Anyone who questions the necessity of Agent Carter should know that in the show’s first episode, there’s a scene where Hayley Atwell—playing Strategic Scientific Reserve agent Peggy Carter—dons a blond wig and a glamorous gown, struts through a club playing hot jazz, plants a knockout kiss on a sharp-dressed gangster named Spider Raymond (played by The Wire’s Andre Royo), then uses a special tricked-out wristwatch to crack Spider’s safe and retrieve a secret formula. Judging by its first two episodes, this is what Agent Carter is going to be: retro-cool pulp thrills in fabulous outfits. Think The Rocketeer or Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but with a dame instead of a dude.
It’s easy to be skeptical about the trends in movies and television toward superheroes and “universes,” where everything is ultimately a commercial for something else—something sold separately. But thus far, Marvel Studios has effectively counterbalanced its mercenary side with genuine creative enthusiasm. There’s only so much that even the likes of Joss Whedon, Shane Black, and James Gunn can do with the blockbuster form, which tends naturally toward the bloated and lumbering. Yet there’s been a real spark of personality and purpose to a lot of the Marvel movies, and even to the uneven-but-energetic spin-off TV series Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. And now there’s Agent Carter, which could be The Flash to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Arrow: the brighter, snappier sister-show that finds its footing much more quickly than its sibling.
Agent Carter opens with the hero mired in melancholy, still reeling from what happened in the 2011 Marvel movie Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s 1946 now, Captain America is presumed dead, and Peggy’s S.S.R. peers and superiors don’t take her seriously, because they have no firsthand experience of what she did to help the U.S. win World War II. Treated as a glorified secretary by her boss Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham), and openly mocked by her cocky fellow agents Ray Krzeminski (Kyle Bornheimer) and Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray)—who are certain she slept her way into her job—Peggy only has one real ally at the S.S.R., agent Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj). But even Sousa’s defenses of Peggy at staff meetings come off as vaguely condescending, and the S.S.R.’s ongoing investigation of Peggy’s old friend and colleague Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) threatens to make a mockery of everything that Peggy, Stark, and Captain America stood for.
Then Stark approaches Peggy in secret and asks for her help in clearing his name. The government thinks Stark is engaged in treasonous profiteering, selling some of his more dangerous inventions—what he calls his “bad babies”—to foreigners and criminals. In actuality, the tech has been stolen, and Stark wants Peggy to work with his resourceful butler Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy) to get these bad babies back, and to find out who took them in the first place. The first two episodes of Agent Carter—“Now Is Not The End” and “Bridge And Tunnel,” which ABC is airing back-to-back—send Peggy out on missions that involve her wearing disguises and trying to find Stark’s troublemakers before her S.S.R. cohorts do.
This is a classic Marvel comics premise: the hassled hero, who has to hide her derring-do. More importantly, it’s a great television premise. Agent Carter’s creators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely give the show a shot of 1940s pizazz, with propulsive big-band music on the soundtrack and characters who pepper old-timey slang at each other. But really, Agent Carter feels most like a throwback to the 1980s. It’s in the spirit of The A-Team, Moonlighting, Magnum P.I., Hart To Hart, Scarecrow And Mrs. King, and Remington Steele. Peggy and Jarvis in particular have a classic TV relationship: one headstrong, one persnickety, and both extraordinarily handy in their own way.
Agent Carter isn’t always sure how best to handle its hero’s gender. To a large extent, the show is about what it was like to be a woman in America in the mid-to-late-1940s, when the men came home from war and a generation of women who’d enjoyed a lot more independence earlier in the decade had to fall back into their former place. So the show has to walk multiple fine lines with Peggy, making her a feminist hero who’s not too vulnerable, not too cocky, and not too sexy (while still keeping just enough of those traits in play so that viewers will want to spend time with her for an hour a week).
It helps that Marvel has Atwell, who bulls through Agent Carter’s more contrived “sticking it to the male chauvinists” scenes through the sheer force of her charisma. It helps too that Whigham, Bornheimer, and Murray are so good at playing sexist jerks, and that D’Arcy’s Jarvis is such a charming and witty partner to Peggy. (And Cooper’s so great as Stark that even though he’s only in about five minutes of the first episode, his personality lingers long after he’s gone.) Unlike too many foreign-born TV stars these days, Atwell and D’Arcy get to use their native accents, which goes a long way toward them being able to bring a lot of their own personal flavor to their roles. And unlike too many action-adventure heroes, Atwell’s Peggy Carter has a lot of layers: at once flippant (brushing off a request that she do the filing because she’s so good at it by quipping, “Better at what? The alphabet?”), strong-willed (telling Jarvis that one of Stark’s theories has manifested as a miniature bomb, “so your soufflé will have to wait”), and sensitive (showing some real emotion after the unexpected death of a good friend).
A lot of Agent Carter’s kick come from its setting, with its automats and Captain America Adventure Program radio shows. The series takes advantage of the period on the technical side, going all in with the shadowy lighting and softened color-tones. But its greatest asset is Atwell, who takes a character that Marvel Comics has never really done much with before and makes it her own. It’s a feat that matches the story of Peggy Carter herself: Here all along was this Marvel hero with so much potential, now finally getting to show what she can do.