creation.

They include Joss Whedon, his brother and collaborator Jed Whedon, Jed's wife Maurissa Tancharoen ("Dollhouse") and Jeffrey Bell of "Angel." But for comic book fans, of greatest interest is perhaps "Jeph" Loeb, a certified comic book genius who has been a major part of the Marvel universe and the TV one, too ("Heroes," "Lost," "Smallville" -- not Marvel series; in fact, "Agents" is Marvel's first show for the small screen since the Disney purchase in 2009.)

Let's go to the transcript, and as I close out this tour, a personal thanks to the hard-working people on the board of TV Critics Association who make this tour possible and the transcribers who produce the volumes of words that I cut and paste, thereby making my job easier; they are MY Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:

How big can this get on a TV scale?
Bell: It looks bigger than you think. We spent on it because it was directed and put together by people who are really good at doing that. We have a terrific writing staff who are writing stories, working with a production team who is telling us what we can and cannot do. And also, both Marvel and ABC have been very generous with us.

How much did ABC poke its nose into broadening this thing?
Joss Whedon: Their biggest note after we presented the thing was they wanted to make sure that our investment in the characters and their interaction and their evolution was as big as the case of the week. They wanted to make sure that people were coming for the recurring story, as well as for the story that would conclude in a single episode, which, to me, is how I’ve done all of my shows. So they basically said, “Would you please do it that way that you do it and not learn a new skill.” And that made me very happy....What’s great about S.H.I.E.L.D. is we have this organization. We have the history from the comic book. But these guys are out there by themselves. And a lot of the time that’s going to, it’s going to be both an advantage and real trouble for them. And so we can bond with them in a way that they don’t have every resource, and they don’t have the answers, just sort of a deus ex machina at the end of every episode, “Here comes S.H.I.E.L.D. to solve it.”

Hey Clark, did you die on "The Avengers? 
Gregg: My next to last day on “The Avengers” involved this certain Asgardian fellow impaling me quite convincingly. And while I was surprised how emotional it was to me to give up the character and the long-term job, I made jokes like, “Is there a rewrite going to be coming from the governor at any point? Do you want to shoot one where he grazes me a little bit?” And there was a few kind of, like, pathetic, like, “Oh, sad. No.” And it was really clear that I was dead, you know. And that, you know, that I’d had a great run, and I thought what Joss did with the character was such a magnificent kind of resolve of it. And I loved what happened in “The Avengers.” And somebody sent me a tweet saying that they heard that Coulson’s funeral was going to be in “Thor 2.” (Laughter.) I thought it was cool... like, “Hey, it’s a comic book universe. How dead can you be?” But then I heard that, and I thought, “I’m pretty sure the Asgardians do that thing where they burn a guy on top of the thing, you know.” I didn’t think I was going to be coming back from that. A couple weeks later, and this is probably four or five months after “The Avengers,” I got a call from Joss, and we talked about how much we wanted to have whatever reason Coulson had for still being alive and walking around not be anything that undermines the reality of “The Avengers.” And when he explained to me a little bit more than what you saw in the pilot about the stuff that Coulson doesn’t know, I hung up the phone, very deeply on board.

Because this is the first TV show based on a Marvel comic book, how will it appeal to fans and the general audience alike?
Loeb: We wanted to do something that would appeal to our fan base, you know, which is legion but, by the same token, we wanted something which I think [is] not a movie for one particular group of people. ["The Avengers"] is a movie for everybody. And “Iron Man 3″ has the same kind of feeling to it. So, you know, whether or not it’s an ABC audience or a Marvel audience or a little bit of this and a little bit of that, our hope is that everyone who is watching television at 8 o'clock on Tuesday nights is watching our show."

Tags: Joss Whedon , Jed Whedon , Jeph Loeb , Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. , Marvel , Clark Gregg , Maurissa Tancharoen , Jeffrey Bell , The Avengers , Marvell

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